Rainbow Aphorisms Public Programme

Rainbow Aphorisms was a series of public works by David McDiarmid, shown intermittently across sites in Clapham and Brixton, in partnership with This is Clapham and Art on the Underground.

David McDiarmid (1952–1995) was an Australian artist, designer and activist, recognised for his prominent and sustained artistic engagement in issues relating to queer identity and history.

Rainbow Aphorisms are a series of printed multiples, produced between 1993 and 1995 when the artist died of AIDS–related illnesses. McDiarmid produced these works in response to his, and his community’s, experience of the AIDS crisis along and its multiple manifestations of devastations, from the political and emotional to the intellectual and medical.


Over the course of a year – from November 2017 to November 2018 – artworks appeared at various locations including Clapham LGBTQ+ venue Two Brewers, the façade of Studio Voltaire, Brixton Underground station and other temporary locations.

This was the first solo institutional presentation of McDiarmid’s work in the UK, and the inaugural project in the Clapham Public Realm Programme delivered by Studio Voltaire in partnership with This is Clapham. The project was mounted with the support and involvement of the David McDiarmid Estate, Sydney. The public programme was supported by Arts Council England.


Events Programme

A wide–reaching events programme ran alongside this public realm commission including printing workshops with local residents from Westbury Estate; a major new performance by David Hoyle; screenings of Toxic Queen and Priscilla Queen of the Desert with Out in Clapham; a talk by Professor Sally Gray; and a series of walking tours hosted by artists, writers, activists and academics.

Dr. Sally Gray on David McDiarmid

Writer and curator, Dr Sally Gray discussed the work and legacy of David McDiarmid. The talk included a screening of A Short History of Facial Hair (Hermano Silva, 2011) – an illustrated essay that McDiarmid presented at the forum HIV: Towards a Paradigm, in Melbourne in April 1993.

A Short History of Facial Hair uses the artist’s personal fashion, grooming and adornment story to tell his political and sexual history over a twenty year period. Beautiful, hard-hitting and humorous, it is an interrogation of the artist’s appearance as it changes from hippie to clone to gay liberation activist to sexual revolutionary to hustler to dance floor diva before he finally became an HIV positive queer subject or the self–styled ‘Toxic Queen’.

McDiarmid traces how gay politics changed during what he described as ‘an extraordinary time of redefinition and deconstruction of our identities from camp to gay to queer’, exploring links between art, identity, politics, dress and adornment.

Rainbow Aphorisms Walking Tours

This series of walking tours invited artists, writers and academics to reflect on aspects of the work of David McDiarmid.

Using Rainbow Aphorisms as a starting point, the tours traversed Clapham and wider South London, stopping at key sites of interest and taking a closer look at different aspects of gay culture as well as the impact and legacy of the AIDS crisis, exploring subjects ranging from pop music’s reaction to the AIDS crisis, to the relationship between homosexuality and espionage.

Paul Flynn, The Family Tree Stops Here Darling

Writer Paul Flynn explored British pop music’s reaction to the AIDS crisis. The witty, often ironic messages found in McDiarmid’s Rainbow Aphorisms borrow from popular culture and comment on society’s reaction to the AIDS epidemic.

Inspired by McDiarmid’s quips, Flynn discussed the pop music and culture that defined a generation. Responses included discussions of Bronski Beat, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Boy George, Neneh Cherry, Freddie Mercury and Pet Shop Boys.

Flynn also interrogated the cataloguing of desire and danger in pop at a moment when they collided with extraordinary cultural impact ‘at the moment when the counterculture took control of the mainstream’.


This walk began at 78 Railton Road, SE24, the site of the former South London Gay Community Centre, before exploring Brixton and finishing at Studio Voltaire in Clapham.

About the contributor

Paul Flynn a journalist and author of Good As You: 30 Years of Gay Britain. He began writing at City Life magazine in Manchester and is currently the Senior Contributing Editor at Love and a columnist for Attitude and Grazia. He has previously been a contributing editor and writer at i-D, Pop, Dazed, Fantastic Man, The Gentlewoman and GQ Style. He has written for the Guardian, the Observer, the Sunday Express and the Sunday Times newspapers.

Huw Lemmey, Only the Shallow Know Themselves

Writer Huw Lemmey explored the complex relationship between homosexuality and espionage in the British imagination – from the Cambridge Five and the Vassall Scandal to London Spy, a BBC drama based on the mysterious death of GCHQ employee Gareth Wyn Williams.

This walk took place across sites in South London that relate to historical and fictional stories of spying, from the 1930’s to the present day.


The walk started outside the Houses of Parliament, made its way past MI5, through Pimlico and Vauxhall, and finally past the US Embassy before it finished at Studio Voltaire in Clapham.

About the contributor

Huw Lemmey is a writer and author based in Barcelona. He has written for the Guardian, New Humanist, Icon and Architectural Review, amongst many others. Chubz: The Demonization of my Working Arse, his first book, was published 2015 by Montez Press.

Theo Gordon and Catwalk4Power, I Want A Future That Lives Up To My Past

Writer, artist and academic Theo Gordon and Catwalk4Power member Charity, led a tour through the queer history of Clapham and Brixton, paying special attention to activism and the AIDS crisis. The tour explored art made in the United States between 1987 and 1996 which addressed the socio–political crisis that was the AIDS epidemic, with a particular focus on the invisibility of women in discourses surrounding HIV and AIDS.


This tour started at Studio Voltaire, explored Brixton and Clapham before finishing at the Two Brewers.

About the contributors

Theo Gordon is an independent writer, artist and academic working in London. He gained his PhD from The Courtauld Institute of Art in 2018, this focused on art of the AIDS crisis the UK and USA in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

Catwalk4Power is a community-building initiative, led by Positively UK Women and Act Up London Women with a focus on how HIV/AIDS impacts on women’s lives. The activism generated by this community group raises public awareness of HIV stigma, inequality and power through the framework of fashion. The project carries a strong political message while recognising the resilience and strength of women living with HIV.

London Rebel Dykes and Milo Bettocch

For this, the last in our series of walking tours, Fisch from the London Rebel Dykes and researcher Milo Bettocchi, formerly of the south London queer squatting collective House of Brag, explored the history of 1980s lesbian London – from the Brixton Black Women’s Group in the 1970s, to the stories of the Rebel Dykes of the 1980s, right up to the House of Brag in the present day.


The tour started outside the Ritzy Cinema, Brixton and ended at Studio Voltaire, Clapham.

About the contributors

Fisch (Karen Fisher) is a member of the London Rebel Dykes and squatted in South London during the 1980’s. She performs as Drag King Frankie Sinatra, producing and hosting the very popular night King of Clubs at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, which features luminaries of the groundbreaking Drag King scene.

Milo Bettocchi, formerly of the House of Brag (a south London queer squatting collective) is now a PhD student researching histories of anti–racist, feminist and LGBTQIA squatting in Brixton

David Hoyle, RESPONSE

Avant–garde cabaret artist David Hoyle presented RESPONSE a new performance in response Rainbow Aphorisms, and Putti’s Pudding. In this new work, Hoyle created a beyond–verbal space which explored the terrain of illness through healing, sound and ritual.

Read more…


Studio Voltaire partnered with Wandsworth LGBTQ+ Forum and Out at Clapham to celebrate the life and work of David McDiarmid, coinciding with the 40th Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

Toxic Queen
Directed by Fiona Cunningham–Reid (1998)

Fiona Cunningham-Reid’s documentary film Toxic Queen is a posthumous portrait of the Australian artist, designer and activist, David McDiarmid (1952–1995) who was recognised for his prominent and sustained artistic engagement in issues relating to queer identity and history. McDiarmid was also a hugely influential Creative Director of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in the late 1980s, creating impressive parade floats as well as all festival posters in 1986, 1988 and 1990.

Toxic Queen takes its title from McDiarmid’s ‘alter–ego’ and 1994 artwork of the same name. The original work was a thirty page spiral-bound book, in which McDiarmid constructed witty political statements with imagined newspaper headlines, queered magazine cuttings and photocopies.

“[It was] like a cultural history of fagdom. It’s also a textbook of nineties attitude… I wanted to move the work out of the art temples and galleries, and into a different, more accessible arena.” David McDiarmid, 1993.

Toxic Queen is narrated by the artist himself, including candid interviews cut alongside artworks, personal photographs and clips of the artist’s poignant 1993 seminar A Short History of Facial Hair. Originally shown on Australian television some twenty years ago, this screening was a rare opportunity to watch this intimate and honest portrayal of the artist.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Directed by Stephan Elliott (1994)

Oscar–winning film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a seminal Australian comedy–drama following two drag queens and a transgender woman as they journey across the Australian Outback from Sydney to Alice Springs in a battered old tour bus to put on the show of a lifetime. Their epic journey is a heart–warming story of self–discovery and acceptance.

About the contributor

Fiona Cunningham–Reid is an Australian film director of documentary and feature films. Now based in London, she was a close friend of David McDiarmid and spent long periods of time with him, including time spent at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Cunningham–Reid made two films with McDiarmid discussing his practice prior to his death. Further films include Feed Them to the Cannibals! (1992) and Crockadyke Dundee (2014).

About the artist

David McDiarmid was born in 1952 in Hobart, Tasmania.

McDiarmid’s first solo exhibition, Secret Love, was held at Sydney’s Hogarth Galleries in 1976 and featured collages explicitly exploring gay male sexuality and anti–gay legislation as well as public and private sexual hypocrisies.

In the mid–1970s he was also recognised for the exquisite hand–painted textiles he produced for Flamingo Park, the fashion house run by Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson but from 1975 much of his work, was about gay experience.

McDiarmid lived and worked in New York from 1979 to 1987. After returning to Australia at the end of 1987, he immersed himself in community art projects. He is also known for his artistic direction of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, creating all the posters in 1986, 1988 and 1990.

David McDiarmid died in 1995 in Sydney, Australia due to AIDS–related illnesses.

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