David McDiarmid: Rainbow Aphorisms

Studio Voltaire presented David McDiarmid’s Rainbow Aphorisms, a series of public works shown intermittently across sites in Clapham and Brixton, in partnership with This is Clapham and Art on the Underground. Over the course of a year, artworks appeared at various locations including neighbouring LGBTQ+ venue Two Brewers, the façade of Studio Voltaire, Brixton Underground station, and other temporary locations.

David McDiarmid (1952–1995) was an Australian artist, designer and activist, recognised for his prominent and sustained artistic engagement with issues relating to queer identity and history. Rainbow Aphorisms are a series of printed multiples, produced from 1993 until the artist’s death in 1995 of AIDS–related illnesses. McDiarmid produced these works in response to his own, and his community’s, experience of the AIDS crisis, and the multiple forms of devastations it manifests–from the political and emotional, to the intellectual and medical.

“I wanted to express myself and I wanted to respond to what was going on and I wanted to reach a gay male audience. I wanted to express very complex emotions and I didn’t know how to do it … I was in a bit of a dilemma. I thought, well, how can I get across these complex messages. I didn’t think it was simply a matter of saying gay is good.” – David McDiarmid, 1992.

In the Rainbow Aphorisms series, the artist was fascinated by the power of the aphorism to express a whole conceptual and cultural world. Bold san–serif texts are superimposed onto a ground of full spectrum rainbow colours–referencing Gilbert Baker’s rainbow flag (1978).

“GIRLFRIEND, LIGHT AND SHADOWS”, “HONEY HAVE YOU GOT IT”, “I’M TOO SEXY FOR MY T–CELLS” – McDiarmid’s pithy textual observations are used to evoke the coded world of gay male subcultures in large western cities. Between the ferociously witty messages and the sugary bright colours, the works are encoded with a sensibility both camp and hip. Although the text is easy to read, the aphorisms are far from simple – some works ironically reference the virulence of tabloid responses to AIDS, while others offer poignant and melancholic observations of the devastating effects of the disease.

About David McDiarmid

David McDiarmid (born 1952 Hobart, Tasmania, died 1995 Sydney, Australia) was an artist, designer and political activist, recognised for his prominent and sustained artistic engagement in issues relating to gay male identity and HIV/AIDS.

In the mid–1970s he was known 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. Involved with the Sydney Gay Liberation movement since 1972, his first solo exhibition Secret Love, held at Sydney’s Hogarth Galleries in 1976, featured collages explicitly exploring gay male sexuality, anti–gay legislation and public and private sexual hypocrisies.

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. McDiarmid is also known for his artistic direction of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, creating all the posters in 1986, 1988 and 1990.

Public 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.
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Rainbow Aphorisms Walking Tours
This series of walking tours invited artists, writers, activists and academics to reflect on aspects of the work of David McDiarmid, including Huw Lemmey, Paul Flynn, Rebel Dykes, Milo Bettocchi, Theo Gordon and Catwalk4Power. Using the 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 queer culture as well as the impact and legacy of the AIDS crisis, exploring subjects ranging from pop music’s reaction to the AIDS/HIV epidemic, to the relationship between homosexuality and espionage.
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Screenings of Toxic Queen (dir. Fiona Cunningham–Reid, 1998) and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (dir. Stephan Elliott 1994), Offsite at Clapham Picturehouse
Studio Voltaire partnered with Wandsworth LGBTQ+ Forum and Out at Clapham to celebrate the life and work of David McDiarmid with these screenings, which coincided with the 40th Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. 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. 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.

Image credit

David McDiarmid, Rainbow Aphorisms, 1993 – 1995, A Studio Voltaire Project. Courtesy of the artist and the Estate of David McDiarmid, Sydney. Photo: Benedict Johnson