Allied Against AIDS: Artist Depicts People, Not Disease

Artist, author and social activist Sue Coe is attempting to change the world, one drawing at a time.

Coe explores social injustice and the ramifications of unchecked capitalism through a broad range of projects, manifested in paintings, graphic art and mass-produced books and prints. She spoke at Pomona College’s Smith Campus Center on Oct. 23 about her animal activism work and her exhibition at the Pomona College Museum of Art, “Allied Against AIDS.” The talk was co-sponsored by the Pomona College Museum of Art and the Pomona College Organic Farm. 

As part of a 1994 initiative by the Department of Infectious Diseases at a hospital in Galveston, Tex., Coe was invited to record the reality of the AIDS ward through interviewing patients to increase visibility of the AIDS pandemic. With scrutiny and unapologetic honesty, Coe
revealed a side of the disease that cannot be exposed through epidemiological

Intimate accounts shared by patients are shown alongside each of
her etched portraits in the exhibition, serving as a reminder that beneath the disease, there is a human
being with a story. Rather than statistics or a slogan, the portraits focus on personal stories. 

“When I look at
each of the five portraits in the portfolio, I’m looking at somebody’s unique
face and voice as Coe recorded it—somebody who died while opponents to LGBTQ
rights perpetuated discrimination,” exhibition curator Ben Kersten PO ’15 said. “Whether through intimacy, grotesqueness or other methods employed by the artist, all of Coe’s work pushes viewers to
position themselves in relation to the suffering on display.”

Much of Coe’s work throughout her career serves to criticize capitalism as immoral. 

“Coe’s work displays
suffering and oppression,” Kersten said. “Whether she is tackling the harms of
factory farming, war, natural disasters and health crises, Coe fights dominant
narratives. Her work calls out political injustices, condemning those who
profit from the pain of others.”

Coe’s most recent work focuses on the atrocities of
factory farming in America. Her illustrations depict firsthand experiences
inside meat-packing factories, exposing seldom-observed realities of the meat

A series of bills recently passed in a
number of states, dubbed ‘ag-gag’ bills by many activists, have made photographing and taking videos in slaughterhouse operations
illegal. But since Coe brings only a sketchbook—and her sharp powers of observation—to the slaughterhouse, she is able to unveil the inhumane practices
that agribusiness does everything in its power to keep hidden.

Coe’s years of research and investigation of the meat
industry have only reinforced the concerns that originally drove her to speak
out against factory farming. Her disgust with the practices of the industry are not based on abstract figures or general moral apprehensions; rather, she has personally seen the horrors to which both animals and factory workers are
exposed on a daily basis.

Coe emphasized the urgent need to eliminate undue suffering perpetuated by consumer demand for meat and animal byproducts.

“I think we need to stress going vegan,” Coe said in her
talk. “It’s got to be the number one.” 

Although Coe claims to avoid being “vegangelical,” she ended her presentation by declaring, “If I can make one of you a vegan, this is all worth it to me.”

The intensity of the talk was palpable, and many audience members shared Coe’s sense of the importance of the issue. 

“It feels like doom, like
there’s nothing we can really do because we are so deep into it already,” Mary Margaret Groves PO ’16 said. “But
it’s nice to know that other people care and are passionate about it.”

The message Coe conveyed, in both her talk and exhibition, was largely one of poignant
realism, but she expressed some optimism. 

“We can’t stop the
wars, but we can stop this genocide,” she said. 

Coe’s ultimate hope would be to
alter the agricultural system completely so that farmers would have incentive
to forgo livestock cultivation. It is too late to undo the harm that has
already been done, she said, but “what we can do now is lessen the suffering.”      

After the talk, the Pomona College Museum of Art held a reception—with only vegan refreshments—in which Coe signed
copies of her books and sold prints. Profits benefitted United Poultry
Concerns, a nonprofit that works toward the humane treatment of poultry.

“Allied Against AIDS: Sue Coe’s AIDS Portfolio” will be on display at PCMA through Dec. 19. 

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