Toni Clayton, American Pop & Modern Specialist
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Keith Haring's Fertility Suite spotlights the global travesty of the HIV/AIDS epidemic with typical visual rigour. With bold colour and provoking symbolism, Fertility Suite stressed the impact of the disease on Sub-Saharan African women.
Created in 1983, in the midst of the global HIV/AIDS epidemic, Haring created his Fertility Suite portfolio to highlight the wide-reaching devastation of the disease. The epidemic had a particularly catastrophic effect on pregnant women in Sub-Saharan Africa, and Haring used his portfolio to spotlight this overlooked demographic. Particularly in Fertility 3, Haring represents a pregnant figure collapsing, being propped up by the infantile figures about her.
At the centre of some of his figures, as in Fertility 5, Haring outlined an Ancient Egyptian 'Ankh' symbol. The symbol, representative of eternal life, was used in this series to convey the womb as the literal key to life, despite being the key to death for many women during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Likewise, the large figure at the centre of this work (and Fertility 4) is reminiscent of the Ancient Egyptian 'Tyet'. Connected to the goddess Isis, this symbol represents the renewal of life, and was perhaps used by Haring as an optimistic plea to end the epidemic once and for all.
By representing these pregnant, womanly bodies in the clutches of a womb-like figure, Haring shows these women to be at the mercy of the merciless disease sweeping the globe in 1983. Despite childbearing being a natural part of the circle of life, Haring conveys the dangers of reproduction in the midst of HIV/AIDS.
Radiant Baby is one of Haring's most iconic and repeated motifs. Haring once described his original Radiant Baby as "The purest and most positive experience in human existence". However, in his Fertility Suite the Radiant Baby is subverted, showing how the conception of children could prove fatal.
In Fertility Suite, Haring uses the pyramid as a visual symbol, confronting the 'othering' of certain groups in society. Much like his Pyramids, this portfolio critiques the alienation of people affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and urges viewers to acknowledge the global injustice inflicted by the disease.
Though Haring was famously wary of technology, UFOs became a commonplace motif in his work and symbolised positive forces of change. As Haring once said of his UFOs: "The saucers were zapping things with an energy ray, which would then endow whatever it zapped with its power". As in The Blueprint Drawings 2, the UFOs in Fertility Suite seem to possess a restorative power, symbolising salvation from the disease.
Contrary to Haring's typical use of block colours to fill in his iconic figures, his Fertility Suite is marked by colourful dots and dashes. These patterns have been interpreted as lesions, much like those of people living with HIV/AIDS. As we see in Fertility 1, these patterns overwhelm the otherwise simple compositions, and allude to the grim symptoms of the disease.
Throughout his oeuvre, Haring frequently used bright and eye-catching colour to highlight socio-political issues with a lighthearted aesthetic. Fertility Suite is underscored by Haring's daring use of neons, making the issue of HIV/AIDS unavoidable in the work. This is something Haring implemented progressively throughout his career, especially after his own diagnosis with AIDS in 1988.
Haring committed his life and career to producing an iconography which could be understood by all. His iconic figures and characters, which are repeated across his entire body of work, have been considered 'modern hieroglyphics'. In their naive simplicity, Haring's figures can be interpreted by all viewers, regardless of sexual, gender, class, and language barriers.
Although Haring's use of bright colour and naive figures gives his works a joyous visual appeal, they allude to some of the most serious socio-political issues of his age. Much like his defining work Silence Equals Death, Fertility Suite represents the global travesty of the HIV/AIDS epidemic with visual rigour. Haring therefore not only critiqued the US government's ignorant approach to the disease, but underlined it as the most pressing global issue of the 1980s.