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David McDiarmid

David McDiarmid

Don’t Forget to Remember 1994
inkjet print on 310 gsm Platine fibre cotton rag
117.5 x 88.5 cm (sheet)
122.5 x 93.5 cm (framed)
Monash University Collection

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’.[1]

—David McDiarmid, 1992

Don’t Forget to Remember is a part of the larger Rainbow Aphorism series of printed multiples produced by Australian artist, designer and activist David McDiarmid from 1993 until his death due to AIDS-related complications in May 1995. The series embodies several characteristics that unite McDiarmid’s broader artistic practice, including his intersecting art and activism, and his marriage of the personal with the political. McDiarmid sought to record and respond to the forces impacting upon queer people where he lived (in Melbourne, Sydney and New York) in the final decades of the twentieth century. His art charts pivotal moments in history during this period, from the height of the Gay Liberation Movement in the 1970s, to the catastrophic effects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. The Rainbow Aphorism series is a visual response to the latter.

McDiarmid designed Don’t Forget to Remember and the other Rainbow Aphorismsusing the computer-graphics skills he developed as the artistic director of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras between 1989 and 1990.[2] Harnessing new graphics software, McDiarmid juxtaposed truisms imbued with dark humour against rainbow backdrops. The digital means through which the series was produced increasingly became a necessity for McDiarmid, due to the impact of illness on his mood and mobility.[3]

McDiarmid’s use of the rainbow motif can be read as a nod to the rainbow flag, designed in 1978 by American artist and activist, Gilbert Baker.[4] McDiarmid referenced this queer symbol to complicate the ‘gay is good’ politics with which it had been associated during the Gay Liberation Movement.[5] His distinctive use of text was influenced by various sources, from tabloid newspaper headlines to radical queer publications like Diseased Pariah News, a zine produced during the 1990s that used ‘gallows humor’ to educate readers about HIV/AIDS.[6] Combining graphics and text, McDiarmid aimed to confront viewers with the circumstances facing him and his community, summarised by academic, curator and close friend of the artist, Sally Gray, as ‘disease, death, fear, rage, abjection and resistance’.[7]

By presenting the vibrant rainbow motif beneath phrases like ‘the family tree stops here darling’, McDiarmid was engaging in visual trickery. When I first viewed the series, I was unprepared for the darkness of the humour inscribed into the ebullient spectrum of colours. This reveals another layer of the Rainbow Aphorisms—the messages they hold for those who understand their meaning. Even an expression like ‘don’t forget to remember’—something I might jokingly call out to my girlfriend as she hurries out the door, is deeply serious and heartbreaking when read in the context of HIV associated dementia, or AIDS Dementia Complex (ADC).[8]

For an informed audience, the experience of viewing these works mirrors the radical shifts in LGBTQ+ struggles between the 1970s and the 1980s. This period progressed through the ‘golden age’ of the Gay Liberation Movement, during which increased rights and visibility seemed to be just on the horizon, to the decimation and vilification of queer communities amid the HIV/AIDS epidemic.[9] Academic Stephen Engel claims that the primary goal for queer people suddenly became ‘enabling survival rather than the long-term objective of overcoming homophobia’.[10]

While it is easy to detach yourself from these works and find humour in their wit, it is important to remember their origin. Behind their amusing quality lies a great deal of pain and rage. Don’t Forget to Remember and the other Rainbow Aphorisms were made by a man who knew that his time was limited and wanted to make his point, quickly and loudly.

Meg Slater (she/they) is Assistant Curator, International Exhibition Projects, NGV. Meg has an interest in the potential for historical art museums to centre traditionally overlooked subjects through exhibition-making and programming, particularly queer histories and identities. Meg works on many of the NGV’s major international exhibitions and is part of the interdisciplinary curatorial team developing the forthcoming collection-based exhibition, Queer (2022). Meg is currently undertaking a Master of Art Curatorship at the University of Melbourne.

Notes I would like to thank Ted Gott, whose knowledge and memory of both David McDiarmid and his artistic practice, which he has generously shared with me in recent years, have been an invaluable source of information and inspiration.


[1] David McDiarmid, quoted in Sally Gray,The Full Spectrum: David McDiarmid’s Rainbow Aphorisms, Project Sisu Publications, Ashfield, 2012, p. 3.

[2] Prior to his post as artistic director of Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, McDiarmid was a workshop artist for the festival. See Gill Minervini, ‘David McDiarmid and the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras’, in Sally Gray (ed.), David McDiarmid: When You See This Remember Me, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, pp. 74–75.

[3] Gray, The Full Spectrum, p. 9.

[4] Encouraged by Harvey Milk and Cleve Jones, Gilbert Baker conceived of a symbol by and for San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ community—the rainbow flag. For the city’s Gay Freedom Day Parade on 25 June 1978, Baker, along with thirty volunteers from the San Francisco Gay Community Center, hand-dyed and sewed the first two rainbow flags, which were hung outside of the United Nation’s Plaza. See Gilbert Baker, Rainbow Warrior: My Life in Colour, Chicago Review Press Inc., Chicago, 2019, p. 35.

[5] Gray,The Full Spectrum, p. 3.

[6] See David Krah, ‘Not Sanitized for Your Protection: Diseased Pariah News and the Political Uses of Humor’, Brought to Light: Stories from UCSF Archives & Special Collections, published 26 June 2019, accessed 1 September 2020, https://blogs.library.ucsf.edu/broughttolight/2019/06/26/not-sanitized-for-your-protection-diseased-pariah-news-and-the-political-uses-of-humor/.

[7] Gray, The Full Spectrum, p. 25.

[8] Ted Gott, conversation with the author, 21 September 2021, and ‘HIV Associated Dementia’, Dementia Australia, accessed 21 September 2021, https://www.dementia.org.au/about-dementia/types-of-dementia/aids-related-dementia.

[9] Guy Davidson, ‘Liberation, Commodity Culture and Community in “the Golden Age of Promiscuity”’, Australian Humanities Review, no. 23, September 2001, accessed 28 August 2021, http://australianhumanitiesreview.org/2001/09/01/liberation-commodity-culture-and-community-in-the-golden-age-of-promiscuity/.

[10] Stephen Engel, ‘Making a Minority: Understanding the Formation of the Gay and Lesbian Movement in the United States’, in Diane Richardson and Steven Seidman (eds), Handbook of Gay and Lesbian Studies, Sage, London, 2002, p. 393.