A vertically hung embossed all-pink flag of the United States
Peste Rosa, 2006, by Sergio Avello (Argentinian, 1964-2010) Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021-99-1

The Layers of Queer Symbolism in Sergio Avello’s “Peste Rosa”

Tannon Reckling

On the continued relevance of the artist’s pink leather flag, inspired by the AIDS crisis of the 80s

Next time you see a flag, think of Argentinian artist Sergio Avello’s piece Peste Rosa. The work is roughly five feet by eight feet—large flag proportions. Peste Rosa invites people in with its soft pastel pink and plush appearance, but with a twist: it’s a U.S. flag.

Avello was a multimedia artist and community organizer. He was also a DJ and party thrower. He worked with materials ranging from large neon light installations and light boxes to leather and polychrome panels. Peste Rosa, recently acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is an important part of his legacy within queer Latin American art circles. In addition to the queer references in the work, it’s also a subtle critique of nationalism and borders.

Peste rosa is Spanish for “pink plague.” In Avello’s birthplace of Argentina, it was a slang name given to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, an epidemic that continues today, including in the United States. Argentina also faced an economic crisis in 2001 that moved many artists in the country, including Avello, to become politically engaged. In addition to the pink color of the flag and the artwork’s name, the puffy nature of the artwork may refer to a nickname given to gay men and other members of the LGBTQI+ community in Argentina: “soft boys.” These hidden meanings, both funny and tragic, came through the first time I saw the piece.

I reached out to expansive Philly-based interdisciplinary artist Rami George to engage Peste Rosa with me. I most recently encountered George’s work through the William Way LGBT Community Center’s virtual exhibition Among Us: Four Decades of Art & AIDS in Philadelphia. George’s video piece in the show was titled Untitled (Stanley, my second lover), a montage from 2012. Found footage, ranging from liberation marches to domestic scenes of lovers, is stitched together with black screens. This work, as well as George’s larger practice, resonates with me in the same queer ways in which I engage Avello’s work.

Below is Rami George’s reflection on Sergio Avello’s Peste Rosa

Still from Untitled (Stanley, my second lover), 2022, by Rami George. Video, color, sound; 8:13 mins. Image courtesy of Rami George

I started taking PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] when I was 26 or so. (I’m now 33.) A magical blue pill—now white with my generic version—that shifted so much for me. Prior to this drug, I only had sex with condoms (save one partner). Coming of age with a thorough sex education in the 2000s, I was taught sex with condoms only, as well as to be fearful of other bodies, especially around the specter of HIV. Even a condom wasn’t enough to mitigate fear, though; despite being aware of my biases, I avoided sex with someone I knew to be positive, condoms or not. PrEP showed me intimacy and pleasure, even with strangers, and also opened me up to encounters with positive individuals. Growing up in a family highly critical of Western medical systems, it was my first entry into medicalization. In my search for a prescription, I also discovered my blood pressure runs higher. Starting PrEP gave me more awareness of my body, both sexually and otherwise. It changed my life.

Although the fear of HIV has been greatly reduced, I’ve been thinking a lot about the fear of other bodies that living in the age of pandemics has brought. It was a challenge to be poly at the onset of the pandemic, navigating spheres of desire and risk. A return to a fear of other bodies—most of my sexuality mediated through a screen. A brief pocket of freedom and lust, post-vaccination, pre-MPV (monkeypox is a misleading name with racist connotations). Again a return to a time of fear of the unknown, fear of other bodies and their fluids. Perhaps with distance we will be able to identify themes or motifs in artwork made in this moment. I look at certain films of mine made in the past few years and can see them as pandemic works, the parameters of their creation clear to me despite not explicitly addressing a pandemic. 

A country’s flag is never an innocuous symbol. It’s always wrapped up in complex systems of belonging (and its inverse), belief, war, oppression, and displacement. Especially so for a U.S. flag, one that I was conditioned to pledge allegiance to well before I could grasp what this actually meant. When Avello’s flag is hung on a wall of the PMA, it is displayed on Lenape land. A pink color does not negate the history and legacy of a symbol. Now saccharine sweet, it’s just as sickly. 

Sergio Avello’s Pesta Rosa is on view in Gallery 270 through early January. Visual AIDS will present their annual Day With(out) Art video program in Gallery 279 throughout the month of December.

Tannon Reckling is a transdisciplinary artist, writer, curator, and teacher. They are a double Aries. Recently they coordinated a residency for queer & trans artists, curated and organized multiple in-person and online exhibitions, volunteered at HIV/AIDS clinics, been a college instructor in new media arts, and has written for multiple publications nationally. Their work has been shown in Portland, OR; Seattle, WA; Omaha, NE; New York City, NY; and more. They are currently a graduate student at New York University and are interested in slime and mold, LGBT identity outside of coastal cities, cyborg landscapes, virus metaphors, nuanced technology, shadow labor, avoiding surveillance economies, and collaborating with other queers.

Rami George is an interdisciplinary artist currently based on Lenape land in what is now called Philadelphia. Their work has been presented in exhibitions and screenings at MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge; Anthology Film Archives, New York; Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow; Grand Union, Birmingham; the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; LUX, London; the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; and elsewhere. Rami received an BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an MFA from the University of Pennsylvania and is a 2021 Pew Fellow. They continue to be influenced and motivated by political struggles and fractured narratives.

This post was supported by a Re:imagining Recovery grant to the Philadelphia Museum of Art from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.