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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McDiarmid, David Ross (1952–1995)

by Sally Gray

This article was published online in 2019

David Ross McDiarmid (1952–1995), artist, designer, and gay-community activist, was born on 5 September 1952 in Hobart, youngest of three sons of Scottish-born Thomas Peden McDiarmid and his Melbourne-born wife Maisie Vivian, née Ross. The family moved to Melbourne in 1954 where Thomas worked as a company executive; he died in 1961. David attended Deepdene State and Camberwell High schools. According to his English teacher, he was a ‘determined,’ ‘serious,’ and ‘original’ child, never content to ‘pursue things in a stultified way’ or ‘accept outworn concepts’ (McDiarmid Papers). After studying design for film and television at Swinburne College of Technology for two years (1969–70), he left without graduating to pursue a career as an artist.

With his lover, John Lee, a gay activist, McDiarmid moved to Sydney in 1972. Involved in organising the Sydney Gay Liberation movement, he wrote for and illustrated the Sydney Gay Liberation Newsletter, while engaging in protests and demonstrations for gay rights, including the legalisation of male homosexual acts. On 12 July 1972, in the course of demonstrating against the cancellation of an Australian Broadcasting Commission television program on homosexuality and the gay liberation movement in Australia, he was arrested and charged with using unseemly language. He and the artist Peter Tully were lovers for two years from 1973 and friends and collaborators until Tully’s death in 1992.

McDiarmid’s first exhibition, Secret Love, was held at Hogarth Galleries, Sydney, in 1976. Featuring explicitly political, gay liberationist art, it was followed by The Australian Dream Lounge (1977), an ironic domestic interior installation created in the wake of travel in the United States of America, and New Work: David McDiarmid (1978), both also at Hogarth Galleries. On 24 June 1978 he participated in the demonstration that became the founding event for the Sydney Gay (and Lesbian) Mardi Gras. A night-time parade with a carnival atmosphere, it broke with Sydney’s tradition of protest marches, but was still ‘terrifying’ (Harris, White, and Davis 2008, 12) for participants who clashed with police. In July McDiarmid designed posters for an exhibition of homosexual and lesbian artists at Watters Gallery, Sydney; several of his works were featured. He was arrested in August over his involvement in a protest march in support of women’s rights to abortion; the charge was later dropped.

Attracted by the larger and more culturally diverse gay communities of San Francisco and New York, McDiarmid returned to the United States in 1979 to pursue his art career. He periodically revisited Sydney for exhibitions of his work and for Mardi Gras celebrations. While in New York he hand-painted fabrics for the Sydney fashion designer Linda Jackson. This work appeared in fashion parades organised by the Sydney label Flamingo Park, and was shown in the exhibition Art Clothes at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (1980–81). In 1984 he exhibited a series of his New York paintings in David McDiarmid & Peter Tully at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. His work was also shown in numerous group exhibitions at venues including the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) (1985, 1986).

Diagnosed with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in 1986, McDiarmid returned to Sydney the following year. After a period of adjustment he resumed his artistic output with renewed vigour, finding the creative means to make strong and confronting art about acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Appointed artistic director of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras from 1988 to 1990, he became a strong advocate for the human rights and appropriate medical treatment of people suffering from HIV-AIDS. His 1990 series Kiss of Light was a powerful evocation of anger and transcendence in the face of his own mortality and the loss of friends and lovers to AIDS. In 1991 he was commissioned by the AIDS Council of New South Wales to create a series of safe sex and safe injecting posters that became international benchmarks for effective public health communication. Other work, such as Toxic Queen (1992), focused on the homophobia re-energised by the AIDS epidemic. His Rainbow Aphorism series, which featured bold text against a spectrum of rainbow colours, was included in the widely acclaimed exhibition Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS at the NGA (1994).

McDiarmid died on 25 May 1995 at his Darlinghurst home and was cremated. His fame as an artist, designer and political activist grew after his death, with posthumous exhibitions held at the British Museum, London (2011); the Fashion Space Gallery, London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London (2011); Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne (2011); the Centre for Sex and Culture, San Francisco (2013–14); the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney (2013); the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth (2015); and the Monash Museum of Art, Melbourne (2015). A major retrospective exhibition, David McDiarmid: When This You See Remember Me, was held at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, in 2014. In 2017–18 McDiarmid’s Rainbow Aphorism series was exhibited at stations across the London Underground. His art and design work is held in national, state, and regional public collections in Australia; in the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; and in private collections in Australia, Japan, Europe, and the United States.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Harris, Gavin, John White, and Ken Davis. New Day Dawning: The Early History of Sydney’s Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras. Sydney: Pride History Group, 2008
  • McDiarmid, David. ‘Memoirs of an Oppressed Teenager.’ Sydney Gay Liberation Newsletter 1, no. 4 (1972): n.p
  • McDiarmid, David. ‘A Short History of Facial Hair.’ In Sex in Public: Australian Sexual Cultures, edited by Jill J. Matthews, 91–96. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1997
  • McDiarmid Papers. Private collection
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject

Additional Resources

Citation details

Sally Gray, 'McDiarmid, David Ross (1952–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 29 October 2020.

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