Our friend and colleague Bernard Yenelouis (1959–2020) passed away in May after battling ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease). Bernie earned his MFA at Cornell in 2012, and that year assisted the Museum team with the installation of Lines of Control and documented Carl Ostendarp: Fat Cakes/Myopic Void with photography for our publication. Long after his time in Ithaca, he maintained enthusiastic support of the Johnson on social media and elsewhere.

At right: Bernie at the opening reception for Cornell Art Faculty 2012 with Renate Ferro’s Private Secrets Public Lies multimedia installation.

Alongside his talents and his friendship, Bernie left with us another important legacy: his 2012 gift to the permanent collection of a limited-edition portfolio and other photographs by Brian Weil (1954–1996) that have become a staple of object-based instruction at the Johnson.

Weil’s AIDS Photographs project documented the developing AIDS pandemic between 1985 and 1991. A member of ACT UP and cofounder of New York City’s first needle exchange, Weil regarded his artistic practice as political action, exhibiting his portraits alongside copious didactic materials. Bernie was Weil’s studio assistant in the ’90s.

Now, every year these works help Cornell undergraduates learn how sociocultural biases can influence the management of widespread illness and, in particular, how they impacted the US government’s response to HIV/AIDS in the mid-to-late 1980s. “Introduction to Global Health” (NS 2600), taught by Jeanne Moseley, senior lecturer in the College of Human Ecology and director of Cornell’s Global Health Program, is a notable example. For the past five years, her students have visited the Museum each spring to view a study gallery installation of Weil’s photos alongside international AIDS education posters on loan from Cornell Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. Moseley’s course typically has more than 120 students, yet she dedicates two intense weeks during the module on HIV/AIDS for small groups of students to view these works in person.

“The class sessions allow students to think more deeply about the history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and to put human faces and stories to the dramatic numbers that they have learned about in class,” Moseley said. “The sessions also enrich student understanding of how political and sociocultural factors shaped HIV risk, vulnerability, stigma, and discrimination.”

Students beginning coursework in biological sciences, chemical engineering, health care policy, human development, government, global and public health sciences, communication, and policy analysis and management have experienced how narratives of personal culpability rise from implicit biases, and seen how these judgments in turn have a powerful effect on how governments respond to a pandemic.

“The most impactful moment of the class session is often when the students first encounter the photos and are asked to describe them without knowing what they are,” said Leah Sweet, the Johnson’s Lynch Curatorial Coordinator for Academic Programs. “When Weil’s descriptive titles are slowly revealed and the sitters’ stories read aloud, students are surprised to find out that some of their assumptions were inaccurate, and that this diverse group from a range of backgrounds all had AIDS when Weil photographed them.”

“Brian spoke emphatically in a first-person narrative, including names when possible,” Bernie wrote to us, just months before his passing. “That’s terrific the prints are shown often. Brian wanted pedagogy to be the primary feature of the work, and while not as he would have expected, their place at the Johnson seems a very good fit.”

Bernie’s gift was indeed ideally suited to our mission. “Ideas pass through time in many ways,” he wrote. We are grateful for the foresight and generosity of his gift, one that will continue to foster reflection and empathy in a visceral and intimate way.