Activist art that drew attention to hospital closures 40 years ago is still relevant today, as an exhibition of its hard-hitting posters and campaign material at the ICA reveals

The image is stark and its message brutally clear. Under the headline Health Cuts Can Kill, a sickly, middle-aged man lies with his arms spread on a metal hospital bed, his right hand clasping the rails of the metal bedstead. The grainy black and white photo is clinically dissected by an anonymous hand wielding a surgical scalpel, slicing a gaping red gash across the prone patient’s torso and chest.

The poster is one of many created by the artists Loraine Leeson and Peter Dunn to support local campaigners and NHS workers in east London in the mid-to late-1970s. These art projects, which pioneered closer collaboration between artists and political activists in the UK, are on show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. They came in the wake of the first wave of cuts to the NHS. Initially carried out by Ted Heath’s Conservative government, these cuts deepened under Labour after a run on the pound forced James Callaghan’s government to take out a huge loan from the International Monetary Fund in 1976, which led to severe funding restrictions for public services.

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