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Issue Date:  February 22, 2008

Breath on mirrors

Traveling exhibit remembers human rights crimes in Latin America


Over the holidays I walked into the bright, spacious New Mexico gallery, Site Santa Fe, then dawdled among gift shop items. When I ran out of ways to avert my eyes, I entered the next room and beheld a massive flag made of 66 human femurs, its stars and a stripe evoking both the Chilean and the United States flags.

-- Photos courtesy of the North Dakota Museum of Art

"Project for a Memorial/Proyecto por un monumento," 2005, installation of five synchronized videos, 15-inch screens by Oscar Muņoz

The installment, Untitled/Sin Titulo, is the work of Chilean artist Arturo Duclos. It is part of “The Disappeared,” an exhibit traveling around the world. Focusing on oppressive Latin American regimes, “The Disappeared” is subversive art at its finest, filled with fury, a summons to remember and to resist repressive powers everywhere -- including the United States, which has propped up dictatorships that have served its interests decade after decade.

Chilean Ivan Navarro’s installment, “Criminal Ladder/Escalera Criminal,” counters the usual practice of naming the victims of repression. Instead, he names more than 600 Chileans indicted for torture. The names appear on glowing fluorescent bulbs that cascade down the wall like rungs. The metal and electrical parts bring to mind the materials often used for torture. A book details the perpetrators’ acts committed under Augusto Pinochet’s brutal regime, noting that, to date, few have received prison sentences.

Documentation to achieve justice, however little or late, is at the heart of “Identity/Identidad,” a collaboration of 13 Argentineans. It focuses on the atrocious practice of “disappearing” parents and giving their children away to military families during that country’s “Dirty War.” The work consists of photographs of disappeared parents and their statistics. Photos are flanked by mirrors that stand in for the stolen child.

When “Identity/Identidad” opened in Buenos Aires, three individuals discovered their identities, now a much easier task thanks to the use of DNA. Later, five more children were identified in Uruguay. Once a missing child is identified, his or her information is removed from the installation. The installation focuses on the plight of about 200 families, although hundreds, perhaps thousands more were affected, given how widespread the practice of kidnapping children has been as a tool of repression throughout Latin America.

Fernando Traverso’s installation is called “Urban Intervention in the City of Rosario/Intervención Urbana en Calles de la Ciudad de Rosario” (2001). Mr. Traverso joined the resistance movement in his hometown of Rosario during Argentina’s war. He knew other workers only by their code names and bicycles. Over time abandoned bicycles accumulated around town as 350 Rosario residents disappeared. His installation is a series of photos of 350 outlines of bikes that the artist spray painted on Rosario’s walls. It is at once a solemn memorial and an in-your-face graffiti-style protest demanding that this never happen again.

'The Undershirt/La Camiseta," 1979, mixed media, dimensions variable

Oscar Muñoz of Colombia offers a more contemplative encounter with his country’s violent history. His installation, “Breath/Aliento,” is comprised of steel discs on a wall. The artist etched faces into the discs, people whose pictures he collected from the obituary columns. But the images only appear when one breathes directly onto the surface. Within moments, the face is gone. The simple act of breathing resurrects the dead, however briefly, and binds the viewer’s fate to that of his Colombian kin.

Brazilian Cildo Meireles’ response to the social problems his country faced in the 1970s and ’80s included rubber-stamping bank notes with political messages, then putting them back into circulation when he paid rent and bought groceries. In “Coca-Cola Project/Proyecto Coca-Cola,” he stamped empty bottles with the words, “Yankee Go Home” in small letters, then sent them to be recycled.

“Now why didn’t I think of that?” said a friend. She pondered what message she might stamp onto dollar bills. It wasn’t idle speculation. She has devoted most of her 70-something years to political activism. At one point she married a man to save him from deportation to a country where he could have faced death at the hands of the military.

The exhibit asks: How can Americans fight back at a time when our own nation is sanctioning torture and vilifying dissidents? The exhibit also asks that we stand in solidarity with our Latin American brothers and sisters. A video in the exhibit features Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano. He states that we must go beyond mourning the dead to demanding justice for them.

“Memory is a departure point,” he says, “not an arrival one.”

Demetria Martinez’s most recent book is Confessions of a Berlitz-Tape Chicana.

Related Web site
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National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2008

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