Artists Pursue the Disappeared

Artists Pursue the Disappeared

With greater efficiency than the slow efforts for truth and justice, a traveling art exhibition bears witness to the victims of Argentina’s “dirty war.”


The inspiration behind the photographic installation Identidad, which opened in Buenos Aires in 1998, rested on a simple hope: Among the crowds of visitors, at least one young person would discover his or her true identity. Enlarged snapshots of couples and women detained and disappeared in Argentina between 1976 and 1983, who gave birth in prison or whose small children were disappeared along with them, lined the winding corridors of the exhibition. A mirror inserted between family pairs represented the missing child. Beneath the photographs a small text reported the details of arrest and any available facts about the child’s fate.

This special exhibit was commissioned by Las Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo (the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo), in collaboration with the Centro Cultural Recoleta, in their ongoing effort to recover their stolen grandchildren. For more than thirty years, these courageous older women have struggled to keep alive the memory of their disappeared sons and daughters as well as to locate their lost grandchildren, who, in one of the more sinister twists of Argentina’s dirty war, were adopted and raised by the very military officials involved in torturing and murdering their parents. In the late 1990s, Las Abuelas initiated artistic outreach campaigns to attract younger audiences with the realization that they were no longer looking for infants but rather young adults, not so different in age from their disappeared parents. Identidad emerged from the collaboration of thirteen Argentine artists who sought to assist Las Abuelas through an artistic display designed around the possibility that, when confronted with the images of their real parents, these young people, with no knowledge of their true past, might actually recognize themselves and find their true identity.

And several of them did. Through names left anonymously at the 1998 opening of Identidad, three cases of disappeared grandchildren were resolved and three families reunited.

Identidad returned to Buenos Aires in September 2006 as part of a larger exhibition titled The Disappeared/Los Desaparecidos. Curated by North Dakota Museum of Art director Laurel Reuter, this poignant and powerful display brought together works by twenty-seven contemporary artists from seven Latin American countries, reflecting through art the state-sponsored terror that engulfed the continent in the late twentieth century. The exhibition arrived at New York’s El Museo del Barrio in February and ran through mid-June. US audiences will next have an opportunity to see The Disappeared in conjunction with human rights events in Santa Fe this October. The exhibition will then travel to Chile and Colombia, before opening in September 2009 at the Art Museum of the Americas (OAS) in Washington, DC–where it is sure to revive the unsolved issue of the thousands who remain disappeared in Latin America.

The term “disappeared” has become associated with Latin America’s military dictatorships in the 1970s and ’80s. In battles against political dissidents, the governments of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and elsewhere developed a strategy aimed not only at eliminating opposition but also at terrorizing the population at large. As a form of human rights abuse, disappearances erase a person from life as well as death–denying relatives the very body over which to grieve. Indeed, the families of the disappeared have been forced to live with the unique anguish of perpetual uncertainty, creating a challenge of mourning and remembering. Decades later, could these families ever give up hope that their loved ones might still be alive? Could they ever stop searching for an answer to their loved ones’ fate?

“The issue is always with me; it follows me everywhere,” says Olga Weisfeiler, the sister of Penn State mathematics professor Boris Weisfeiler, who remains the only US citizen among 1,100 Chileans still disappeared from the Pinochet era. “For almost twenty years, I truly believed that Boris may have survived.” There is a feeling of guilt and inadequacy, she explains. “I felt guilty and never had a good night’s sleep thinking that maybe Boris was alive somewhere and I wasn’t doing enough. My search for Boris, for truth about his fate, has become my life.” Through artistic depiction, such expressions of pain, suffering and the complexities underlying the history and fate of los desaparecidos are laid bare throughout the exhibit. In searching for a shape to explore the tragedy and terror visited upon his country under General Pinochet’s rule, Chilean artist Arturo Duclos settled in Untitled (1995) on the very symbol of nationhood. A skeletal outline of the Chilean flag formed from seventy-five human femurs spans an entire wall. Chilling in its stark simplicity, the image resonates as a denunciation of “a nation that did not protect its citizens.”

Other works emerged from the artists’ intimate relationships with the subject matter. Marcelo Brodsky presents his 1967 Colegio Nacional Buenos Aires eighth-grade class photo in Good Memory (1997), enlarged and annotated with the fates of his classmates. One annotation reads, “Martín was the first to be taken. He never met his son Pablo, now 20. He was my friend–el mejor–my very best friend.” Brodsky gathered together his living classmates for a twenty-five-year reunion at his home to honor their fallen compañeros. Good Memory displays the results, including images of his current students, their contemplative gazes caught in the glass protecting the portraits of the disappeared youths who once wore the same uniforms and walked the same halls.

Turning to his family archive, Brodsky also shares a series of stills, Playing at Dying, taken from a family video in which the artist and his brother Fernando sword-fight with sticks. The final image captures the two boys falling to the ground nearly simultaneously. The artist writes:

22 is no age to die.
When, at twelve, we pretend to die,
we thought we were immortal.

Below it is the last known photograph of Fernando Brodsky as a young man, gaunt, with signs of fatigue and likely torture, his piercing gaze staring back. Taken inside a detention center, the photograph became evidence of Fernando’s kidnapping. To this day, he remains disappeared.

By exploring dimensions of state violence and international terrorism, some artists raise the question of accountability. Chilean Iván Navarro’s installation consists of fluorescent lights containing the names of Chile’s victimizers linked to form a Criminal Ladder (2005). Often, the reports produced by human rights commissions would record the names of victims of state violence but not the names of those responsible for their persecution. Navarro’s The Brief Case (2004), filled with four fluorescent tubes, bears the names of and only reference in The Disappeared to American victims of Pinochet’s regime. Those include Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi, whose executions in Chile after the coup were depicted in the Oscar-winning movie Missing, as well as Ronni Karpen Moffitt, who was killed along with former Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier by a car bomb planted by Pinochet’s secret police.

In addition to seeking accountability, The Disappeared presents solemn reflections on societal culpability–the silences of those who did not speak out. Luis Camnitzer’s Uruguayan Torture Series (1983) consists of close-cropped portraits accompanied by banal phrases: a hand crucified with nails (“He practiced every day”); a glass of water (“He feared thirst”). Taken alone, “the image and text are relatively meaningless,” writes the artist. But “once they click together, an insight occurs about the violence. That configuration is not just about being tortured, empathizing with the victim, but also with the torturer and oneself as accomplice.”

Similarly, Uruguayan illustrator Antonio Frasconi’s series of woodcuts, Los Desaparecidos (1988), portrays the dark insides of clandestine detention and torture centers. Rows of prisoners march by with heads covered (evocative of US detainees at Guantánamo). The oppressive walls of the cell close in: The humiliation and the dehumanization that enables a society to torture and murder its own is etched before the eyes of the viewer. Though we can never fully know the experience endured by the disappeared, Frasconi’s art seems to suggest, we can recover their humanity. In his series In Memoriam (1981-88), Frasconi has drawn portraits based on photographs of Uruguay’s disappeared, personifying cold statistics by replacing them with names and faces.

Like Frasconi, the other artists of The Disappeared pose fundamental questions about human nature and the capability within each of us to commit unspeakable acts of terror–questions that resonate today amid post-Abu Ghraib disenchantment with US foreign policy and misdeeds abroad. Despite saying “nunca más” after each truth commission, we continue to live in a world plagued by recurrences of crimes against humanity.

“The forces of evil are as indebted to those who chose not to know as to those who chose to forget,” writes Reuter in the catalogue essay. Though the long struggle of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo and other human rights groups across Latin America began by simply seeking recognition that the detentions of their loved ones had taken place–that the disappeared indeed existed–the movement now demands a full accounting of their loved ones’ fate. Following the recuperation of democracy, many civilian politicians sought to move forward by putting the dark chapters of their nations’ past behind them. Denied under the dictatorship, the disappeared would be forgotten in democracy.

Over time, the world has come to know more about the fate of the disappeared from survivors’ testimonies, truth commissions and military officers’ confessions. Yet there is still an astounding number of unresolved cases. Of the 500 missing children sought by Las Abuelas, for example, only eighty-six have been found. Brazil never established an official truth commission for the violence following the 1964 coup and state sponsored truth commissions are only just beginning in Colombia, Paraguay, and Ecuador. After cases of genocide in the Guatemalan national courts stalled because of the seemingly insurmountable impunity of ex-generals, the Audiencia Nacional in Spain, where Pinochet was once sought for criminal proceedings, is now requesting extradition for Efraín Ríos Montt and other prominent military figures.

When it comes to transitional justice, each country’s specific experience under dictatorship and democracy determines when it is appropriate to proceed with criminal investigations. Yet it may be this final race against time that seals the fate of justice for Latin America’s disappeared. Many of those directly involved on both sides of the political divide are aging; grandmothers are dying without ever finding the truth, and Pinochet’s death in December 2006 raised fears that those responsible would elude justice simply by old age.

With greater efficiency than the slow efforts for truth and justice, art has become a mechanism of bearing witness in uncertain times. Nowhere is the urgency of the struggle against oblivion more present than in the political artwork of The Disappeared exhibition. The permanence of art acts to memorialize and to transmit memories to generations and populations less touched by Latin America’s military dictatorships. The show’s subject is as much about Latin America’s disappeared as it is about remembering a period some in Latin America, and in the United States, would prefer to deny and forget.

All of the installations in The Disappeared, in their own way, forcefully recall the past and place it in front of our eyes in the present. As the exhibition’s final piece, Identidad has that provocatively chilling effect. The vacant mirrors reflect the interruption of a connection between past and future. Yet the artwork and the audience’s engagement with it ultimately provide an avenue to give memory new life. When we as viewers draw closer to the iconic images of the disappeared–these young people with lives and dreams cut tragically short by violence–we stand before a clear and recognizable reflection. Each mirror is filled with a face. It is our own.

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