Buried But Not Forgotten Memories Resurface in’The Disappeared’
The Art Museum of the Americas at the Organization of American States seems more of a home than a museum — an intimate safe haven housing unfettered memories and personal experiences rather than a whole world of art collections.
You start to feel this immediate connection the minute you enter the building, where the first thing you notice is a kind of ladder whose rungs show a list of electronically lit white names that seem to go right up through the roof, perhaps dangling from an unseen helicopter.
The ladder is not a stairway to heaven though. Rather, it’s an inkling that you’re in the presence of something serious and large, whatever the size of the physical space around it. This is art as a forceful reminder of history, art as a tool of memory. Everything in the various spaces of this exhibition is insistent, pleading, and makes you aware of time passing, fraying the tendrils of memory. Everything in here screams: “Look at us. Look at what happened. You must not forget. It happens everywhere.”
What you’re looking at is “The Disappeared,” an emotionally powerful yet thoughtful exhibition curated by Laurel Reuter of the North Dakota Museum of Art. It’s hard to describe — and even harder to take in — but it starts with a large collaborative effort by 13 artists from seven Latin American countries who over the past 30 years have created art relating to human rights abuses.
“The Disappeared” refers to the fate of thousands of people during the dictatorships of Latin America in the mid to latter part of the 20th century — people who because of real or supposed opposition to the reigning governments, or because of association or mere suspicion, simply disappeared into jails, mass graves and into the thin air of anguished memory.
They were the victims of military juntas, reverse revolutions and coups in Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Guatemala, Uruguay, Brazil and Venezuela — vanishing souls still achingly familiar to their remaining family members. But their disappearance also still haunts the collective psyche of each nation, in part because of the sheer numbers involved (Argentina’s so-called Dirty War took more than an estimated 30,000 lives). The issue also resonates for some because of its visceral connection to the United States. In Chile, for instance, the U.S-supported coup against Chilean President Salvador Allende helped usher in the rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, under whom thousands disappeared.
History has not exactly forgotten these events, but they are little talked about on the international scene, where economic meltdowns, changes in leadership and terrorism are the hot-button focus.
Thus “The Disappeared” is a kind of resurrection of those who have disappeared from both their homes and the world stage. It is a display about how survivors and artists resurrected these people based on names and bones, stories and testimony. Interestingly though, it is not just about those left behind, but also about the military and state perpetrators behind the disappearances — the people who pulled the triggers, held the keys, dug the graves and never left a map.
Take that ladder, for instance, which initially looks like it contains an endless list of victims’ names. Actually, the 600 names on the rungs of this 30-foot ladder by Chilean artist Iván Navarro are of the people recently indicted for killing their fellow countrymen — the torturers, wardens, interrogators, officers and officials whose plain names resemble that of their victims, which adds to the shocking resonance of the piece.
Artists deal with such a black hole of history in different ways, tackling it head on or dancing around the pain — and both methods can be seen in this exhibition. Artists can use videos with faces and voices, show us X-rays and news reels, or ordinary personal belongings such as pictures from a class reunion and those missing from it. Or they can be less concrete with fragmentary poetry and metaphor — strong symbols of the past that transcend time.
For instance, Oscar Muñoz of Colombia drew a set of faces, which never complete themselves, but rather seem to fade into oblivion. An equally haunting series of eyes stare back at you in a separate but related exhibit called “Identity,” in which photographs by 13 Argentine artists juxtapose faces of the disappeared with mirrors in place of the missing.
Nicolás Guagnini, also of Argentina, is more specific with his installation featuring a portrait of his father, an Argentine journalist who disappeared on Dec. 12, 1977. The piece, in which the face disappears and reappears, recalls demonstrations against the country’s military dictatorship when people held up photographs of missing loved ones.
One of the more vivid yet simple efforts though is by Arturo Duclos, who constructed a giant Chilean flag made of 66 human femur bones screwed together to form the patterns on the flag. Likewise, Sara Maneiro of Venezuela constructed a chilling blueprint based on photographs taken of dental records from a mass grave.
All of these works embrace the reality of disappearance. Although it’s a hard and grim reality, these pieces also act as a balm to an inexplicable insanity, and as a caution to the larger world. After all, we still live in a world where people languish in prisons or disappear in a flash — an absence that, though fleeting in time, indelibly imprints itself on both history and memory.
The Disappeared through Jan. Art Museum of the Americas 201 18th St., NW For more information, please call (202) 458-6016 or visit www.museum.oas.org.
About the Author
Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.