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Politics in Art and Arts in Politics. Guatemala

In his book Didáctica de la liberación (2008) (Liberation Didactics), Luis Camnitzer states several ideas that revolve around creation and politics in Latin America. These ideas are useful to him in reconstructing a moment in the history of Latin American art, conceptualism, from a non-Eurocentric perspective. That’s why, perhaps, in one of his thesis he suggests that the peripheral artist’s need to access a hegemonic market turns the assimilation of his work into a political issue (as it is performed from the power concentration in order to meet his demands or the contents that he requires in order to renew and perpetuate himself). The issue is established from two clear sides: that of political art, –that is thus stated since it assumes a given community-, and that of art as political action strategy–, which organizes a new community of receivers within another symbolic order. Both serve the author of the text to show how conceptualisms, especially South American, were expressions that consolidated on the sidelines or as a reaction to the Continent’s artistic institutionalism of the sixties and seventies, in line with the national liberation movements of those years. And once they were reabsorbed by the mainstream they passed from action to form, from breaking with tradition to nourishing it1. They went on to be read as political art.

As the eighties arrived, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) assumes that works are information and not merchandise, something about of the art system legally falls apart and is redefined within the field of political aspirations’ transactions. Apparently, without leaving any options for action or struggle outside of the partisan electoral system. That is the scenario that we inherited, where few believe in art and even less in politics. This is exactly why I want to address this issue. Also, because of the implications that from this perspective the relatively recent addition of Central America to contemporary globality brings and the particularity with which Guatemala’s artistic production develops in line with political history.

Central America in general is excluded from Camnitzer’s analysis and interpretation of Latin American conceptualism. Not surprisingly, it is still a quite unknown region. In 1954 with the intervention of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the coup that ousted Jacobo Arbenz from power in Guatemala, the region opened a chapter of clashes, war, impunity and invisibility that lasted over half a century (remember that the most recent coup d’état on the continent was in 2009 in Honduras). However, this is just what helps us understand why struggles there still make some sense, and why it is relevant to address art from a political perspective.

With the fall of Arbenz and the rise to power of the first military president, Castillo Armas, one of the first measures that directly affects the production of national art was the closure of the etching press at the then School of Fine Arts. This press had come together with the Mexican master Arturo Garcia Bustos, who was from the Mexican popular graphics workshop and was responsible for teaching these techniques in the country. Under his guidance the use and dissemination of prints started, a good portion of them supporting this period’s social transformations: land reform, the creation of a highway to the Atlantic and other popular measures that concerned the United Fruit Company, and gave reason for the ten years (1944-1954) of democratic self-construction be interpreted as a communist threat. This explains the virulence against the etching press, the only one available at that time both for educational purposes, as well as for the use of artists; also, the repression and instilled silence that followed.

Roberto Cabrera, then a student, would return to this line of work in the seventies and make a series of war posters: color screen-prints, which were formed as something between pop aesthetics and neo-expressionist designs. There, one by one, he represented the most vulnerable, those who carried the burden of horror of those days, natives, women and children. The years in which this work took place marked the beginning of the exile of many artists and intellectuals, the intensification of conflicts over all of Latin America, so it was hardly known. His period as founding member of the Vertebra group (1969) was much more prominent, during which he expressed interest in an art linked to reality. Even though that did not really last very long. The problem was in the commitment, but by assuming that the neo-figuration and representation of the dispossessed is what expressed it. The cast, mainly for Cabrera, was very small. From that same period dates the beginning of an intensive research-creation project that took shape in the series Variations of a character named Simon, a precursor to installations and inquiries in regards to what was popular in the country. San Simon for some, Maximon for others, is syncretism’s highest form of worship in Guatemalan religion. Through it, Cabrera went in search of contents, experiences that would let him know and get inside unconscious collective. While this gesture was far from being a political action strategy it was clearly a resignation from political art, as well as an affirmation of his own commitment.

It does not matter if political art is an instrument in favor of the state or against it, because it ends up being equally pamphleteering, indoctrinating, and especially restrictive at a symbolic level. Reinforces the idea of “power over” rather than “power to do”2, which is what defines the homus politucus. Cabrera opted for the latter, only that in a country like Guatemala, with an area of approximately 109 000 km², where 23 languages are spoken and today there is little bilingual education, where the first thing that fails and which does not overcome its own crisis is the idea of nation, and with it the institutions on which it stands. He tells of his travels through the villages of Lake Atitlan to meet San Simon, and in general his anthropological inquiries, which presupposed not to release the other (read as: the oppressed, for the case mainly indigenous), but by beginning to know him, by then recognizing himself. About two decades later, a similar interest would chart the course of the photographic work to which Luis Gonzalez Palma devoted himself, and which influenced in promoting contemporary indigenous artists, by then with the new century’s advent.

However, the most emblematic work from the political perspective in the seventies in Guatemala is Arnoldo Ramirez Amaya’s, El tecolote3. Skillful drawer, of strong personality and free stroke, this artist became popular parodying of the social situation, among soldiers, clowns, heroes and animals. Sobre la libertad, el dictador y sus perros fieles (On Liberty, the dictator and his faithful dogs), published by Siglo xxi Editores (Mexico, 1976), is a book of his, prefaced by Gabriel García Márquez, that became part of his legendary biography. The series from which it was edited was made up of some 400 drawings, which he had begun some years before in Costa Rica. They were not accepted at the Sao Paulo Biennale in 1973, nor did they arrive in Paris for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. They became a volume when the board of Century XXI Editors in Mexico reacted to the closure of offices in Buenos Aires, decreed by General Videla. It is the legacy of a period in which the persecution of intellectuals, militarism, and the construction of an idea of Latin America that arises from the resistance and exile’s invention, all prevailed. Luis Camnitzer himself is part of it, that experience is what allows him to articulate the relationship between education-poetry-political movements as the platform on which to develop conceptualism in Latin America. Ramírez Amaya in Guatemala is the artist who, in an isolated manner and still without much awareness of their own processes, defines this moment.

In 1973 El tecolote almost took the University of San Carlos (USAC) and controls its walls with a series of murals, of which traces still remain today. There he paints the symbol of the National Liberation Movement (MLN) and a few drops of blood, in an attempt to combine figuration with text, although he stays with the latter, since language is his main resource. Blood is a symbol and recurrent word. The Gallo4 beer logo is accompanied by a new slogan “Sangre, el sabor de Guatemala” (Blood, the taste of Guatemala). On the other hand excerpts from a poem appear: ““…toda sangre ha de llegar al lugar de su quietud” (... all blood has to reach its place of tranquility). And the composition that best sums up this work is a red line that ends with the phrase “esto no es pintura, es sangre” (this is not paint, it’s blood). At this moment representation resources become inadequate, the artist wants at all costs to organize a receptive community among students. So much so that on one of the murals it says: Otto está vivo, Rogelia está viva, vos estás muerto (Otto is alive, Rogelia is alive, you’re dead). With this ruling the dead, the missing, are living, and the living are dead. This logical inversion calls upon immediately action, transforming the receptor into an actor: someone who is being convened to define and fulfill his own commitments. Moreover, like many experiences of this kind, it is the action of an artist who counts with what he knows (making art) to make politics; to influence and enrich collective consciousness’ spectrum of signs and symbols. Amaya Ramirez embodies the transition from political art to art as a strategy of political action in Guatemala, even though later on he did not continue to work in this direction. I even imagine that he would be offended if he knew that we could place some of these works as precursors of the country’s conceptualism.

History, not to mention Art history, in Guatemala and primarily in most conflict-ridden countries in Central America, is always a work in progress. The lack of research and writings or memories to contribute to baste the processes of the last century has resulted in the inability to recognize themselves among artistic traditions or to articulate themselves parting from other references. Until the mid-nineties, when some of the exiles began to return due peace negotiations, in which Virginia Pérez-Ratton starts her travels as the first director of the Costa Rican Art and Design Museum (MADC), and that the Triangular5 project arrives, the term “conceptual art” was not known. It became much more popular well into this century, often as a synonym for contemporary art, dismissed by some masters of the old guard because it was thought imported, something in tune with what was happening in the United States. So that the Latin American conceptualism Camnitzer (and Mari Carmen Ramirez) speaker spoke about is usually equated to conceptual art. The spaces for art education are still scarce and there is no cultural dialogue.

By the eighties, amid forced disappearances, death and exile, the artistic and intellectual life of Guatemala City was quite impoverished. Those were the years of most terror and fear, under General Rios Montt’s the army razed the land and entire communities disappeared. It is in this context that in 1986, a group of artists meets around the Imaginaria Gallery. Brought together by Moises Barrios, painter and engraver who had returned to settle back in the country, opening his first workshop, where he had an etching press that began to be used by several colleagues. From the encounter dynamics in his workshop the project emerged (shared with Luis Gonzalez Palma) of the gallery in Ancient Guatemala. One of the artists that took part from the beginning was Isabel Ruiz. She and Moises continued to develop their engraving, he as heir of Ramírez Amaya’s political satire, but without making it explicit, Isabel also, but far more neo-expressionist. Barrios had lived in Costa Rica and Spain, shortly before starting Imaginaria he had been in Mexico. There he got to know the scene, the work of some artists of groups from Mexico City. When the gallery began to work, it was focused on dialogue with the international scene. They used mail, personal connections, dialogue and agreements between them. They did not seek to directly influence the local scene, other than as a consequence of outside recognition.

Moises’ series Banana Republic (1996), and Elizabeth’s Río negro (Black River, 1996), as example, resulted from their creations’ consolidation and growth process, forged in Imaginaria’s time they are much more loaded with political content. For years Barrios worked on these paintings that go from planes on bananas to Duchamp’s “bananized” urinal, covered in yellow paint with black spots, or Banana Republic brand stores, bunches of bananas and more, in the best photo or hyper-realistic style. An exhaustive exploration of a subject that has shaped the history and the precariousness of Central America and much of the Caribbean, but always in dialogue with art, for traditional consecration spaces. That was how painting became a means of investigation, a document without a narrative interest that gave a contemporary character to works of art, beginning from a topic that has determined political conflict at various levels.

For Isabel, the transition from engraving to watercolor and to large format brought her closer to installations. Río negro is named after the place of a massacre perpetrated over a land conflict, in order to build a dam. She takes the event and recreates it in large watercolors, to which she adds fragments of photographs, and incisions made with kitchen tools. She mounts them on light boxes that let the final images of an investigation into Mayan cosmology pass through, the remains of the dead in the soil, and roots, with a charcoal carpet on the floor. This way she faces the event; this is the case in much of her work, because with it she generally tries to make an accusation: a gesture that is contained in the artist’s freedom of expression and the role art as an institution has to receive it, political art. Isabel’s work is part of more collections outside Guatemala than in the country, most of the compositions are in her possession. Ruiz is above all an echo of social events, and under this premise she goes from modern formats to experimentation and teaching. From there she stands as an important reference, particularly for female artists of following generations, which are consolidated around the year 2000.

The exhibition trilogy named Mesóticas (exotic Mesoamerica), curated by Virginia Perez-Ratton and Rolando Castellón from the MADC, especially the II (1996) and III (1998), served to establish regional ties, and connect many regional artists that as Isabel or Moses were working isolated one from the other, with scarce contextual dialogue. They also contributed to the establishment and consolidation of infrastructure for contemporary art in different countries of the region, particularly in Guatemala. Especially since they promoted, assisted by the Museum and later by Teor /Etica6, Rosina Cazali’s development as a curator and her comprehension of art as an opportunity for action and cognitive activity7, which according to Paolo Herkenhoff, is one of the first things Pérez Ratton assumed. That was how both of them, probably without much consciousness of it, were doing political work, transforming the map of established legitimizing relations. As of then, the idea of Central American covered the entire isthmus and would begin to spread internationally with greater force. This coincides with the consolidation of peace processes in the area and the injection of considerable amounts of capital, designed to create cultural incentives.

In coexistence with Imaginaria, and later as one of Colloquia’s (1998)8 founders, Cazali gradually moved from critic to curator, being highly active in the last decade. At first her work was linked to a generation of artists that began to express themselves and take up spaces in the nineties.

La Casa Bizarra (The Bizarre House, 1997) was one of them, a meeting place for youngsters with creative yearnings, who occupied a residence in the historical city center, which at that time had not been remodeled. This was the underlying platform for the development of the festival in honor of the revolution of 44, Octubre Azul (Blue October), curated by Cazali and Jose Osorio. It was a collective performance, a will to take to the streets, breaking the silence and expressing themselves in all possible ways, organized completely independently, without any institutional mediation. More than an event of great artistic value it is almost a cry, a demand for freedom of expression and public recognition, that the country is still not understood. For the national art system Octubre Azul is the contemporary expression that contributes decisively to their becoming professional on the one hand, and the authentication of action and performance on the other; as well as the use of contemporary art to form citizenry.

After the Octubre Azul experience, Osorio creates the Ludic Box project focused on working in rural and social risk zones, using creativity and artistic transgression as a principle of to train facilitators or incorporate creation to daily life9. What is disconcerting is that this type of initiative separates from the art system fairly quickly and is inserted into the field of NGOs, youth policies... avoiding dialogue and interaction with the visual arts sector. However, in this line of business (of citizen’s creativity) a kind of expression takes place that I want to highlight. The struggle and political aspirations of some social movements (students, peasants, women) in Guatemala, at times, feeds off creativity and contemporary art’s contribution of. A very paradigmatic case in this respect was the action of a group of women in defiance to the constitutional court, in 2007. They were protesting against the family planning law’s disapproval and for their right to abortion, and the Church’s interference the state affairs. That is why they stripped and on each of them they painted, letter by letter, the phrase: “Este cuerpo es mío” (This body is mine). Similarity with several of Regina José Galindo’s works is obvious, theme and bodies touch in the same context, in search of similar political demands: female self-determination and the condemnation of the State.

In one of the street “paints” which are common lately, mainly in the historical center, you can read: “Let action be creation / not reaction”. This sentence remits us to Latin American conceptualism much of the seventies, the irreverence of Ramírez Amaya, which survives as a remnant, unreached, unconquered place. It is a form now inherited by ordinary or organized citizens, not artists. What is interesting to observe is how there are still evidence of those demands, which are still present, only now increasingly regulated by specific interests and demands, which are sectorized, fragmented within the cultural complexity and the gap of inequalities that excludes a large portion of them from the concept of citizenship. That gap, that vacuum where much of the population does not exist, nor is a word is born; that struggle against violence and neglect, to great extent, has fueled contemporary art production in Guatemala, and even the dissolution of borders between art and politics. “My dreams do not fit in the polls”, was written a few months ago during election period.

In 2002 the young artist Benvenuto Chavajay presented himself at a newspaper office in Guatemala City to report the disappearance of a friend: Benvenuto Chavajay, of whom he left a photo for the media. The image and data were of himself. The information was automatically received and was posted approximately two weeks later. The document tells us how routine procedures like this have become, of the meaning of human life in a territory used to death, where the term “disappeared” has become natural, and ultimately about the conditions of the natives. In 2008 another young artist, Alberto Rodriguez, set up a tarp, presumably from the John Peurifoy Foundation, at the former venue of the U.S. embassy, where he served as ambassador. In an area where no advertising is allowed, the image’s effect did not go unnoticed. A Wikipedia address referred us to the character that played a key role in staging the CIA intervention in Guatemala and overthrowing of Arbenz, who was then sent to Thailand, where foundation that bears his name is based. With this piece, entitled La Fundación (The Foundation), part of the xii Historical Center Festival, Alberto with a touch of irony, brought us back a memory, unknown to most of the population. The foundation does not exist in Guatemala, but that is irrelevant; the important thing is what this information reveals on how international “cooperation” mechanisms for development often operate.

Anibal Lopez (A1-53 167), an artist that projects himself as being fond of the conceptual strategies of the nineties, is an award winner at the Venice Biennale (2001) for the documentation of an action entitled: 30 de junio (June 30), Guatemalan army day. That day the marching troops, had to pass over charred layers of dust that the artist had poured on the streets. The provocation was very subtle and effective. He had come across the idea of coal as war’s material/footprint, in one of Isabel Ruiz’ pieces, Memoria Sitiada (Besieged Memory, 1992). This piece, together with his own experience made him understand that coal was a symbol of burning villages, looting and scorched earth. This is what was left, and if someone could understand this it would be the military. This is how action confronts them, by seeking to activate their consciences.

This type of work has been recurrent in Lopez’ career. In 2005, during the Arme/Desarme (Arm/ Disarm) exhibition, curated by Jose Osorio, he presented a video recording of action in which he hired a vendor in the central park to sell stones. The story is very funny and disconcerting: the man, amid surprise and disbelief gets to sell some stones, but the best part is how he justifies the sale. He says that in a country where violence grows so much (the war’s latest result) you have to be armed in any way you can, ready to defend yourself. He talks and talks playing around with these ideas.

The list and analysis from a political perspective of Guatemalan works of the last twenty years well deserve to be subject of a specific text. Artists, exhibitions, festivals, cannot escape this type of production; which is the result of a country that exists only as a financial protectorate, clan driven, and post-feudal. Invisible. What is interesting is to see how this kind of art, which still is produced like a political action strategy, ends up just being an artistic action, which hardly affects macro-politics, as in its repetition, as its continuum forming a new embodiment it designates a particular bio-political character. Art action in Guatemala is almost an autonomous institution, against State and conservatism, in favor of the body and the reconquering its rights, over and beyond culturalisms. That might help us understand the emergence of recent projects such as Ciudad de la Imaginación (City of Imagination, 2002) in Quetzaltenango, Xelajú, the second largest city in the country, core of the indigenous bourgeoisie. The center, formed by several groups of artists, with a neighborhood action program and an agenda for the dissemination of contemporary art, is aware that doing cultural management there is the same as doing politics.

Marivi Véliz