History in the Global West is mainly taught as global lines of linear progression. “First this happened, and then that happened afterwards because of that.” Classical Greece, Roman Empire, Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque, Enlightenment, French Revolution – you get it. Within those broad storylines, a lot of other stories (sometimes conveniently) get lost.
So I got another linear-history-story-with-broad-storylines for you. Throughout the latter part of the 20th century, the US feared a domino theory that when one country would become communist, the surrounding countries would follow. So the US(CIA sometimes + president) overthrew democratically chosen socialist or leftist leaders in Latin America with helping the military carrying out a coup d’états. The solution: they replaced them with rightwing dictators and those tyrants sometimes started to kill the opposition or forced disappearances on a great scale.
Just a few examples are Chile’s Pinochet’s Military Junta from 1973-1990, Guatemala’s Military Dictatorships from 1954 to the 1980s, Nicaragua: The Somoza Dynasty, from 1930s to 1979, El Salvador’s Military Dictatorship from 1979 to 1992, Argentina: The Dirty War from 1976 to 1983, Bolivia: The Hugo Banzer Dictatorship from 1971 to 1977, Paraguay: The Alfredo Stroessner Regime from 1954 to 1989, and Cuba’s Fulgencio Batista from 1952 until the Cuban Revolution in 1959.
By all means, this story is too reductive, but if history keeps being told in broad lines, this is a story that needs to be included. Artists will do it anyway. Museums just have to let them tell their stories.
And it’s happening in New York. As I’ve stated before, in Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985 the curators provided the visitors with a timeline of these violent political events of the participating artists’ countries. Many of the included artists dealt with these raging dictators, mass disappearances and oppression.
Likewise, in a small exhibition in the New Museum, visitors can see Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa breathtaking installation that is a reflection on a specific moment in the Guatemalan reign of terror of dictator Kjell Eugenio Laugerud García.
As one can find on Wikipedia, Guatemala had a democratically chosen socialist president Jacobo Árbenz in the early 50’s. He instituted popular land reforms which granted property to landless peasants. This was a code red communist emergency for the U.S. and the CIA staged a coup d’état in 1954 and installed the military dictatorship of Carlos Castillo Armas, the first in a series of U.S.-backed authoritarian rulers in Guatemala.
The drama does not stop here. A Civil War ran from 1960 to 1996. It was fought between the government of Guatemala and various leftist rebel groups that mainly included ethnic Maya indigenous people and Ladino peasants. During this war, the Guatemalan government has committed genocide against the Maya population. As was already written in the 1999s, the money and training the US gave to the Guatemalan military contributed to torture, kidnapping and execution of thousands of civilians in a war that is estimated, killed more than 200,000 people.*
So back to the artist, The House at Kawinal, Ramírez-Figueroa first solo exhibition in the US, presents different performances on video and an installation of sculptures. In this exhibition, the artist reflects on the devastating effects of the construction of the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam in Guatemala in the early 1980s. The Chixoy River valley where the dam was built, Maya Achì lived for hundreds of years in a valley where each family farmed its own parcel of land and many of them raised horses and livestock and cultivated vegetables and fruit. During the raging civil war, the military forced a resettlement a “tierra arrasada” strategy to control guerilla warfare. A violent military-led massacre wiped out villages and flooded the futile farmlands and Late Mayan ruins for building the dam. The displaced people can’t grow anything in their new lands and don’t have access to the lands, and have not received the promised compensation by the electricity company.
The artist created sculptures that he directly took from archaeological finds – such as jars and vases – of the abandoned homes in the valley. Bright green walls of the gallery evoke feelings of lush nature – a Guatemalan valley if you will. By using everyday life as subject matter, the traumatic event becomes very tangible. These were just families with ordinary toys, a coffeemaker, a stereo, and a guitar; and were forced to leave. Altogether, the artist brings this stark political reality close to the visitors. He forcefully brings this marginalized story to most probably new audiences.
Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985 is on view until July 22, 2018 at the Brooklyn Museum. More info here. Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa’s The House of Kawinal is on view until September 9, 2018. More info here.