By Sadie Leite
For about five years, curators Abigail Satinsky and Erina Duganne have worked on the new Tufts University Art Gallery “Art For the Future: Artists Call and Central American Solidarities,” which opened Jan. 20 on the Boston and Medford campuses.
On Wednesday afternoon, with midday sunshine lighting the gallery and its work, Satinsky first explained the history behind the exhibition to contextualize its main themes.
In the United States in the 1980s, refugees fled political violence in Central American countries like Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. Additionally, Central Americans participated in revolutions to protest brutal government policies. However, Ronald Reagan’s presidency and fear of communism prompted the U.S. to support oppressive right-wing governments, meaning the U.S. was responsible for these governments’ violent suppression of Central Americans.
“Artists wanted to talk about it, share information about it and raise awareness,” Satinsky said.
Therefore, in 1982, “Luchar! An Exhibition for the People of Central America” –– an exhibition showcasing political strife in Central America –– took place. Artist Daniel Ascencio Flores spoke, advocating for larger resistance. The resulting campaign, “Artists Call Against U.S Intervention in Central America,” was a broader version of “Luchar! An Exhibition for the People of Central America.”
More than 1,100 artists in 27 chapters across the U.S. contributed to the campaign. The widespread political and artistic response of the 1980s is the focus of Tufts’ current exhibition, “Artists Call and Central American Solidarities.”
The gallery presents a range of artwork. For instance, two photos taken by Susan Meiselas hang at the entrance. The first, taken in Nicaragua in 1979, depicts a “street fighter,” a desolate environment in his background. The second, from El Salvador in 1980, shows two white hands on a red door –– the death squad’s sign for murdered civilians.
Much of Meiselas’ work promotes awareness around human rights issues in Latin America. Specifically, some of her photos featured in The New York Times Magazine in 1978 helped educate readers on the insurrection against the Somoza regime in Nicaragua. Many of her photos from the 1981 El Salvador Mozote Massacre have also been used to commemorate the victims and draw attention to the event.
Satinsky turned to three glass tables in the center of the gallery. Colorful documents, flyers and schedules decorated their tops. According to Satinsky, these archives, which are from the Museum of Modern Art, form the backbone of the exhibition.
Satinsky described how Duganne, her co-curator, discovered these archives at MoMA in 2015.
“They were uncataloged, they were sitting in boxes, … and this sort of starts her on the research of seeing how large ‘Artists Call’ was and how many people were involved.”
Satinsky continued, discussing a critical, shared intention of the curators.
“Erina and I don’t have the lived experience of … being from Central America,” she said. “So, we invited a range of artists, who have a range of experiences, to think about what the archives are telling them.”
Satinsky and Duganne commissioned five artists to respond to the archives. A catalog that accompanies the exhibit showcases the artists’ insights.
Artist Josh McPhee’s billboard is a part of the Boston SMFA “Artists Call” exhibit. Satinsky said that his catalog piece centers on making the MoMA archives more accessible.
Salvadoran artist Beatrice Cortez questioned the original representation of Central American artists in “Artists Call.” Her piece in the catalog inserts critical art from Central American history into the original “Artists Call” exhibitions.
Shifting from the thoughts in the catalog back to the art in the space, Satinsky gestured to a raw canvas covering almost all of the gallery’s right wall.
“This is a pretty important work that we’re able to have here,” she said, explaining that it was Leon Golub’s artwork “Napalm 1,” a reference to the Vietnam War.
“It is a work explicitly speaking to political violence and masculinity,” she said. “He makes it by mixing his pigments and … [using] a butcher knife to push the pigments around. So even in the act of making, it’s speaking to this kind of political violence.”
Satinsky moved on, introducing Muriel Hasbun’s collection of art and noting that the section “goes into this idea of making and community.” In the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, Hasbun’s mother ran the avant-garde gallery El Laberinto in El Salvador. From it, Hasbun organized a small collection of work from her mother’s archives for Tufts.
“I think when we’re talking about communities, they’re often contentious,” Satinsky said. “They’re not homogenous, and they have their own relationships.”
Hasbun’s mother’s gallery and the selected work currently on display express these more nuanced intentions of “Artists Call.”
In addition to a piece in the catalog, artist Beatrice Cortez was commissioned to create a separate work of art for the exhibition. Cortez made a “geodesic dome” that viewers can climb inside of. Hanging from the sculpture are “Artists Call” archives. There are family photographs, political clippings and other pieces of history.
Satinsky then elaborated on this assortment, explaining Cortez as “creating this confluence.”
“She’s thinking about herself as a young person, as a young artist living in El Salvador when ‘Artists Call’ was happening,” Satinsky said. “But there was this gesture across time, so this structure is meant to cross time as well.”
The final section, called “Self-Determination and Sovereignty,” is downstairs.
“One of the core tenets of ‘Artists Call’ was about self-determination for Central American peoples and very much that is tied up with indigenous self-determination,” Satinsky said.
To end the exhibition, Satinsky mentioned an artwork that comments on the pervasive nature of historical trauma. It is a 2003 film by Daniel Flores that presents interviews of “La Mantanza” descendants, survivors of the January 1932 massacre that killed between 10,000 and 40,000 Salvadorans who were protesting the oppressive government.
“We end with that piece because it speaks to the cyclical nature of things,” Satinsky said. “It speaks to the kind of complexity of experiences and how we tell stories.”
The exhibit certainly speaks to the complexity of history and the importance of the stories woven through it. “Art For the Future: Artists Call and Central American Solidarities” is an impressive display of this complexity of experience. Open until April 24, it is sure to spark important dialogue and memorialize the victims of atrocity.