Art and Human Rights in Latin America

On Nov. 11, students interested in the visual arts, sociology, and political science were treated to a lecture by Dr. Andrea Giunta, a Professor of Art History at the University of Texas at Austin. Latin American art is Giunta’s specialty, which is why her presentation was focused on different artists’ representation of such concepts as identity and absence in the aftermath of Argentina’s Dirty War.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Argentina experienced a period of political unrest under a military dictatorship on which up to 30,000 people “disappeared,” a euphemism for being kidnapped and killed by government-hired cronies.

Left-wing activists, revolutionaries, students, and journalists were usually the targets of such violence. In Giunta’s lecture, the emotional scale of these events during the Dirty War was on display.

To open the lecture, Giunta showed the audience a newspaper clipping in Spanish with a picture of a young Argentinean couple on their wedding day. From an American perspective, it looked like a marriage or anniversary announcement commonly seen in large newspapers.

Another newspaper clipping, this one with a picture of a dignified-looking man, was shown to be printed directly next to the picture of the couple. It could have been an obituary or a birthday announcement. In reality, both newspaper ads were memorials for those who had disappeared.

Memorial ads featuring missing persons on the dates of their disappearances are as common in Argentinean newspapers as obituaries or marriage announcements are in American ones. As Giunta explained, these memorials are sentimental in the sense that the family photo album is on display as “a publicity for death.”

Giunta also analyzed an art exhibit entitled “Identity,” in which headshots of several disappeared persons are blown up to life-size and placed at eye-level on the wall in order to increase a sense of realism and create, in Giunta’s words, “an endless intersection of faces and gazes.”

This exhibit featured disappeared couples who were expecting a child at the time of their disappearance, meaning that their child may have been born in captivity. “Identity” was created in the hope that someone with ambiguous parentage would see the exhibit and discover that he or she was really the descendant of a missing person.

Post-dictatorship Latin American art, according to Giunta, places emphasis on the black and white images of missing persons by placing them against a colorful pattern, such as the Wall of Memory, which Giunta displayed next. This particular memorial places photographs of missing persons on ceramic tiles in a public space, alluding to their urban experiences.

Giunta explained a consistent concept of absence in post-Dirty War artwork. First, she displayed a painting of an empty bed with the sheet folded over, symbolizing the void left behind in the lives of those who knew someone who disappeared.

In a photo collection titled “Absencia,” old photos of a missing person with friends or family were recreated with the same people in later years, only this time one person was absent.

One photograph showed four stubborn-looking young boys standing next to each other. Its corresponding photograph contained three men in their early thirties, standing and posing next to each other in the same position they did all those years before, but in this photo there was a gaping space between two of the men where a fourth man, one of the disappeared persons, should have been.

According to Giunta, the process of reliving the memories contained within the photographs was a way of keeping the missing persons alive in spite of their absences.

Other artworks that Giunta displayed included a replica of a phonebook page with the names of missing persons taken out, and the Parque de la Memorial, which is similar to the Vietnam War Memorial because the names of missing persons are etched on a large granite wall.

Giunta concluded her lecture by saying that the purpose of such artworks was to make those who had disappeared “appear alive as trial and punishment for those responsible.”

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