Forgotten Heroes From Latin America’s 1980s Culture Wars


Warning: Contains adult material. Don’t read this if you dislike single-syllable anglo-saxon words, or are too young to guess what these might refer to.

If you want to be a witness to Latin America’s lost and cruel decade of military dictatorship and the artistic counter-culture it spawned, then hurry to Madrid. I did, and the journey whirled me backwards 30 years.

It has taken all that time but now, unjustly-forgotten figures from Latin America’s artistic counter-culture who  in the 1980s championed the popular rebellions that helped restore democracy to the continent,  have finally received the billing they deserve in a stunning exhibition at Madrid’s Reina Sofia art center.

The images they created are brought back to us in a vivid show entitled “Perder la Forma Humana.”  It pays tribute to that brave and inspired generation of creatives who took their art into the streets to protest against the military dictatorships of Argentina, Chile,  Brazil, and neighbouring nations where democracy was virtually extinguished. In that time, art and politics mingled and out came experimental theatre,  poetic action, passive resistance, acts of collective memory to bring back the disappeared. And above all, protest.

This show was organised by an international  group of volunteers including  art critics, historians, curators, marxists  and militants called Red Conceptualismos del Sur. Their work is so complete that if there was a catalogue (there isn’t)  it would be submitted as the definitive cultural studies doctoral thesis on the roots of modern Latin America.

As a primer in explaining how  the 1990s ‘Washington Consensus’ opened the doors for today’s neo-liberal, bourgeois cultural orthodoxy that supplanted a quite different view from the 1980s of how the world might have worked once the dictators were overthrown, this show has no equal.

Running until 11th March 2013, it’s a rare and a raw show, forcing into our consciousness images of bodily mutilation, of enforced oblivion or mass forgetfulness, and above the extraordinary courage of those who made their art under the violent gaze of guards and gunships and tanks. What today’s conceptual artists create self-consciously in the safety of their studios, these people did instinctively in the front line.

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Indeed, this art show speaks to us across a great gulf, recalling a time when art was about engagement, not celebrity, about expressing community needs, hurts and outrage, rather than individual, self-referential vision. When artists were, quite literally, street fighters.

What thrilled me especially is that, printed onto posters and playbills and manifestoes for forgotten art movements,  I come face-to-face with the names of personal friends, acquaintances and counter-culture icons  from all those years ago when I lived in Latin America. Names that brought a sting to my eyes, just as surely as General Pinochet’s tear-gas had done when I found myself joining the crowds fleeing down the streets of Santiago as his gunships hovered above.

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The exhibition reminds us too, how perishable is the art of engagement and street protest. Many still remember iconic groupings from that terrible time as Latin America’s Mothers of the Disappeared. There were Argentina’s “Madres de Plaza de Mayo”; and Chile’s Mujeres por la Vida.”

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But what happened to the art created out of those dark days? Perder la Forma Humana brings together screen prints, playbills, newspaper clippings, videos, posters, photos — the ephemera of an almost-forgotten, broad-based campaign to restore basic dignity. You won’t find much of  this material for sale in New York art galleries.  The art “object”  of those days wasn’t  a self-conscious, self-referential product. It was street action.

Volunteers would lie down to have their silhouettes painted on cards, which then became placards bearing the names of the disappeared, to remind the world of their continued existence — as art, if no longer as living persons.

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There’s humour too, showing how danger helped spawn an orgy of sexual liberation, political pranks  and counter-culture manifestos that breathe excitement as well as danger. Exuberant sex and socialism stand on one side; repression, religion and military power on the other.

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When I arrived to live in Brazil in 1982, it wasn’t then anywhere near the frontline of industrial-scale human rights abuses. Yes, General Galtieri’s officers were still doing horrible things in Argentina, unchecked. Yes, General Pinochet’s officers were still doing horrible things in Chile, unchecked.

I cannot say that then, I stood on the front line alongside these brave artists in Santiago or Buenos Aires to protest those terrible crimes. Later on, as a reporter, I was to travel to Chile and  into the barrios of Santiago to meet with representatives of popular movements,  of the Catholic church, and write about  families of the disappeared and the darkness and loss into which that beautiful country was plunged. I was swept up in the great protests that finally helped nudge Pinochet from power. In Paraguay  I was to meet opponents of General Stroessner, and write about his exit from power. And in Peru I saw signs of the violence wrought by the Sendero Luminoso.

But in 1982 my focus was on Brazil and it was exciting. The counter-culture wars were already raging; with naked happenings on Rio beaches, “art-activist” interventions to wrap up public statuary, and sexual liberation manifestos. Abused women, political prisoners, homosexuals — a whole underground was ready to break out, and let it all hang out.

It would be another three years before the generals handed over the reins of power. Brazil’s mainstream media were too timid to report on all the artistic goings-on and the emergence of a permissive society.

But it was happening, nonetheless, Art movements like “Viajou Sem Passaporte”  (“On a trip with no passport”), AlterArte, Movimento de Arte Pornô and Eduardo Kac’s Pornogram happenings on Rio’s  Ipanema beach, were putting it out there with stencilled or  hand-printed  documents that have been lovingly assembled  in the Reina Sofia show.

In São Paulo the Viajou Sem Passaporte movementwhich included some Argentinians who were afterwards expelled, staged a brilliant  guerrilla art “happening”  in which they travelled around the city wrapping up the heads of  the famous figures portrayed in the city’s pompous public statuary. The media lapped it up.

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I couldn’t resist photographing  some of the  exhibit’s poetry and graphic  design for inclusion, to give you a flavour of the sexual revolutionary spirit that was in the air.  By the standards of today’s “although we can do anything now, actually we choose to censor ourselves” culture, the language is  full-on. As they say on TV, ‘look away now if you don’t want to know the score.’

Try “The Waste Language“:


If you need translating that says:


neo-colonialism/national socialism/maxi-devaluation

What’s the measure/what are the rules/to measure obscenity?

How about this one:


That means:

What I want  is an orgy!

I want lust/indecency!

I  leave repression to the church and to the military!

Here’s a 1980 manifesto from  the Movimento de Arte Pornô


It’s all about “literary orgies,” “opening your legs to new ideas” and “art as penetration and orgasm.” You get it.

Here’s another one from  Olinda in Brazil’s northeast, showing the  consciousness was  not confined to the metropolis:


Number 4 says: “The repression that castrates our poetry is the same as that which censors our bodies”

In São Paulo, AlterArte’s manifesto called for a world in which:

“More men are makers of art, and fewer are artists among mankind.”

And for “A revolutionary, independent movement of Latin American artists.”

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERABut the image I loved best  was a poster for a performance session at SESC Pompeia arts centre in July 1982 — six months after I  reached Brazil.  One of the performers was my dear friend Ana Correa, a gypsy queen polymath of modern witchcraft who’s involved in dance, movement, spiritual awareness, healing, fortune-telling and visionary awareness. When on the eve of the 1985 elections that would restore democracy, Ana forecast in a radio interview that neither of the leading candidates would become president, no one believed her. She was right: the elected candidate died in hospital.


The poetry, the videos, the happenings, all speak of a lost world,  the memory of which has been almost entirely suppressed. A world so different it seems impossible that just 30 years ago people  in Argentina and Chile were — quite literally — dying for the right to make the kinds of aesthetic and cultural choices their children now take for granted.

All this counter-culture might have come at least 10 years after America’s Haight-Ashbury, Woodstock, the Yippees, or Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. But when you consider the starting-place, and the repressive political backdrop, the achievement in changing culture was every bit as significant.

In the end, I’d say the measure of success for artists is that their work is so relevant and so expressive of social needs that it disappears into society and becomes one with the culture. You don’t pay to go to museums to see it. Everyone lives it. So by that yardstick much of the work in Perder la Forma Humana is triumphantly successful, even though it features not a single celebrity and nobody got rich.

If course it’s a shock — and a reminder of mortality — when we reach the age where what are our own memories have become public property, to be shown in museums as contemporary history. But, precisely because I know just a little of what it was like, because I saw some of it first-hand,  I’ll take  every chance I can to salute  the brave memory of  Forgotten Heroes From Latin America’s 1980s Culture Wars.

Richard House


With the Brazilians on the international science circuit

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Over the last few weeks I’ve been spending increasing amounts of time on the science circuit, working alongside Brazilian scientists who are trying to increase the range of cooperation their country has with the rest of the world.

You can find out more  by visiting, or just click the link.

In case you want to find out more before navigating away from this page, you can always check out the infographic below, to find out what you you really know. Maybe it’s worth finding out some more.


Love at first (insect) bite.

older coupleBiting mosquitoes seldom attack alone. No surprise then, that scientists seeking to eradicate malaria, still one of the world’s most significant risks to human health, also hunt in couples. This blog profiles the father of modern malaria vaccines, Victor Nussenzweig, who I recently spoke with. What’s most inspiring is that, at 84 years of age, this scientist just keeps on going. In fact, after successful projects that  would represent the work of at least one richly-packed lifetime, he’s ready to start out all over again.

Victor Nussenzweig and his wife Ruth had phenomenal 50-year careers at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, one of the world’s top medical research institutes.  Professor Ruth Nussenzweig, the C.V. Starr Professor at New York University, has just as illustrious a name in the field of malaria studies as her husband.

Their pioneering work on the biology of the malaria sporozoites paved the way for a vaccine against the deadly Plasmodium falciparum. The vaccine is named RTS,S and has been developed by the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).


The active component of RTS,S is the coat protein of sporozoites and is named circumsporozoite protein. It was discovered and characterized by Drs. Nussenzweig.  RTS,S is now in final trials with thousands of African children.  Up to now its efficacy has been between 35-50%. The final results of RTS,S trials in Africa will be reported in early 2014.

Together with other prophylactic measures the vaccine may improve the lives of hundreds of millions and prevent a large number of infant deaths each year.

malaria in Africa

These breakthroughs have taken a new generation anti-malarials far beyond the still-prevalent prophylactics derived from the original treatment with quinine.

Antibodies to the circumsporozaite protein only inhibit the infectivity sporozoites that are injected by mosquitoes. However, some sporozoites may escape and manage to enter hepatocytes. Prof. Victor and Ruth Nussenzweig’s research showed in addition that the liver stages of the parasite can be destroyed by cell-mediated immunity; they showed that T cells secreting interferon gamma prevent the development of the hepatic stages.

malaria in AFrica 2

But the couple aren’t finished yet. Remarkably, the 84 year-old, husband-wife New York-based scientists are now doing the equivalent of starting over in a new continent, with a fresh immunological challenge on an even greater scale.

Since late 2010, Professors. Victor and Ruth Nussenzweig have been making visits to São Paulo, the undisputed center of Brazil’s growing scientific research establishment. There they are setting up a research laboratory at the Escola Paulista de Medicina (EPM), attached to the UNIFESP, the Federal University of the State of São Paulo.

They have joined the group of Dr. Mauricio Rodrigues at the EPM who is determined to generate a vaccine against the less virulent but still debilitating Plasmodium vivax malaria that’s endemic to the Amazon basin and hotter regions of this continent, as well as parts of Asia, Africa and north America.

range of malaria Brasil

Ending the infectious cycle of P.vivax would benefit the lives of an estimated 2.5 billion people.

In the last couple of years, Prof. Victor Nussenzweig and his co-worker Dr. Min Zhang discovered that during its life cycle the malaria parasite undergoes obligatory latent or rest stages. For example, sporozoites can remain dormant for days in the salivary gland of mosquitoes. Importantly, they found that latency is controlled by an enzyme, a kinase. If they can find drugs that inhibit that specific kinase the parasite will be killed. Nussenzweig could be on the verge of a second “life’s work,” by alleviating long-term human suffering for millions of patients affected with malaria.


So the energetic immunologist plans to keep busy for years to come — yet he’s philosophical too. “I’m still active, yes – but I’m 84 years old and ‘long-term’ has a different meaning for me,” says the scientist. “This work is what I live for, and travelling to and from São Paulo and New York is no hardship.”

Prof. Nussenzweig’s three-year plan for research in Brazil is part of a new program called São Paulo Excellence Chair, funded by the São Paulo Research Institute (FAPESP). This is Brazil’s leading regional R&D finding agency with a budget of some US$500 million.

Prof. Nussenzweig is only the second senior scientist of international reputation to win the award, under which a research leader and team develop their project during regular visits to Brazil, while teaching, training and developing the careers of young Brazilian scientists. Tenured researchers also maintain their own projects ‘back home’ – in the Nussenzweigs’ case at NYU medical Center.

So the award to the malaria expert represents a double bonus for FAPESP and Brazilian science, which is getting two Nussenzweigs, not just one. If one Googles the name, there is almost no reputable scholarly paper on malaria-borne immunology to which Nussenzweig, V. or Nussenzweig, R. have not contributed.

(In fact there is a whole tribe of medical Nussenzweigs, for Ruth and Victor’s three children are all doctors: Michel, MD, PhD, a researcher at the Rockefeller University; Sonia, PhD, an anthropologist working in the School of Preventive Medicine of the University of São Paulo; and Andre, PhD, working at the US National  Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health. And in Rio de Janeiro, Victor’s brother H. Moyses is a renowned theoretical physicist whose children Helena and Paulo are also well known scientists.

Ruth and Victor Nussenzweig have worked closely together and since the late 1950s they have shared the credit both for scientific breakthroughs and for training a generation of immunologists whose work eventually resulted in RTS,S. GSK biologist Dr Joe Cohen invented the vaccine, based on a protein first identified in the laboratory of Ruth and Victor Nussenzweig at New York University, and developed and manufactured it in laboratories in Belgium in the late 1980s.

Both the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Health Organization (WHO) have a stake in the success of RTS,S and its eventual adoption as a definitive anti-malaria vaccine by African nations.

Dig a little deeper into the Nussenzweig couple’s twin biographies, and you’ll find a remarkable story of love and science. In fact, Victor and Ruth ’s planned visits to São Paulo aren’t a new start, but a long-delayed homecoming. He’s actually Brazilian born and raised, and received his training at the University of São Paulo School of Medicine.

It was there in the late 1940s that the young Victor Nussenzweig met Ruth, another medical student from a family of Austrian doctors whose Viennese family had escaped the Nazi terror in 1939.  Ruth persuaded Victor to join her in a research post under Prof. Samuel B. Pessoa the head of the Parasitology research group at the Medical School of the University of São Paulo.

young couple

Their first research work was with Trypanosoma cruzi, the agent of American trypanosomiasis, also known as Chagas disease. Eventually this led to the use of gentian violet in preventing the transmission of Chagas disease by blood transfusion.

But two events changed their lives. The first was Brazil’s 1964 military coup d’etat that led to an exodus of intellectuals and research talent that Brazil is only now recovering from half a century later. This prompted their move to NYU and Brazil’s loss became the world’s gain.

The second was the couple’s decision at NYU to start working with malaria, using two rodent parasites,  Plasmodium berghei and P.  yoelii that naturally infected a rodent found in a forest in Africa, found by Dr. Meyer Yoeli. A central discovery by Ruth was that gamma irradiated and attenuated sporozoites induced full protection against malaria in mice. This discovery shattered the prevailing dogma that a malaria vaccine was impossible to develop.

Research using sporozoites attenuated by irradiation, influenced many people worldwide and continues to do so. RTS,S is but one of many different vaccines being tested for malaria in humans, most based the circumsporozoite surface protein inspired by the work developed at NYU. The series of breakthroughs that he and his wife achieved during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, in understanding the biology of Plasmodium have now been taken forward by others to develop generations of commercial vaccines.

“I have now finished that research,” he says. “Now, I’m trying to develop drugs that will inhibit the kinases controlling the latent stage of the parasite.”

For two Brazilians who left their home country in the 1960s and went on to forge stellar careers in the United States, the most important objective is help the international efforts to rid humanity of the global scourge of malaria.

The Nussenzweig’s optimism about Brazil’s new research prowess is tempered with realism. They are well aware that Brazil needs to make up for the decades when native scientific research lost out because of the political uncertainty that followed their departure for New York in the 1960s.

mugshot“A research culture is difficult to grow,” concedes Victor Nussenzweig. “It takes time and it’s about more than just money. You need collaboration between competent, creative people. There are a lot of them in Brazil – nevertheless there’s not a lot of research conducted exclusively in Brazil that is published in leading-edge journals”.

It’s no coincidence, perhaps, that both early recipients of São Paulo Excellence Chairs awarded by FAPESP are for returning senior Brazilian scientists.  While the country is using its new economic prowess to attract international scientists to its shores, there is still a distinguished diaspora of Brazilian academics scattered across the upper echelons of European and US universities who need to come home first.

Richard House