Forgotten Heroes From Latin America’s 1980s Culture Wars


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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“:

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If you need translating that says:

ass/cock/cunt/balls

neo-colonialism/national socialism/maxi-devaluation

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

How about this one:

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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

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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:

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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.

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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

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