Arts & Culture

Art for the Future Links the Past to the Present

“If we can simply witness the destruction of another culture, we are sacrificing our own right to make culture. Anyone who has ever protested repression anywhere should consider the responsibility to defend the culture and rights of the Central American people.” This rousing message was written on the original poster created by artists involved in the Artists Call Against US Intervention in Central America, movement which launched in the 1980s. Art pieces created by members of Artists Call are featured in the Tufts University Art Galleries (TUAG) exhibit titled “Art for the Future: Artists Call and Central American Solidarities,” on display at both the Medford and SMFA campus until April 20. The exhibit weaves together the past, present, and the future effects of US Intervention policies in Central America. 

“Artists Call was essentially a group of over 1,100 artists coming together in solidarity and raising money for various causes in solidarity with Central American folks… and to further the self-determination of Central American people,” explained Abigail Satinsky, co-curator of the exhibit. “Those were their goals and [the artists] had all different ways of trying to achieve it. They did protest actions in the street, they had exhibitions in galleries, in museums, and they had poetry readings.” The exhibit provides historical context for the United States in Central America through the lens of artists and activists on the ground, and students are picking up on that. 

 Anneke Chan, a second-year combined degree student who works at the gallery and is a member of TUAG’s Student Programming Committee, reports that she is really impressed with the quality of work Tufts exhibits. “It seems to me like a very historically grounded exhibit,” Chan said. 

Historically, imperialist American policies have defined the United States as a nation that has violently and illegally disrupted countries around the globe. In the 1980s, US intervention in Central American countries like El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala contributed to political strife and bloodshed. For example, in 1981 the U.S aided the Salvadoran Army to carry out El Mozote, a massacre of more than 1,000 indigenous Salvadorans. This genocide is widely understood by historians to have been a violent attempt to suppress leftist politics and take away agency from Central Americans. 

The exhibition has also made audiences aware of the omission of certain histories in high school education. Chan explains that the Artists Call movement and its cause is understudied. “There were a lot of things I didn’t learn in my high school education,” Chan said. “I went to public school for high school, so my experience shows the way the US [education system] neglects US intervention… It’s very eye-opening.” Art for the Future brings attention to the movement’s legacy, while also demanding that this history needs dire attention from people in the US.

Art for the Future came to be when Satinsky approached co-curator Erina Dugan about her work on another exhibit, titled Northern Triangle, which featured the Artists Call poster with its original demands and signatures of the artists that supported it. 

Satinsky reached out to Dugan for more information about Artists Call: “[Dugan] said she found this drove of materials, and [she thought] it’d be great together if we put on a show, and that’s what ended up happening,” Satinsky described. “We asked the artists to look at the archives with us. It wasn’t supposed to be about our perspectives as curators but multiple perspectives on this event, its legacy, what it tells us, and how we can think about solidarity amongst artists.”

Most of the art and archival information displayed in the exhibit were produced during the original Artists Call movement in the 1980s; however, integrating certain pieces produced after the movement reminds us of the ways US intervention is still present in Central America today. When creating the exhibit, Satinsky said, “We asked Central American and Latinx artists to think about the legacy of US intervention in their lives and how we tell stories about the impact of the US in the region and in other means of Central American life.” 

For example, Guatemalan artist Sandra Monterroso’s “Expolaida”, a performance art piece and installation, highlights the continuing of her Mayan Q’eqchi indigenous practices as a method of decolonization. The display of sustained indigenous practices by a Guatemalan artist shows that US intervention was not successful in maintaining cultural hegemony in the region, showcasing that these practices are still alive today. 

Another installment in the exhibit titled Local Solidarities is a series of interviews with organizers and artists in the Greater Boston area whose work and/or own lives center the stories of Central Americans and Latinx folks. Local Solidarities asserts that the work initiated by the artists of the Artists Call movement is in fact not done, as US Intervention in Central America still affects all Central Americans, including members of the Latinx diaspora. In an interview included in Local Solidarities, Gabriela Cartagena, an artist and organizer at City Life/Vida Urbana, a nonprofit in Boston, describes how her encounter with Movimiento Cosecha, an undocumented immigrant advocacy campaign, exposed her to art that “embraced her [indigenous] identity,” despite how “El Salvador and Honduras, have been mestijazed [subject to racial mixing] because of centuries of colonial conquest.” 

Geovani Cruz, a third-year SMFA student and Curator Fellow at TUAG, conducted the interviews and organized the series. He described his experience connecting with organizations featured in Local Solidarities: “At Tufts, you don’t have a lot of Latinx representation, specifically in my area at the SMFA. I can’t go up to a lot of professors and say ‘this is my work that reflects my identity.’ But these organizers who are building the future of the Latinx community inspired me,” Cruz said. As people living in the United States with Central American heritage, the legacy of Latinx students at Tufts is interwoven with US Intervention. SMFA students like Cruz honor the activism practiced by Artists Call by continuing the legacy of creating political art. 

In Art for the Future, art not only transcends time but also transcends borders and engages audience members. Salvadoran artist Muriel Hasbun’s installation, “Arte Voz,” is an interactive installation that allows folks to record their reactions, stories, and heartbeats to the work of her art and other artists that were a part of Galería El Laberinto, a gallery of artists-activists in El Salvador in the 1980s. The audio recording feature, which is located in the exhibit, is also located in a community center in El Salvador and allows folks to feel and hear each other’s heartbeats across borders.  

In regards to building a more progressive future for the Latinx art community, one of the main critiques of the show is the role that white artists had in the original Artists Call movement and how Art for the Future reckons with it. As with any social movement, white voices and allies are easily validated by audiences and are able to take the lead. A clip from an interview conducted by SoHo Television in 1984 is included in the gallery and features three white artists— Leon Golub, Doug Ashford, and Lucy R. Lippard—describing and raising awareness for Artists Call. In the clip, one of the artists, Peter Golub mentions, “The art doesn’t have to be political, but the artist does.” Though white voices and artists are upheld in the mainstream and in the show, the work of artists like Indian-American Zarina, featured in the gallery, highlights the relationship between colonialism and US intervention and its effects on people of color around the globe. 

Though the allyship of white artists was important, it is the Central American voices and art that give Artists Call, the campaign, and Art for the Future its power. At the SMFA campus, ​​Solidarity Art by Mail, a collection of Latin American mail art, curated by Fatima Brecht and Josely Carvalho, shows how everyday people engage in political art making. Chan spoke to the value of the Solidarity Art by Mail display. “There is a lot of elitism in white cubed-gallery spaces, and when you are addressing something that is affecting everyday people, they should have a say in the work being created. Their work is much more valuable than any historian that is far more removed.”

Geovani Cruz’s activism outside of the exhibit also highlights the power of Central American and Latinx voices. Cruz coordinated Temporarily Living: Creating While Questioning, a student exhibition which centers the lives and stories of Central American artists at Tufts. “I wanted to portray those histories that we have and portray that in art, because a lot of underground artists aren’t seen, especially first-generation low income artists,” Cruz said. “How do we build a career off of our work, when our work is very personal and dear to us?” 
TUAG’s spotlight on art inspired by US interventionism in Central America is, as Cruz puts it, the first initial conversation, and it can’t end right now.” Cruz poses the question, “How can the gallery itself continue to help Central Americans right now?”