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Los Desaparecidos: rescuing real lives

About the author
Rob Cawston is openDemocracy's production manager. He has written on film, literature, issues of transitional justice and Bob Dylan.

As democracy was returning to Argentina in 1983, Siluetazos ('Silhouettes') appeared across the open spaces of Buenos Aires. On walls, blinds, signposts and countless other surfaces, black lines traced the shape and space of a body. Text inscribed a name, a date and the label of desaparecido (disappeared). Silhouettes of the missing, outlines of an absence, these images operated as public question marks tattooed on the city streets. Where is my son? Where is my daughter? Where is my grandchild stolen from her mothers womb? An initiative of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, these body tracings extended their shout of ¿donde están? (where are they?) into the new democratic era.

The questions still reverberate across the Latin American continent. The act of "disappearance" or "to be disappeared" is the toxic legacy of the dirty-wars waged by right-wing authoritarian governments that took hold of the continent from the mid-1960s. Those people considered a threat to the state were removed from society without warning, in most cases never to be seen or spoken of again. Many were held in clandestine torture centres or simply taken away and killed. Pregnant mothers were arrested and later disappeared, their children given to families who supported the government.

The space between

The list continues to shock: 30,000 people were disappeared in Argentina between 1976-82; under the rule of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile (1973-1990) 2,603 people were tortured, executed or disappeared; in Uruguay under a civil-military dictatorship (1972-1985) the number of disappeared was a comparatively minimal 300, but around 5% of the population were imprisoned.

During the authoritarian period in Brazil (1964-1985) state security forces routinely tortured, killed and disappeared alleged government opponents. In Guatemala an estimated 200,000 people died or disappeared during 35 years of civil war (1960 - 1996). According to the country's truth commission 93% of these abuses had been carried out by the army. Forced disappearances have been endemic in Colombia for the past fifty years of civil war. The true number remains uncounted.

The "disappeared" have always hovered between boundaries (legal, physical, temporal). Neither living nor dead, neither here nor there, they occupy a 'position' both vague and resoundingly final - they are gone and yet remain. In Latin America the word "disappear" evolved into a transitive verb, a verb requiring both a subject and an object - someone, Y, disappears person X.

Enquiries from relatives would receive an official shrug of shoulders, a wall of silence. In one of the cruel ironies of the authoritarian bureaucratic state, detailed records of clandestine action were made but for the state's eyes only. This sense of withheld knowledge haunts the relatives of the missing, adding a psychological violence to the physical torture of their loved ones. A suspended and continual state of numbness replaces the process of mourning; without confirmation of their fate, victims remain simply "disappeared".

Los Desaparecidos: representing the missing

How can the disappeared be approached artistically? How can you take as your subject that which once was known but is no longer?

In the exhibition Los Desaparecidos (curated by Laurel Reuter at the North Dakota Museum of Art and showing at El Museo del Barrio, New York, until 17 June 2007) twenty-seven Latin American artists approach these questions through photography, installation art, portraiture, illustration and sculpture. These artists have each experienced the horrors of military dictatorship: as friends and relatives of the disappeared, as members of the resistance, as citizens in exile, or as residents of countries wounded by endless civil war.

The artists of the exhibition - the largest collection of its kind - have sought to produce works that challenge the viewer out of a mute role of passivity and acceptance of the past. In approaching Los Desaparecidos there is the danger of enacting a symbolic second disappearance by emptying their subject of any connection to real lives once lived, remembering them merely as victims or objects of violence.

Instead they have constructed non-didactic representations that point beyond themselves, both back towards the materiality and humanness of real lives, and out towards the present to involve an audience in a process of active remembrance. As the journalist Lawrence Weschler states in the preface to the exhibition catalogue:

"The challenge in these societies is to find a way of reclaiming the dead and honouring their presence in a manner that nonetheless still allows room for, indeed, creates room for the living."

Seeing and remembering

Los Desaparecidos is a powerful exhibition. It is also an important one for audiences in the United States. There is growing recognition of the role the US government took in funding and training many of the military governments in the "backyard" of Latin America. Many of the collected works prompt audiences to look at their own culpability and relationship to events (and people) once ignored, forgotten or thought of as merely "far away". As Luis Camnitzer, one of the participating artists, states in the exhibition notes: "When I made the series it was for US audiences ... to open their eyes".

We are reminded of the importance of seeing and remembering. In the last decade Latin America has experienced openings of both truth and justice in relation to the past. Courts across the Southern Cone have judged the act of disappearance a "forced kidnapping" and therefore an "ongoing crime" not covered by the amnesties established in the fragile dawns of democratic transition. Men once secure in the cloak of impunity are increasingly facing trial. Questions are being answered but they must keep being asked, and asked in the right way.

Click on the image below to launch the slideshow of images from the Los Desaparecidos exhibition


Los Desaparecidos

Some highlights from the exhibition:

Nicholas Guagnini's sculpture 30,000 literally repositions its audience. We have to situate ourselves in relation to the disappeared: it is our gaze that makes the image of Guagnini's father – symbolising the 30,000 disappeared in Argentina – reappear. We are seized by both the revelation of appearance and a sense of its immediate loss as we move and the image shifts.

Luis Gonźales Palma's portraits force recognition of the distance dividing viewer and victim. By placing a wire mesh over the surface of the portrait we become aware of the act of looking, the space between ourselves and what we see, and thus our relationship to it.

Ana Tiscorna's photographs of portraits go one step further by turning the frames inward to face the wall. Nothing can now be known of the subjects and we must imagine the face of the disappeared.

This act of reconstruction lies at the heart of the photographic works of Luis Camnitzer and Marcelo Brodsky. In Camnitzer's picture poetry we conjoin text and image to project scenes of torture, thus becoming an unwilling or clandestine accomplice to the violence act. Looking at Brodsky's old photographs, we bridge the space between the present and the past. Projecting the lost futures of lives interrupted by violence we redeem the memory of real living people and become part of a transmission of one generation's experience to the next.

With thanks to the North Dakota Museum of Art.

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