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Third Text

ISSN: 0952-8822 (Print) 1475-5297 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ctte20

Tierra de Tempestades: Land of tempests: New art


from Guatemala, el Salvador and Nicaragua
Jennifer Greitschus
To cite this article: Jennifer Greitschus (1995) Tierra de Tempestades: Land of tempests:
New art from Guatemala, el Salvador and Nicaragua, Third Text, 9:30, 79-84, DOI:
10.1080/09528829508576531
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09528829508576531

Published online: 19 Jun 2008.

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Date: 14 July 2016, At: 09:56

79

Tierra de Tempestades:
Land of Tempests
New Art from Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua

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Jennifer Greitschus

The media seem to have lost interest in Central


America. Thus it would be all too easy to be lulled
into thinking that reduced US military involvement
in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua has
resulted in a new found stability and an end to
their troubles. The art displayed in the exhibition
'Tierra de Tempestades/Land of Tempests', tells
a very different story. Recent history haunts the
viewer throughout the show, which is entirely
made up of works created between 1990 and 1994.
It brings together nine artists from the three
countries who share political commitment and
first-hand experience of civil war and social
repression.
Precious little is known in Britain about Central
American art. The largely historical exhibition 'Art
in Latin America', held at the South Bank Centre
in 1989, was in itself groundbreaking, but it failed
to include works from Nicaragua, El Salvador or
Guatemala. As the first exhibition of Central
American art in Britain, this show is therefore an
important milestone which the curator, Joanne
Bernstein, hopes will "reduce the isolation that the
artists have felt for so long" and lead to further
interest in the region.
In the extremely informative and well designed
catalogue, one of the artists, Raul Quintanilla from
Nicaragua, distinguishes between an "official
culture" which is decorative, trivial and mediocre
with no room for the critical or experimental and
"the silent introspection which is the current
reality of Nicaraguan national culture". Elements
of the "popular culture", which flowered under
the rule of the Sandinistas, have been ruthlessly
eradicated since the election of the new US
approved government. One example in 1991 was
when the mayor of Managua ordered every one

of the famous murals in the city to be covered with


grey paint. This and other comparable actions have
effectively repressed the distinct, but also in many
ways related histories of the three nations. The
viewer has the feeling that it has been left to the
artist to pick up the pieces of cultural identity and
question the hierarchies of the prevailing status
quo.
An underlying theme in the work of the
Guatemalan artists is the history of the indigenous
population. The viewer is given the rare
opportunity to turn the pages of four handmade
books of collaged wood engravings by Moiss
Barrios. One of them, dating from 1992 (the year
the world heard about Rigoberta Menchu through
her winning the Nobel Peace Prize), is the series
of portrait prints entitled Vf omen. It acts as a tribute
to the many nameless Indian women of Guatemala
who have fought to obtain justice for themselves
and their families. These are the faces of women
who work the earth: their strong and dignified
presence has been captured on old legal
documents usually land titles, as a way of
symbolising their struggle over land rights, but
also confirming their resilience against a
background of repressive state bureaucracy. In
Erwin Guillermo's altar-like installation Total: no
posa nada (In short: nothing happens), the simple
tools and furniture of the Guatemalan farmer
become the powerful relics of a suffering people.
The rusting machetes embedded in the table
suggest sacrifice. This is reiterated by the smudged
words of Manuel Jos Arce's poem Sangre en el
Paraiso (Blood in Paradise), concerned with the
victims of war, which acts as a backdrop to the
installation. Questions of hierarchy and identity,
both historical and present-day, are made evident

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80

Moiss Barrios, page from MM;CTES (Women), 1992, artist's book of 11 wood engravings and mixed media,
62 x 45 cm.

in the beautiful silver print portraits of three


indigenous people by Luis Gonzalez Palma. Like
Barrios's Women, there is a startlingly self-assured
quality to the faces. The titles The Breastplate, The
Helmet and The Lion refer to the colonial symbols
of courage which clothe them. But the emphasis
on attribute rather than sitter in the titles only
serves to reiterate their triviality in the portraits.
The title of Isabel Ruiz's series of large water

colours, Historia sitada (Beseiged History),


1991-1992, indicates the stranglehold which hostile
powers have on Guatemala's past in not allowing
its story to be told. In view of such oppression,
Ruiz expresses herself through a surreal world of
amorphic forms, demonic and nightmarish. One
picture from 1992 shows a giant hornet-like
creature. Fragmented photographs of the artist's
eye and face are stuck between the creature's

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81

Erwin Guillermo, Total: no posa nada, 1994 (In short: nothing happens), mixed media, 125 x 90 x 48cm.

82

Raul Quintanilla, Letum non omnia finite (Encuentro entre dos mu(n)dos) (Bloody Encounter between Two
Mutes/Worlds), 1993-4, mixed media, 177 x 97 x 375 cm.

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Antonio Bonilla, Las candidates para las fiestas patronales de Ayutuxtepeque en honor a San Sebastian Martir

(The Candidates for the Patron Saint's Day Celebrations of Ayutuxtepeque in Honour of the Martyr
Saint Sebastian), acrylic on canvas, 130 x 200 cm.

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83

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84
tentacles providing a link between the world of the
subconscious and the reality which she
experiences. In the catalogue, Ruiz explains: "In
Guatemala there is an official apparatus to say that
things are going wonderfully, and who if not the
artist is going to say otherwise." Equally dark and
disturbing are the paintings of the Cuban-born
artist Alfredo Cabaero, who lives and works in
Nicaragua. His imagery is imbued with the
heaviness of Catholicism. Caballero greatly
admires the Spanish painters Goya and Velisquez.
Yet in The Plague and Spirit the mouths of the
figures are gaping black cavities emitting silent
cries of agony, and it is the dfiler of Velasquez,
Francis Bacon's 'screaming Popes' which come to
mind.
The works of the Nicaraguans are as diverse as
they are visually powerful. The startlingly brutal
sculptures of emaciated figures by Aparicio
Arthola, formed from found objects, carved wood
and moulded plaster, bear witness to human
degradation. These are offset by the sugary popcoloured Catholic martyrs in the paintings of David
Ocn, which are strangely comforting. Ocn has
produced them with a sense of nostalgia for the
kitsch religious imagery sold to the people outside
the churches in Central America and collected in
their homes.
With the work of Raul Quintanilla, the viewer
is moved into the realm of irony and cryptic
commentary. His assemblages of objects from
native and colonial traditions illuminate a conflict
of heritage and question the hierarchies and forms
of reverence with which we are familiar.
Fragments of pre-Columbian ceramics take on the
quality of ready-mades. In Letum non omnia finite
(ncuentro entre dos mu(n)dos) (Rest in peace (Bloody

encounter between two mutes/worlds)), they are


reduced to the role of decorative accessory. Here,
too, they are the crushed foundations beneath two
colonial symbols of reverence: the winged
altarpiece and the ethnographer's glass-fronted

cabinet. Both contain the exploited source of


external economic power, the corn cob. Such irony
is markedly defiant in the face of all major forms
of authority: church, state, but not least that of the
industrialised nations. One senses, too, a strong
element of defiance in a painting by the El
Salvadorean artist, Antonio Bonilla, which
presents the incongruous blending of two 'First
World' traditions. The Candidates for the Patron
Saint's Day Celebration ofAyutuxepeque in Honour of
the Martyr Saint Sebastian is based on the artist's
real-life experiences of a beauty contest. It was held
in Ayutuxepeque in honour of its patron saint,
whose statue was paraded through the town
together with the contestants. In the painting, the
girls stare out at the viewer with fixed emotionless
grins and the suffering face of St. Sebastian, to
which we Europeans are accustomed, has been
blackened in shadow. The viewer's initial
amusement about the incongruity begins to turn
to unease and it is our own cultural identity that
we start to question.
This show does not claim to be representative
of a Central American art scene. Rather, it is the
politically controversial content of the chosen
artists' works within their own countries which
links them together. To quote Raul Quintanilla: "It
is up to artists, newly marginalised, to build a new
movement to create the storms that can shatter the
cultural complacency and deadlock. Or at least
disturb them." It would be a sad state of affairs
if such an interesting exhibition did not come to
London.

'Tierra de Tempestades: Land of Tempests, New


Art from Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua',
was at the Harris Museum and Gallery, Preston,
between November 1994 and January 1995, and
continues touring to Leicester, Belfast,
Sunderland, Brighton and Huddersfield.