The Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change Corner
The Chilean Muralist Brigade and Beyond: Cultural Activists Overflowing Boundaries Through Visual Art
By Susan J. Erenrich and Francisco Letelier
Susan (Susie) J. Erenrich is a social movement history documentarian. She uses the arts for social change to tell stories about transformational leadership, resilience, and societal shifts as a result of mobilization efforts by ordinary citizens. Susie holds a Ph.D. in Leadership and Change from Antioch University and is the founder/executive director of the Cultural Center for Social Change. She has more than four decades of experience in nonprofit/arts administration, civic engagement, community service, and community organizing and has taught at universities, public schools, and community-based programs for at-risk, low-income populations. Currently a professor at American University, she is the editor of Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: An Anthology of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change (a volume in ILA's BLB series). She is the producer/host of Wasn't That A Time: Stories & Songs That Moved The Nation, a live community radio broadcast on WERA.FM. Listen on-demand or live every Friday from 1:00 - 2:00 PM Eastern time.
Chilean artist Francisco Letelier creates art that crosses disciplines and cultures. His work blends history with contemporary experiences with an emphasis on the social circumstances that affect individuals and communities. Integrating narratives that explore cultural memory and identity, his projects offer opportunities for cultural exchange and education. Known for both his words and images, Letelier's perceptive writing and spoken word unite with his legacy of creating powerful experiences in the visual arts. Involved in projects throughout the Americas, Europe, India, and the West Bank of Palestine, his interdisciplinary collaborations integrate a variety of media and facilitate collective and participatory activities. Letelier received a Grammy nomination for his work on musician Jackson Browne’s World in Motion release. In 2009 Letelier received the LA Artcore award for contributions to Southern California culture. SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center) awarded him the Siquieros Muralist Award in 2012. Letelier’s mural installation, "Todas Las Manos," created at American University in Washington D.C. in 2016 was dedicated by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. Based in Venice, California, the artist’s Los Angeles murals include the soaring monumental ceramic tile murals, El Sol and La Luna (The Sun and The Moon) that adorn the Westlake/Macarthur Park Metro Station in Los Angeles. The works carry on the legacy of the Chilean mural tradition and serve as a symbol for the diversity of Los Angeles. Learn more at: www.Letelierart.blogspot.com.
Welcome! This issue of the Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change Corner features my dear friend and BLB author, Francisco Letelier. I first met Francisco during the Fall of 2016. He was painting a mural in the Katzen Arts Center at American University to mark the 40th anniversary of the assassination of his father, Orlando Letelier, and his father’s colleague, Ronni Karpen Moffett.
For readers not familiar with Orlando’s story, he was a Chilean economist who served as an ambassador to the United States during Salvador Allende’s presidency. Orlando and his family went into exile after the September 11,1973 coup. They came to Washington, D.C., where Orlando was a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.
On September 21, 1976, a bomb was planted in Orlando’s automobile while he slept. It exploded on Embassy Row near Sheridan Circle in Washington, D.C. Orlando’s legs were severed, killing him instantly (Freed, 1980). At the time of the blast. Ronni Karpen Moffitt, a junior staffer at the Institute, died along with Orlando. Her husband Michael was injured but survived. Francisco, who was seventeen at the time of his father’s murder, continued in the spirit of his father, pouring his energy into art and activism.
Francisco’s column is accompanied by an episode of Wasn’t That A Time that originally aired on September 28, 2018. The broadcast marked the 45th anniversary of Victor Jara’s death. Victor was a Chilean singer-songwriter, poet, theater director, and political activist. He was tortured and killed during the coup that brought dictator Augusto Pinochet to power on September 11, 1973. Nine former Chilean soldiers were finally convicted in July of 2018 for Victor’s murder. Francisco wrote a tribute, that was incorporated into the program.
I hope readers and listeners are inspired by Francisco’s piece and the companion Victor Jara Tribute. They illustrate how impactful and powerful grassroots leadership and the arts for social change can be to make this world a better place to live.
Freed, D. (with Landis, F.). (1980). Death in Washington: The Murder of Orlando Letelier. Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill.
By Francisco Letelier
In June of 2018 I was invited to lecture at the MSSA, Museo de Solidaridad Salvador Allende (Salvador Allende Solidarity Museum), in Santiago Chile concerning the murals and other cultural actions by the Brigada Orlando Letelier 1977-1987, a Chilean muralist brigade created in exile in the United States.
The Museum was first created in 1971 when Salvador Allende and his Popular Unity government promoted the idea of creating the “Solidarity Museum,” an art museum for the people of Chile through donations by prominent artists and institutions throughout the Americas and Europe. After the coup of 1973 the project became known as The Salvador Allende International Resistance Museum as many more international and Chilean artists added works to museum holdings in response to the brutal actions of the Pinochet dictatorship.
In the United States, as Chilean exiles, the Brigada Orlando Letelier (BOL) created solidarity murals that incorporated marginalized voices and ignored U.S. histories as we engaged in solidarity work. Increasingly we identified with larger struggles for social justice within the United States. Our work and that of the large international networks of artists that were formed in exile worked within a context that no longer emphasized artists that had commercial success or were represented in mainstream institutions and galleries. Instead we imagined new institutions, work methods, and patronage relationships as we focused on work made by artists that resisted the economic relationships that had led to the loss of democracy and the rise of the military dictatorship in Chile.
Characterized as a muralist brigade, the brigade did not, in actuality, limit its work to murals. Our work crossed boundaries of media and discipline, audience, and venue. Our intention was to insert cultural ideas into larger conversations as we disseminated information about ongoing events in Chile. Our work emphasized human rights and social justice even as it responded to other events and initiatives. The Brigade stopped functioning as a collective in 1987, but these experiences and ideas have continued to inform my ongoing work as a muralist, artist, and cultural activist in the United States and elsewhere.
My practice reflects an immersion in the cultural exchange and solidarity that I view as essential components of resistance and exile. One result is that my “nation” and identity have ever widening borders that continue to reformulate concepts of identity and belonging.
One of the effects of exile is that it postpones institutional evolution and processes. In 1971 donations from a more narrowly defined art world were considered a primary way of creating a “peoples” art museum. The inherent contradiction between academic and 'popular' art was never fully addressed in the short-lived Allende government and our ability to do so was further truncated by the psychological and cultural weight of exile. Although Chile returned to an imperfect democracy in 2000, our re-creation of cultural and social institutions has often re-created the nepotism, elitism, and, at times, shortsighted vision of the arts that was more prevalent in the early 1970's.
After almost 20 years, post-dictatorship Chile, along with the rest of the world, has changed enormously. Mural art has also changed; on streets crowded by murals, graffiti, and street art it is hard for many to distinguish between them. On any street you may find art that aims for participatory and collective expression and other work that is more individual or created primarily for financial gain. Despite what may seem a new day for public expression, there are few places that so unerringly return to “business as usual” as the art world. The phenomena of global art stars such as Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and Chilean muralist INTI further complicate matters with strident social messaging that nevertheless creates new elites and often continues to leave the public in the role of passive observer and consumer. A great illustration of this business as usual dynamic was the recent shredding of Banksy’s Girl With Balloon painting at auction — an act that may have been trying to make an anti-capitalist statement with regards to the sale of the piece, but which simultaneously, ultimately, increased the value of the art for the buyer.
My invitation to the MSSA came as part of the ambitious exhibit Past Disquiet curated by Kristine Khouri and Rasha Salti. The exhibit examined the international networks of artists created in the 70s and 80s during a time when many were in exile and preparing for a new 'art order' that would reflect our lives and political struggles. Citizens and exiles of places such as Nicaragua, Palestine, and Chile imagined institutions that would be able to contend with our contemporary histories and our changing concepts concerning cultural expression and the arts.
As I planned to talk about experiences in the United States, Palestine, and elsewhere, I invited the participation of artist colleague Carlos Lizama in order for the talk to be contextualized within Chile as well. Lizama and I worked together on the mural Mujer del Bosque in the working class El Bosque district of Santiago in 2007. Our lecture at the museum was unusual, as Carlos is precisely the kind of artist that has been under-represented at the MSSA. His work in Santiago deals with cultural memory and pays tribute to individuals who lost their lives during the dictatorship. In his introductory statement, Lizama said, "I am above and before all else a poblador." Poblador is the term for a person who lives in a shanty town or working-class settlement.
It may seem strange to imagine that after 20 years the MSSA does not regularly feature artists from the social fabric that Salvador Allende and his supporters so firmly believed in and from whom they hoped to harvest talent and vision. Our popular songs, poetry, and literature have long reflected aspirations for a more equal society, and these convictions were further galvanized during the years of military dictatorship. Yet Chilean institutions exist in an international space ruled by market economies led by neoliberal policies. It is a challenge of a high order to manage a collection of fine art considered valuable and important by scholars and institutions, who themselves may participate in mechanisms that perpetuate a world economic order that habitually silences alternative cultures and modes of expression. It is a tricky task for the new generation of critics and writers on art to work within institutions and the media in a coherent manner.
Sociologist and arts writer Javiera Manzi moderated our talk at the museum and proved adept at navigating the contexts and conditions confronting artists in Chile as well as throughout the world. Manzi is co-author with Nicole Cristi of Manzi of Resistencia Gráfica. Dictadura en Chile: APJ – Tallersol. The book examines the political posters created during the dictatorship with a special eye on the collectives that created graphic images in universities, labor syndicates, cultural centers political organizations and the barricades, but have now largely disappeared. Manzi represents a new generation of curatorial and critical activity in Chile. In the days after our talk at the Museum, Manzi and her colleagues invited me to visit the Proyección collective in Santiago. Created by young students in 2010 in response to the lack of cultural spaces that could readily respond to social realities, Manzi is a founding member.
Online, Proyección is called a bookstore and it certainly is that. After making your way up the winding steps of a downtown brownstone in the University district you find yourself in a well lit and astonishingly eclectic bookstore where visitors are welcome to pull up a chair or use a study area or conference room. Upstairs a few members of the collective share a living space. What became clear during my visit is that just as murals became a calling card for the Brigada Orlando Letelier as we also engaged in the creation of events, exhibits exchange, posters, and publications, Proyección and its members and community are involved in an overlapping array of social justice, academic, and political activities. The place is a cultural center and meeting place that flows through the well-stocked bookstore. Proyección is an excellent model for cultural work based on collective models of participation, and like the Brigada once did in exile, it aims to reach many through a wide array of activities.
This kind of work is vital at a time when information sources are suspect and news is fabricated. It is crucial to discern difference in modes of creation and intention. The difference between a place that sells books for profit and a place that has books on shelves so that we may be radically informed is an important one. When we see a new work of art in a public space, it can help to ask: Who did this? Why did it get made? Where is the patronage? Where is the livelihood? Where is the sustainability?
In answer to those who feel limited by these guidelines, I must agree that art must overflow boundaries and permit unbridled and abstract expressions. Art must certainly avoid orthodoxy and allow for the unlimited output of human imagination. Perhaps difficult conversations that engage the public and encourage participation should remain few and far between, but to be curious is always valid, whether the work is playful, frivolous, serious, Artx, or #metoo.
Our future as artists depends on the themes and ideas the art world and its institutions are willing to take on. When moral and ethical attitudes and issues of race, colonialism, and gender are bypassed, trivialized, or mocked, you can be sure that the public is being asked to shut-up, listen, and buy. The potential and possibility of creative expression is of course much larger than a monetary transaction. When artists, art, and the public act as social agents, we have the ability to influence and promote change. Sometimes we advance, but today we are living historic moments where our already challenged spaces of freedom, culture, and communication are threatened.
In both the United States and Chile, we have recently confronted huge threats to institutions, laws, democratic principles, and freedoms many have taken for granted. In 2017 a Charlottesville, VA, gathering of white nationalists and supremacists turned into a tragic weekend when a rally-goer roared his car into a crowd of counter demonstrators and others. According to witnesses, 19 were injured when James Alex Fields, Jr. drove into one crowd and reversed into another. Heather Heyer, 32, was killed. When commenting on events, President Donald Trump claimed both sides were to blame, failing to denounce the Virginia white supremacists and their Nazi allies.
In Chile, during a massive July 2018 march for women's reproductive rights and the right for free and safe abortions on the streets of Santiago, three marchers were stabbed with knives by opponents. In carefully orchestrated statements the anti-abortionist president and government spokespersons have called for tolerance, even when people think differently, casting those who march for women's rights as an aberrant but constitutionally protected minority.
Francisco Estévez, director of Chile's Museo de la Memoria, (Memory Museum) understands the institution’s role in fulfilling a public responsibility (as mandated by the Truth Commissions) to guarantee “Never Again.” The renowned institution fulfills a vital need and moral imperative for the nation and its citizens scarred by Augusto Pinochet's violent regime, where concentration camps, mass killings and torture of the civilian population became ubiquitous.
Yet earlier in 2018 Chilean President, conservative Sebastian Piñera, appointed a Minister of Culture, Mauricio Rojas, who, in 2015, had stated that the museum was, “a montage which purpose, undoubtedly achieved, is to shock the spectator, leave him astonished, to prevent him from reasoning,” and that the museum represents a, “shameless and liar use of a national tragedy that touched so many of us so hard and directly” (teleSUR, 2018). In a 2016 interview he reiterated his belief that the Museo de la Memoria was a "museum on the left-wing, to tell a false version of the history of Chile” (teleSUR, 2018).
Massive public outcry, protests, and a demonstration by the country's artists led to the resignation of Rojas less than a week after his appointment. President Piñera had the acuity to distance himself from his failed appointee, however he’s currently pursuing a project to create a Museum of Democracy that, in many ways, seems to underscore efforts to create a new equivalency where respect for human rights and the application of law to criminal acts committed during the dictatorship are optional. As in Charlottesville and elsewhere in the U.S., the ideological frameworks of a resurgent right in Chile carry the possibility of a return to social conflicts and challenges many felt had been left behind.
It's at these pivotal moments when independent organizations and associations are most needed and when art can play a critical and wise role. Yet, we must be careful to avoid resurrecting cultural frameworks of elites and be wary of being led by the same forces that put Donald Trump on TV and made him a well-known national figure prior to the U.S. presidential election. We live in moments when we must question the past, question leadership, and continue to question ourselves about models of activity and resistance.
Since my visit to Chile in June, I have continued to be inspired by the role of Proyección, Javiera Manzi, and her collaborators. It has been many years since the Pinochet dictatorship and even as we grapple with long overdue processes towards justice for its victims, it's helpful to focus on the Chile of today and how many are responding towards ideological trends and the effects of Neoliberal policies that perpetuate social injustice and inequality. In this respect and others, both Chileans and citizens of the United States inhabit nations with similar goals and struggles.
Learn more about Proyección:
https://youtu.be/xY9ZNbFzOaM (Feminist marches and occupation of University Campus)
https://youtu.be/O4dxVfgdW-k (Collective banner painting for demonstration)
teleSUR (August 12, 2018). Chile Culture Minister Under Fire for Criticizing Memory Museum. https://www.telesurenglish.net/news/Chile-Culture-Minister-Under-Fire-For-Criticizing-Memory-Museum-20180812-0006.html