The Missing Picture
Posted October 30, 2015
The last dictatorship in Argentina (1976-1983) was marked by repression, terror and censorship. Approximately 30,000 men, woman and children were systematically abducted, tortured in clandestine detention centres and thrown alive into the River Plate or buried in anonymous graves. Around 500 children – of which only 117 have been found so far thanks to the work of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo – were illegally adopted, sometimes raised, in perverse fashion, by the murderers of their parents or their accomplices, who never told the children about their true origins.
The phenomenon of forced disappearance challenges our very understanding of what ‘being human’ is. If both vitality and mortality make us all human, the disappeared are, strictly speaking, neither dead nor alive; they live a ghostly existence, both in the past and the present, wandering among us like errant shadows and testing our experience of time and space. It is this uncertain death – the bodies were never found and the final days and whereabouts of the victims can never be completely reconstructed – that makes disappearance an ongoing crime: someone is (even today) disappeared.
During and after the dictatorship photography became a privileged resource for referring to state terrorism and disappearance. Even as early as 1977, for example, portraits of the victims were exhibited, as part of the demonstrations of the relatives of the victims and human rights organisations. The language of photography has been a close ally of memory struggles in Argentina.
More recently, photographers of the post-dictatorship generations, many of them children of disappeared parents, have used collage, montage, transfer and digital technology to produce imaginary encounters between generations and the missing picture in the family album.
That is precisely the motivation behind Lucila Quieto’s pioneering photographic montages. Carlos Alberto Quieto disappeared five months before the birth of Lucila. In the images of this series, Quieto combines fiction and biography, performance and photography, extending this practice to other children of disappeared parents who responded to an advertisement she put in a branch of HIJOS (Hijos por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio) that made a tempting offer: ‘Now you can have the picture you always wanted’. Quieto remembers: ‘I asked every son or daughter to look for a photograph of their parents, I then reproduced the images as slides. I projected them on the wall and asked the children to insert themselves between the camera and the image’. The experiment resulted in 35 black-and-white photographs that show a playful and fictional family scene re-made against the fatal destinies of those families.
One of the key aspects of Quieto’s images is their anachronistic quality. Anachronism is the disarming of the chronological disposition of events and the creation of a new, artificial arrangement of time that refers to what has happened in the past but most importantly what could have happened in a conditional temporality. The images of Arqueología de la ausencia are thus answers to a disturbing question: what might have happened had the disappeared survived? Quieto’s montages speak of a time that is neither in the past nor in the present but in what she calls ‘a third time’, an invented, dream-like temporality, a dimension where everything, even the impossible, seems plausible.
By intervening in a situation from which they were originally excluded, the children of the disappeared create autofictional images and demand a memory and a time violently stolen from them. Thus we witness private scenes of everyday family life: a celebration, a furtive kiss in the street, and a lively and loving conversation between a couple. The figures of the parents appear projected on the skin of their children, on walls, everywhere. The use of light and shadow creates ghostly scenes: faces, bodies, times and spaces become confused and raise a perplexing question for the spectator: which are the parents and which the children? In addition, the choice of personal photographs for this intervention also reaffirms the importance of everyday life at a time when everything, even the family, was subjugated to politics.
Curiously, given the increasingly digitalized world and virtual realities in which we live, Ana Amado has highlighted how instead of using the digital manipulation of images to produce a complete simulacrum, Quieto self-consciously makes visible the handmade composition of the scenes, the materiality of the old pictures (irregular borders, breakages, folds) and the frames. This gesture stresses the artificiality of the generational encounters, suggesting that something has been broken and the efforts to fix it are, ultimately, in vain.
Natalia Fortuny is a Lecturer in Latin American Visual Arts and Photography at the Universidad de Buenos Aires and teaches a Masters degree in Contemporary History at the Universidad Nacional DE General Sarmiento. She was awarded her PhD in Social Sciences (Universidad of Buenos Aires) and has a masters degree in History of Argentine and Latin American Art (IDAES-UNSAM). Her current research focuses on photography and memory in Latin America. She has published two books: Memorias fotográficas. Imagen y dictadura en la fotografía argentina contemporánea (La Luminosa, 2014, available here) and Instantáneas de la memoria: fotografía y dictadura en Argentina y América Latina (with Jordana Blejmar and Luis Ignacio García, Libraria, 2013). She is also a photographer (under the pseudonym of Nat Oliva) and the author of the poetry books Hueso (2007) and La construcción (2010).
Jordana Blejmar is a Research Associate in the School of the Arts at the University of Liverpool. She was previously a researcher at the AHRC-funded project Latin(o) American Digital Art and a University Teacher at Liverpool, as well as a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at the Institute of Modern Languages Research, University of London. Originally a literature graduate from the Universidad de Buenos Aires, she was awarded an MPhil and a PhD (as a Gates Scholar) at the University of Cambridge. She is a member of the steering committee of the Centre for the Study of Cultural Memory (London). She has curated art exhibitions in Buenos Aires, Liverpool and Paris. Her research focuses on the material culture of childhood, ludic art and playful memories of trauma in Latin America. She is the co-editor (with Natalia Fortuny and Luis García) of Instantáneas de la memoria: Fotografía y dictadura en Argentina y América Latina (2013, Libraria), of a special issue on Latin American postmemories (with N. Fortuny, Journal of Romance Studies, 2013) and of a special issue on contemporary Argentine poetry (with Ben Bollig, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, in press). She is also currently completing the manuscript Playful Memories: The Autofictional Turn in Post-Dictatorship Argentina.