Building Global Solidarity Through ¡Luchar!

By Erina Duganne Posted August 12, 2013

Title Wall of Group Material's Luchar! Courtesy the artists and the Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University.

Bodies of Dutch Journalists Murdered in El Salvador on View at Taller Latinoamericano, New York, June 19-July 9, 1982, Bolivar Arellano. Courtesy the artists and the Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University.

Medium group vi 18 luchar

In June 1982, Group Material, a collective of young activist artists based in New York City, organized ¡Luchar! An Exhibition for the People of Central America in collaboration with the community center Taller Latinoamericano and several other New York City-based cultural organization--Casa Nicaragua, Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), Puerto Rican Solidarity Committee, and Committee in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala, among others--that occupied the second floor of 19 West 21st Street in Manhattan where the exhibition was also held. Intended to make a critical political statement about U.S. government policies in Central America as well as to initiate solidarity with Central American artists working in exile, the exhibition included a constellation of objects ranging from FDR/FMLN demonstration banners, posters by the Cuban political organization OSPAAL, and paintings by Nicaraguan school children to works by such contemporary artists as Martha Rosler, Anne Pitrone, and Daniel Flores Ascencio.

To introduce the exhibition, Group Material selected two photographs by the Ecuadorian photographer Bolivar Arellano, which he had taken in El Salvador, only months before, while working for the Associated Press. Mounted prominently next to the exhibition’s title, the images depict the bodies of four Dutch journalists who had been murdered in El Salvador in March of that same year. In the first image, the bodies of the deceased journalists--Jacobus Andries Koster, 46 years old; Johannes Willemsen, 42; Hans ter Laan, 25, and Jan Kuiper, just shy of 40--are stacked by twos, head to toe, on morgue refrigerator drawers. Taken in San Salvador, some 30 miles south of where they had been killed, the photograph initially functions primarily as information. It provides historical evidence of state-sponsored atrocities in El Salvador that the Reagan administration continued to deny in their effort to link the oppositional movement in El Salvador as Soviet-inspired. According to the Salvadorian government, a report, which at the time the Reagan administration found no evidence to “contradict,” the journalists had been accidentally killed in cross fire between the Salvadorian guerrillas and a group of government soldiers on a routine patrol. The Dutch government, however, vehemently denied this official account, insisting instead that the journalists had been deliberately killed by the government soldiers who had trailed them to an interview with the Salvadorian guerrilla leaders. In addition to spurring protests against U.S. policies in Central America across Europe, the controversy over these murders also caused several members of Congress to publicly question whether the United States should continue providing foreign aid to El Salvador’s government if they continued to commit such human rights violations.

At the same time that Arellano’s first photograph firmly situated ¡Luchar! within contemporary Cold War debates over the conflicts in Central America, his second image, which Group Material mounted directly below his first, functioned more interpersonally. Whereas in the first photograph, the stacked, laid out bodies elicit a more distanced public scrutiny, the second image’s close-up of the top two deceased journalists’s right hands, poignantly clasped together, arouses greater affect, the result of which is to humanize the explicit brutality on display in the first photograph and, in so doing, transform it into “something that,” as Edmundo Desnoes would write several years later in reference to Susan Meiselas’s photographs of the dead in Central America, “transcends horror and calls for solidarity and a future.” In other words, within ¡Luchar!, the dead bodies in Arellano’s photographs not only documented contemporary historical atrocities, more importantly, they activated on a personal as well as emotional level a larger global community against U.S. intervention in Central America. In so doing, they also became signposts for the mobilization efforts that would follow. Reappearing in Group Material’s 1984 installation, Timeline: A Chronicle of U.S. Intervention in Central American and Latin America that was created as part of a nationwide campaign called Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America, Arellano’s photographs attest to a network of relationships between individuals such as exiled El Salvadorian artist Daniel Flores Ascencio, U.S. critic and activist Lucy Lippard, and Group Material’s Doug Ashford, who, among others, came together at the initiative of the newly established Institute for the Arts and Letters of El Salvador (INALSE) to organize more than 31 exhibitions and 50 events in New York City alone. Mostly forgotten today, these photographs bear witness to the solidarity activities of Artists Call as well as to the intricacies of visual culture and activist practices at the end of the Cold War.

Notes

Erina Duganne is Associate Professor of Art History at Texas State University, where she teaches courses in American art, photography, and visual culture. She is the author of The Self in Black and White: Race and Subjectivity in Postwar American Photography (2010) as well as a co-editor and an essayist for Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain (2007). Her current book-length project explores the circulation of photojournalistic images documenting events from the Central American civil wars beginning in the late 1970s and the ways in which these photographs were used to articulate, challenge as well as redescribe U.S. public memory during the last years of the Cold War.