War in Paradise

By Ileana Selejan Posted December 9, 2013

Nostalgia del Futuro. Pintura y Nueva Noticia en Solentiname. Sandra Eleta and Ernesto Cardenal. Managua: Editorial Nueva Nicaragua, Ediciones Monimbó, 1982.

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Largely forgotten now, Solentiname – the place, the name -- has for decades resonated with revolutionary idealism. It was here that in the mid-sixties, motivated by the promises of the precepts of Liberation Theology, Ernesto Cardenal, together with a group of likeminded artists and poets established a Utopian community to resist the Somoza dictatorship, which was an important ally for the United States in Central America throughout the Cold War era. An archipelago of 36 tropical islands located towards the southeastern shores of Lake Nicaragua, remote and independent from the rest of the country, with its own school of primitivista painting and sculpture, Solentiname represented a “safe heaven” for Latin American revolutionaries, artists and intellectuals in the years leading up to the Sandinista revolution of 1978-79.

Following his visit to the islands, in solidarity with Cardenal and the Sandinista cause, Julio Cortázar would write: “I remembered that I had first shot Ernesto's mass, the children playing in palm groves exactly like those in the paintings, children and palm groves and cows against a violent blue sky and a lake only a bit more violently green, or was it the other way around?” -- Apocalypse in Solentiname, 1976.Through snapshots, Cortázar images the pastoral community as an in-between space, indeed a Utopia, where that “primal vision of the world” depicted by local artisans in lush primitivist canvases could radiate despite, and even if under threat. Fittingly, the short story would later be published in a collection of texts titled Nicaragua tan violentamente dulce (1984) – Nicaragua, so violently sweet. Through these mementos of latent yet unrelenting danger, i.e. the political violence and instability of Nicaragua, the author’s eye travels beyond to Buenos Aires, then El Salvador, Bolivia, Guatemala … São Paulo? he asks. Crossed by violence present, and past in Latin America, such memories collapse.

Apocalypse waited. Only one year later, following an attack on the Somocista National Guard headquarters in nearby San Carlos, as part of a nation-wide Sandinista armed campaign, Solentiname suffered violent retaliation. “La contemplación nos llevo a la revolución” [contemplation led us to the revolution] Cardenal would comment that same November; “Solentiname tenia una belleza paradisíaca, pero está visto que en Nicaragua no es posible ningún paraíso todavía.” [Solentiname had paradisiacal beauty, but, as is seen, no paradise is possible yet in Nicaragua.] Within months of the victory of July 1979, with the support of the U.S. a considerable counter-revolutionary army was formed from the remainder of the Somocista National Guard, and by 1981 Nicaragua was at war yet again. 

Throughout the 1980s numerous politically engaged photographers, human rights activists, writers, artists and volunteers from the U.S and Europe traveled to Nicaragua; amongst them, there was consensus that the U.S.-supported Contra war had provoked a humanitarian crisis.  How these witnesses portrayed the conflict to the outside world had tremendous impact on the extensive 10-year hostilities and on the delayed, and highly controversial peace process that concluded with the 1990 elections. By then Solentiname was at best a legend. Few photographs of its history survive. In one instance, while traveling through war-torn Nicaragua with the U.S. based organization Witness for Peace, Canadian photographer Larry Towell arrived in Solentiname in 1984. This work from the post-revolutionary years stands in direct contrast to that of Panamanian photographer Sandra Eleta, whose earlier photographs show the idyllic life that the fishermen and peasants in Solentiname enjoyed despite the hardships and oppressiveness of the regime. The Solentiname he “found” in the 80s was a lost paradise, contaminated by the surrounding rampant violence – a documentary stance foretold by Cortázar’s redeeming yet eventually overpowered revolutionary prose.



Ileana Selejan is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University and an Adjunct Lecturer at Parsons, The New School for Design. With a current research focus on the representation of conflict in Nicaragua and Latin America, she is interested in case study based, transnational approaches to studying contemporary art and photography.