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Activist Artists in the Americas and How They Changed the Political Landscape

David Smith

May 20, 2022

Art Activism in the LatinX Sphere

Activist Artists in the Americas and How They Changed the Political Landscape

David Smith

B.S. Candidate for Anthropology

B.A. Candidate for 3-D Design With A Concentration in Ceramics

Towson University

25th March 2022


This paper brushes on some of the art forms that have aided in toppling of corrupt governments, spoken for a change to the system, or brought awareness to systemic issues that face groups of people in society. Here, numerous types of art forms are discussed and how they helped to bring change or helped people to question their situation. Art activism has been used to address the dichotomy of government and their relationship with the population in a totalitarian regime. It has been the artist’s work that helps to bring issues to light that would only otherwise be reviewed in a scholarly paper. Murals, photography, and poetry are a few of the mediums discussed. However, many other forms of art are addressed here, and there are far more not touched on and thousands of powerful artists who put their life on the line in the name of art activism. Nine mediums are addressed and five artists are highlighted for their unique work that helped them to stand out in front of the crowd.


Painting has been a long-served channel for activism throughout the world. After the Mexican Revolution, minds like Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros would use oil paint to convey a push for socialist reforms. However, their good friend and rival José Clemente Orozco would paint murals to protest all forms of institutions. All three artists were active on the world stage, using their trade, to make an impact for reform and change. Throughout the Americas many artists have used their craft to speak out against an oppressive government, praise a cultural hero, call to action against violence, and speak for the voiceless. Macaya says it best when she addresses on the power of the camera in Chile under the Pinochet Junta, “photography began to be evoked to talk about democracy, freedom of the press, and freedom of expression. (Macaya)” The use of photography was a way to put a face to the disappeared and document oppressive acts of Pinochet and his secret police. A simple shirt that says “Pico” at a protest or covering your body in pig’s blood and slowly sliding your body down a wall so only a silhouette of the body in blood remains are means for artists to use art so to speak with people. Is it possible for art to be a catalyst to change the system? Is it possible for a viewer to be so moved by the installation at Krakow to never forget the holocaust? Yes, it is. Artists are imprisoned every day for being too dangerous against a repressive regime and the government is afraid the art will incite a rebellion. Art without meaning is just art. However, art with an agenda can be more powerful than any gun pierce any prison wall.

Murals in Chile

Art has and is a vehicle for the people of Chile to voice their political views as well as a means for protest. In the late 1960’s, murals were plastered all throughout the country by the BRP (Brigada Ramona Parra) and they “quickly established new trends in urban politics and visual practice and began experimenting with innovative means of communication. (Trumper)” Through the leadership of mural artist Alejandro “Mono” González, these street art brigades covered every wall and street possible with slogans and simple murals to prop up the presidential candidate Salvador Allende. This was a complicated time as there was a battle for the presidency between the right and the democratic communist leftist Allende. Chile was experiencing economic hardships and most of the people were living in poverty. Allende promised reforms and programs to help lift the people out of poverty and make Chile prosperous.

Hopes of bringing the people out of poverty and making Chile prosperous was on the minds of most Chileans. Murals were a very effective use of propaganda to deliver the message of Allende. The BRP had established new ways of communication through their art, simple but to the point. Mono had “called the city wall the ‘people’s blackboard’ or the ‘public newspaper.’(Trumper)” Not surprisingly Allende was elected in 1970 and owed a portion of his election success to the BRP and other muralist who plastered his slogans. Allende’s slogans were aimed directly to the people who were most affected by political agendas. One mural stated, “I have a Pact with the People Written in Blood,’ with an image of a spoon filled with powdered milk, using poetry to connect the immediate needs of local residents. (Trumper)” This and other slogans showed Allende’s direct commitment to the people.

There was a strong commitment by the people of the BRP as they spread throughout Chile. By the time of the coup in 1973, there were around 130 organized BRP groups around Chile. Each BRP normally contained eight to ten members. “The BRP central committee would determine the subject the brigades were to address, and the heads of each chapter would scout and plan the location and debate their message. Their work was collective. (Trumper)” This showed how the BRP would study the policies and also concerns of the people, then organize the best ways to transmit messages that represent Allende’s government. The BRP “cited the Popular Unity’s promise of social and political change and imagined a nation built on new prospects of its children. (Trumper)”

The Brigadistas were staffed with mostly young adults and children who showed a commitment to convey the message of Allende’s government. The muralists would have to act quickly so they kept their slogans simple and to the point. If they were caught by the police, “they could be forced to eat their own material as an act of punishment if detained. (Trumper)” So the Brigadistas would add sugar to the paint to make it a little more palatable. They would still be able to work efficiently, even without the aid of scaffolding or ladders. They would tie paint brushes to pieces of wood to give them a little more length. The murals featured no more than two to three symbols. Mono mentioned that “there is no benefit to complicated images, we have to work quickly, we are not artists. (Trumper)” By keeping the murals simple, and plastered throughout the cities, the people would know the policies and the vision of the government.

While it was important for the BRP to convey what the Allende government envisioned for the people, the political landscape was a constant ever-changing map. During this time, the BRP “transformed necessity into strategy, ephemerality into a mechanism by which to create and participate in political debate. (Trumper)” Their message through murals was different in each region and city. From the late 1960’s, through Allende’s presidency, and into Pinochet’s monstrous regime, Chilean public political engagement had collapsed the “distinction between imagining community and participating in it. Murals was one of only a few ways the people were able to denounce Pinochet and eventually oust him from power.

Using Photography to Document and Protest

The previous sectioned focused on murals being used as a political tool primarily prior to Pinochet, but this section will discuss how photography was a medium used as a means to protest the junta in Chile during his rule. Shortly after Pinochet’s takeover of the country, his inner circle published a book called Libro Blanco to counter the bad press which was circulating outside of the country. In the book, it had pictures with obviously falsified documents stating money laundering by Allende, a “Cubano” in guerrillero gear supposedly training Allende to use artillery, heavy and light weapons at his residence, and a silencer that was “found” in his desk. The first ten pages were photos of the Pinochet junta hard at work. Pinochet would constantly publish, in pro-government papers, documentation that propped up his regime and squash any proof of atrocities that were circulating. However, it was photography that helped to spread what was happening under the Pinochet regime. Macaya remarked that,

“In every image, because of the practices in which it is embedded, antagonistic collective energies struggle; in each image, because of the concrete place it occupies in a contingency and in each context, the triumphs, the coercions, the adulterations, the defeats, the attempts, the extortions of fighting forces are marked. Behind every image lies the trace, still fresh, of the exclusion of other images as well as the imminence of it being supplanted by new ones. (Macaya)”

The people were able to tell the difference between the doctored documentation of the government and the photo evidence of atrocities, photos of family members who have disappeared, or posters using vandalized photos of Pinochet.

The disappearance was one of many atrocities committed by the junta. Called the disappeared because family members were taken and never heard from again. The family is not left with any information or evidence that the government even had a hand in their disappearance, though the people knew Pinochet was directly responsible. They could be presumed dead, but they did not have any trace as to where their family member disappeared to. Family members used the public space to speak of the family member: ‘ “they are not presumed dead; they are not presumed disappeared—they are detained-disappeared.’ Indeed, I claim that the public display of photographic portraits of the detained disappeared was critical to giving the crime of forced disappearance an image, a visual representation. (Macaya)” The family would parade around police stations, local government buildings, and in solidarity during a protest with the image of the detained-disappeared.

Photos of the disappeared were used in print media as well. Unauthorized magazines began to surface in 1976 to which they would publish photographs of disappeared, police beatings, and photos of Pinochet’s work camps located in the Atacama desert. Once their criticism became too blatant for the government to handle, they issued a ban on all images in media. This gave the editors a new avenue to addresses the issues while still using the photograph as a reference.

“Even though they did remove the actual photographs, they kept referring to them as if they were visible on the surface of the page. The empty rectangles that replaced the actual photographs, sometimes decorated with doodles or signs, became the visual marker of censorship—a marker that was both iconic (it was the visual rendering of the ban) and indexical (it was the inscription, the trace, of dictatorial power on the printed page). (Macaya)”

Even with the harshest of censorism, a way was found to get the message to the people. It was photos or a lack of in certain cases that was one medium to help take a whisper from the people be turned into a storm that wouldn’t let up until Pinochet was removed.

Theatre in Argentina

There were dictatorships in succession that would control Argentina throughout much of the 20th century. Painful at times, theatre was an escape for the people to temporarily forget the harsh regimes. Though heavily censored, theatre gave a voice and a subtle protest. However, it was not until after democracy would reign supreme in the 1990’s that theatre would call to arms and make the government take responsibility for actions they have taken in the past and present. Director Eugenio Barba says it best when he “notes that dramatic performance endows performers with ‘the possibility of changing ourselves and thereby of changing society.’ (Montez)” The performance artists and theatre makers used the stage to present plays or art that would challenge the injustice or national policies of presidential administrations.

It was the during the presidential administration of Carlos Menem in the early 1990’s in which the theatre would produce plays to denounce the president and his transitional justice practices. Menem was commuting or dissolving “prison sentences for the dictatorship leaders Jorge Rafael Videla, Emilio Massera, and Leopoldo Galtieri, as well as numerous other soldiers, political officials, and police officers awaiting trial for crimes connected to political violence. (Montez)” The theatre would produce plays that criticized the government for attempting to “close the book” on the previous chapters on Argentina. These young playwrights, who now are some of the most prominent in South America, and with their

“appropriated postmodernist techniques to create intertextual and self-referential theatre about the process of producing memory. These texts and performances implicated spectators from Buenos Aires, Argentina, and around the globe in passively accepting the Menem administration’s justification for impunity policies and called attention to public inaction during the worst years of Argentina’s state-enacted violence. (Montez)”

After these young playwrights began to demand the government make amends and correct their actions, a future playwright would create plays for a different result. In order to help the people, recognize the atrocities in which the previous government committed.

In 2000, the playwright Patricia Zangaro received an invitation by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, to develop a short play to reach university-age students. Along with director Daniel Fanego and actress Valentina Bassi the Grandmothers, who started a human rights organization, went to create this short production for two goals:

“First, the Grandmothers sought to call attention to the Argentine dictatorship’s practice during the Process of National Reorganization (1976–83) of kidnapping newborn children of political opponents who were “disappeared” (desaparecidos) and giving the infants to political supporters. Second, they wanted to raise awareness among an audience in their early twenties of the importance of knowing one’s biological lineage and heredity as part of the ongoing process of post-dictatorship transitional justice. (Montez)”

The Grandmothers hoped this production would help to find the children of the disappeared and to reunite them with their biological family. To ensure the authenticity and accuracy of the play, the Grandmothers would regularly sit in on rehearsals and performances. Afterwards, they would help any young adults who were questioning their background with networking.

From Concretism to Constructivist Avant-garde, Ways to Stand Up Against Repression

Beginning in the 1950’s, a new era in art had begun that focused in Brazil. Known as Concretism, this art form focused on art and poetry that would be visually represented more significantly than verbally. Early artists would move away “entirely distinct form of abstract, nonfigurative art that celebrated rationality, functionality, and technological progress and that coalesced under the banner of concretism. (Dunn)” Later movements of neo-concretist spread throughout Brazil until it was abandoned for a more avant-garde project that advocated for direct communication with the people on discussion and social protest. It was shortly after this time when Brazil became under a military dictatorship in 1964. The government would attempt to squash any social unrest and protest. However, the people would speak through art using words and sometimes louder than to denounce their oppressive regime.

Artists Clark and Oiticicia found new directions for spectator-participant art to denounce the regime and act in any means possible. In 1968, Oiticicia created a red banner with a black silhouette of a dead body with the inscription “Seja Marginal, Seja Herói” (Be marginal, be a hero). This banner had “gained notoriety when it was displayed at a concert featuring the tropicalist at the nightclub Sucata in late October 1968. When a DOPS agent present at the club demanded the removal of the banner. (Dunn)” The singer leader of the Tropicalist, Veloso, protested the removal which likely led to his arrest and short imprisonment two months later. Oiticicia would test his boundaries with every opportunity he received to see how far he could go, and then go farther the next time. The music of these avant-garde artists would consistently push the boundaries to see how much noise they could make.

Music, written by avant-garde artists, was used to help motivate and push young people to act after being fatigued and cumbersome with the repressive policies of the government in the 60’s and 70’s. Writers Waly Salomão and Jards Macalé wrote a counter-culture anthem in 1971 called “Vapor Barato,” a slang term used for marijuana. Recorded and performed by Gal Costa, she sings of the “the existential drama of a desbundado who is leaving behind a partner to ‘embark on that old ship’ on some unspecified journey. (Dunn)” Though Vapor barato is never said in the song, it refers to the cloud of smoke that hovers over the heads of the people which the government uses to cloud their judgement. Around the same time, Chico Buarque recorded a song “Apesar de você” (In spite of you). While both songs are in reference to a fallout between two lovers “Buarque’s song, directed at the authoritarian state, suggests a day of revenge and redemption, Salomão’s song conveys a sense of disenchantment, in relation not only to a person, but also to the ideals of the counterculture. (Dunn)” The music was protest for the people to hear, but poetry was written for the people to read and translate to an understanding that there has to be a new path for them.

Neto and Salomão were avid writers of poetry in the early 1970’s, whose work helped to motivate the people into the streets and begin the earliest of active street protests against the government. Neto had created a slogan for his readers to “occupy space (ocupar espaco),” which he first created in October of 1971. He went on by “Summer is coming, very hot. Open the windows. Look kindly on your own eyes. And let’s occupy space. That’s it: occupy space.” Dunn explains that this “multivalent term, ‘occupy space’ could literally mean to inhabit and transform public space, in the way, for example, hippies and surfers laid claim to the dunes around Ipanema Pier as a kind of ‘liberated territory.’(Dunn)” He wanted them to occupy spaces and then to control it. Control it so that the regime would have no choice but to hear the demands of the people. While Neto was straight-forward in his approach, Salomão would speak in terms and hyperboles, possibly to float under the radar.

Salomão recorded a spoken poem with a musical background called “Me Segura” that Antonio Candido “characterized the text as “anti- literary literature” that “mixes protest, contempt, testimony, outcry. (Dunn)” In the poem, he speaks of his time in prison being the site of enunciation or “SÍRIO desponta de dia” (Syrian/Sirius appears at dawn) a phrase that connects his Arab/Syrian side with his Brazilian side. He speaks of being possessed and ascending to Dante’s hell along with his fellow inmates. Dunn mentions that this “self-aggrandizing may be understood as a compensatory gesture for a prisoner for whom writing was a way to resist feeling like a victim. (Dunn)” which is quite understandable as prisons in the 70’s were overflowing with political prisoners in deplorable conditions. While he comments on the different fallacies of other inmates, he speaks none of his own but of the cleanliness and ideals of cell 506, which one is to assume is his own cell. Salomão, Oiticicia, and other artists from the 50’s to 70’s found new ways to express themselves and the anger they all had towards a repressive government who sought to only fulfill their own immediate gains.

Women Filmmakers in Brazil

Filmmaking in Brazil during the 1970’s and 80’s were not short of political protest and movements for reform. During that same time, women filmmakers were fighting for causes to be seen as equal and brasilidade (Brazilian cultural identity). Throughout the 70’s and 80’s “women cultural producers working in audiovisual media challenged authoritarian institutions, questioned women’s exclusion, and promoted new understandings of gender, sexuality, (Marsh)” and full membership into Brazilian society. Marsh also argued that, under the military authoritarian regime, and up to the 1988 ratification of the constitution, they had “contributed to the reformulation of sexual, cultural, and political citizenship in Brazil. (Marsh)” Normally are to be seen as in the back of the room and “take their place,” strong, feminist women used the power of audiovisual to help push for the eventual transfer to a democratic government.

Using the audiovisual medium to push for a shake up to the government was a skill that a few women directors had in Brazil. Ana Carolina was a director who first came onto to the scene in 1960’s and immediately broke the ceiling for the limits of what women could do. Using her power and skill, she trained other women to be strong directors in Brazil. Although it was a trilogy, she made that show the about power of the woman and corruption within government. “Mar de Rosas (Sea of Roses, 1977), Das Tripas Coração (Heart and Guts, 1982), and Sonho de Valsa (Dream Waltz, 1987). At a time when it was untenable to express her feminist views by way of a realist register, all three films develop a surrealist mode of expression. (Marsh)” Her works opened the door for other women to use their talent to demand for the ouster of the military regime.

The military regime ruled from 1964-1985, and during that time, freedom of speech was stifled in public and media. Though this did not stop Ana Carolina who used a surrealist mode of representation to convey a message of oppression against the people and change of government. Ultimately, her trilogy

“critiques those institutions and established beliefs through which presumably good, moral citizens are manufactured—the family, education, religion, romantic love, honoring the father, and the like—and reflects a desire for a new sociability and a new political system in which women are full, equal members. (Marsh)”

Anna’s work was able to float under the radar of the authorities and be displayed to the general audience. The government may not have seen the correlation, but the people did and this was a tool that helped to teach people about the state they were living in and how to change. Her gesture to freedom from the government in her trilogy highlighted a moment where gates were opened and more women came flooding in to use their own skill with the power of the camera to call for change.

Styling Blackness of Music and Dance

In Chile, just as the in other South American Countries, governments have adopted specific rights and protection for communities whose cultural practices are different than the state’s mainstream society. The Indigenous groups are first what most people outside of Latin America think that would fall into this group. However, during the slave trade, South America received more Africans than the rest of the western hemisphere by three-fold. Many have held onto some historical traditions, music, or dance that came from Africa. In Chile, the black population or “Moreno” which is a “term that people can use to avoid describing an individual as Black, which has negative connotations in Chilean society, (Wolf)” have sought rights and protection, yet the country will not grant it to them because they do not have a separate language. For the Moreno, they have been using music and dance to show their own unique and different cultural practices than of the mainstream society.

The Tumbe Carnaval is a performance which has helped the general population of Chile to view the uniqueness of the Moreno culture. Wolf commented from his own experience that

“growing acceptance of tumbe carnaval performance also encouraged some families in Arica to participate in and identify with one of the city’s increasing numbers of Afro-descendant activist groups. In fact, a televised appearance of the tumbe was what enticed me to visit and eventually do fieldwork with members of Arica’s Afro-descendant population. (Wolf)”

The Moreno activists use the tumbe to mark them as one of separate groups, or cultural peoples, as one of a “community of style” that mark them as an African diaspora which include their music and dance as a shared practice amongst all the Moreno. Though Chile has kept their distance from their “blackness” and “dismiss tumbe carnaval as inauthentic or foreign, either in terms of being contrived or in terms of not being Chilean enough, given Africa’s historical relationship with Peru. (Wolf)” As of 2022, Chile is the only country in South America that does not recognize Afro-descendant/ Black on their national census, showing further their distancing from the history they have with the Black community.

Views on racism towards the Moreno in Chile is hard to estimate due to the lack of population data from the census. If activists groups were able to see the population centers Moreno culture, polls and interviews would easier be made to canvas the areas and see how the people are discriminated against. Wolf did his own collecting and interviewing for his book, and this excerpt would best describe his overall findings.

“Several individuals in Afro-descendant organizations related the negative comments about Blackness that they encountered in their daily lives. These comments underscore the desire for spaces to exist that see Blackness in positive terms. While not every Afro-descendant I interviewed claimed being discriminated against, many did experience some form of discrimination. A growing intolerance against immigrants in Chile suggests an even greater sense of ethnoracial exclusion present in the entire country than the discrimination I encountered in Arica, where the more visible presence and interaction with Afro-descendants has made a difference.”

While statistical proof is not obtainable on the amount of racism the Black populations experience, it is evident that it exists. The tumbe carnaval helps not only give a cultural identity to them, but it helps to give an active tool for the Afro-descendants.

Indigenous Women Standing Up Against Hatred and Racism Through Art

Art activism is a way for major issues to be addressed to the general public in ways normally not viewed. Scholarly papers written in academic journals or books that address concerning issues reach some, but not the general public. Artists, whether they openly engage with social issues or only let their art speak for them, introduce “questions surrounding the production, dissemination and reception of art, including the social and material conditions that frame such cycles of cultural production. (Johnson, Santos)” Personally, I engage with people while using my art to bring issues to light. The point for all art activists is for an open discussion where people who are viewing the art can discuss with others about what the piece is addressing. Whether how people view the art, it is the art “that addresses social issues is a denunciation of power imbalances and injustices, or at least an invitation to question inequalities. (Johnson, Santos)”

Mexican artist Teresa Margolles has had a goal of addressing the inequalities of women and the brutality accosted against them in Mexico. Her goal for the art she produces is to bring awareness to the high amounts of murders against women in Ciudad Juárez. One piece that Margolles produced was making a “concrete table that used the water from a morgue, which was used to wash the corpses. (Johnson, Santos)” Ciudad is the murder capital of Mexico, located just across the border from Texas, and numerous women are raped and murdered every day. Whether it be waiting to cross the border, or just random acts by gangs, the women there are raped and murdered at high rates and rarely ever given a voice. Margolles created a sculpture in 2005 where she “drove to the crime scenes of a number of murders, where she spent time at the site, often many nights. At these crime scenes she collected the earth; with the earth she produced 500 stones. (Johnson, Santos)” She had created a material object that mourned the victims of women who had no way prior to be mourned, other than in the hearts of loved ones. She also displayed a video art piece called irrigation in Vancouver. Margolles had soaked blankets “in the blood and bodily fluids of the dead women from Ciudad Juárez, later soaking the blankets in a large quantity of water which was placed in a water truck, then proceeded to spray a highway road in Texas. (Johnson, Santos)” The video showed her journey from Mexico into Texas, spraying water on the road during her trip. She continually attempts to give voice to voiceless indigenous women of the Americas.

Regina José Galindo also works to give a voice to the voiceless women through her art, mostly women who were murdered in her native country of Guatemala. Regina is a poet and performance artist who seeks to have her audience feel the pain of the victims which she represents in her art. Galindo uses her body at numerous times, “staging reminders of violence. Galindo’s body functions as a witness that reflects Guatemala’s turbulent history and brutalities, and it’s a living testament to how the transition to democracy in Guatemala has still brought violence and inequalities. (Johnson, Santos)” At the Venice Biennale, she hid behind a screen and proceeded to hit herself with a leather belt 279 times, each time representing a women murdered in Guatemala from January 1st to June 9th in 2005. The public only heard heightened sounds of the smacking and painful reaction sounds made by her. Regina also cut the word “bitch” on her left thigh in a performance that emulates messages that gang members inscribe on the bodies of dead women. (Johnson, Santos)” She also had her body put into a large trash bag and thrown into a landfill, which is common for murdered women to end up. Galindo feels putting her own body on the line is the best way to transmit the acts of violence against women.

The Poetry of Cesar Vallejo

Cesar Vallejo was born in Peru in 1892. Even though he was thoroughly educated and held two different teaching positions, he ended up fleeing for Paris to stay with a friend after the government sought to arrest him for a second time due to his political views. Although it wasn’t until 1930 when he announced that he was a communist and sought to help the people of Spain and Peru to move towards socialism. Cesar was a poet and playwright, and after 1930, he would focus his work on the communist ideals and brutality of the Spanish Civil War. In this section I will highlight two of his poems that were written at different breaking points of his later years in life.

An adamant communist in his later years, the poem’s that Cesar wrote after 1930 focused on class struggle, the worker rising up for the betterment of a new state so all would prosper, and then issues he began to see within Soviet Russia. In the poem ‘Gleba,’ Britton commented how it “captures the idea that an important sector of the laboring classes – in this case peasants and agricultural workers – has within it the power to change itself and the world. (Britton)” Below is the poem in its entirety.

Their impact on the world like a sail catching fire, the peasants function a stone’s-throw from the mists, with their well-reputed beards, practical feet and the sincere snakes of the valley.) They speak as the words come to them; they exchange ideas imbibing a priestly order from a bottle.) Their function an unheeding, burning-bush force, their footstep a stick, their expression a stick, their paragraph a stick, the word dangling from another stick. (The flowering implement bursts, flesh to flesh, from their shoulders, from the knees down they descend by stages to heaven, Each has a head, a trunk and extremities, they wear trousers, have metacarpal fingers and a small stick; to eat, they clothe themselves in worthiness, they wash their faces caressing themselves with solid doves. (For certain, these men have lived for years among dangers, they throw their whole faces into their greetings, don’t own a watch and never boast about breathing, saying to themselves at the end of it all: There are the whores, Luis Taboada and the English, there they are, there they are, there they are!)

One primary connection with communism is about equality and an end to a separation of classes, because a struggle between classes causes ruptures in the system. He is calling for the other classes to see them as equal. Just because they are the snakes of the valley, the society could not function without the worker and the worker is what keeps the society moving. They are worthy of all that other classes have because there is no difference.

Later in Cesar’s life, before his pre-mature death, he began to see fractures in the communist system inside of Soviet Russia. All stemming from Stalin and his need to consolidate power, ouster all who disagree with him, and silence anyone who he sees as a threat. Stalin’s Gulags were full of political prisoners and peasants alike. Here Cesar asks Stalin to be the true leader that he sees him as and not abuse it.

On the other side of the mountain birds which live off the valley, here, to this place one evening, to this very place, a prisoner, metallized, conclusive, came the Sincere One, with his treacherous grandchildren. So, we stood and waited, for the cross of the right has no more wood, nor the nail of the left more iron, than a left-handed handshake. The Sincere One came, blind and bearing lamps, The Pale One was seen, in this very place, to provide sufficiently for the Incarnate, while the Great one was born of pure humble; the war, this turtle dove of mine (never ours) was drawn, rubbed out, ovulated and then they killed it.) I saw that man is rotten, rotten while alive, when dead and when dying, and, naturally, the honest hypocrite despairs, the pale one (the same as always) will be pale for a reason and the intoxicated one, somewhere between the blood of humanity and the milk of animals, becomes discouraged, strikes a blow, and chooses to leave.

Britton says it best when he comments that “Vallejo is clearly mounting the accusation that the “war” – the divisions within the Soviet Revolution –have resulted in its betrayal. (Britton)” Cesar was clearly upset with the show trials that Stalin had in 1936 and 1937. He wasn’t denouncing Stalin, because he saw him as a great leader, but wanted Stalin to move back on track to the ideal communist way and lead the people to prosperity.

Simon Bolivar and How He is Still Relevant

If you were to ask your average American, on the streets of middle America, and ask them who is Simón Bolívar? I bet no one would be able to give the correct answer. If you were to travel from Venezuela down to Chile, many answers would be given. The most common answer that would be given likely is that he is the El Libertador. After all, it was Bolívar who led his army to help revolt against the Spanish and force them to leave South America, creating the countries of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and eventually Panama. Simón Bolívar has been the topic of conversations for over 200 years. Shanahan comments that “governments have deified Bolívar as the guiding father of the nation, while individuals and communities have refashioned his image and ideals in positioning themselves vis à vis the nation or state in what we call cultural Bolivarianisms. (Shanahan)” He has been in the center in a cultural battle that gives inspiration for people to rise up against their governments when they became too oppressive. The arts, within South America, are “endowed with the creativity, criticality, and even freedom to take risks that are necessary for civic agency. (Shanahan)”

While Bolívar was alive, artists were inspired by their freedom to immortalize him in paintings which not only gave the revolutionary agency, but it elevated him into a god-like status. Pedro José Figueroa painted his famous oil painting titled “Libertador y Padre de la Patria” in 1819 that put Bolívar on a pedestal and raised him up on high. More recently, an anonymous painter had created a painting which put Bolívar on an even celestial plane with god-almighty. This artist made a painting that,

“overlaid an image of Bolívar in military uniform on the Mano Omni Poderosa (All-Powerful Hand), which conventionally depicts the all-powerful hand of God upright with the palm toward the viewer and surrounded by angels, saints, and the Holy Family. In this version, an apotheosized Bolívar, standing erect in gilded military regalia, stands before God’s hand among the heavenly figures and turns toward the Christ Child, who holds a terrestrial globe as though recalling Bolívar’s military triumphs and earthly ambitions for a Gran Colombia. (Shanahan)”

Though not all artists have Bolívar on a positive theme. Some artworks either depict Bolívar as a despot power hungry general or use him as a catalyst for what has gone wrong in their country.

One piece of work that has Bolívar as a negative, corrupt, power-hungry despot is made by Juan Domingo Dávila, a Chilean-born, Australian-based artist. Dávila’s the satirical painting El Libertador have Bolívar as a “bald, dark-skinned equestrienne, a transsexual who wears only a blue cape, a military jacket, and boots, exposing female breasts and perhaps a male phallus strategically obscured by pubic hair. The Liberator holds up his/ her left hand to the viewer in a “F— you” gesture. (Shanahan)” Dávila is denouncing governments illusionary view of Bolívar and placing him in a light to show liberation to LGBTQ while protesting governments. Photographer Juan Manuel Echavarría created a video installation out from the replica set of porcelain plates gifted to Bolívar after freeing Columbia from Spain. Among these plates had the inscription,

“ ‘República de Colombia para siempre’ (Republic of Colombia forever), capturing the sense of incorruptible achievement following the success of Bolívar’s military campaign against Spain. The video begins with an image of this tray, and as the video progresses, the sound of shattering porcelain echoes as the tray breaks apart. The last image of the tray, now reduced to a pile of white powder, uncannily resembles a mound of cocaine. (Shanahan)”

Here the artist is representing the systemic problem of the cocaine trade in Columbia and the government corruption that was intertwined within it. Echavarría possibly hopes the viewer understands the issues at hand in Columbia and how it corrupts every level in society.

Five Artists Who Have Made An Impact On The World Stage

Hundreds upon thousands of artists have graced the stage of the arts with the goal to call for change in Latin America. Here are but five which stand out to that have made Latin America relevant while also calling for change on social issues.

Ana Mendieta was born in Havana Cuba in 1948. In 1960, she and her sister were sent to America, part of a program for children to escape Castro’s regime. She had soon discovered art as an escape, though she found painting to be hard. In her own words she said, “When I realized that my paintings were not real enough for what I want the image to convey and by real, I mean I wanted my images to have power, to be magic. (theartstory)” She began to use performance art as a medium to express her frustrations with how women and the LGBTQ community were being treated within society. After an on-campus rape and murder at the University of Iowa student Sarah Ann Ottens, Mendieta created a performance piece where she “smeared her naked body with cow's blood, tied herself bent over and faced down to a table in her apartment, and then invited unsuspecting students and faculty members to her apartment to "happen upon" the scene. (theartstory)” Other performance pieces would follow that would call for action against the brutality of women. At the tail end of the 1970’s, Mendieta joined Artists In Residence Inc., which was the first gallery in the United States dedicated solely to women. Although after only two years of involvement with the gallery,

“Mendieta remarked, ‘American Feminism as it stands is basically a white middle-class movement.’ Her disenfranchisement with the movement also stemmed from its seeming limitations because although much of Mendieta's work was of a feminist vein, it tended to be of a more inclusive and life affirming variety than she was finding within the collective. (theartstory)”

Only three months later she met an untimely death when she fell thirty-three floors from the window of her apartment. She was possibly pushed by her husband, but we will never know. Her work has been a constant platform for future women and LGBTQ artists to shake up society.

David Alfaro Siqueiros or also known by his given name, José de Jesús Alfaro Siqueiros, was raised in a small town in Mexico at the turn of the 20th century. His first political act was in 1911, when he participated in a student strike at the San Carlos Academy, demanding for the removal of the director. This was his first among many acts against an institution that he demanded to be changed. Siqueiros “envisioned an art that would invest the traditions of painting with modern significance and politics. Yet, in his Barcelona Manifesto, he argued for a "new generation" of artists who could break free from the "decadent influences" of European art to embrace their own native traditions. (theartstory)” While creating public art in Mexico in the 1920’s he, along with the artists union, created an anti-government publication called El Machete. In 1930, he was forced out of the communist party in Mexico, so he then would travel to the United States and do stints of residency with famous artists like Jackson Pollock. Learning about Surrealism and the use of psychoanalysis with painting, be began his technique of using his whole body in his works. In 1938,

“Siqueiros went to Spain to fight with the Republican army against Francisco Franco's fascist regime. When he returned to Mexico in 1940, he was soon forced into exile for his leadership role in a failed assassination attempt against Leon Trotsky, the antithesis of his Marxist-Stalinist ideology. (theartstory)”

Constantly making trips to prison for his political views, there became a real threat against his artistic productions. His last piece was “The March of Humanity on Earth and Toward and Cosmos,” a mural that covered over 4,000 square meters. Although he died in 1974, he inspires socialist and progressive-socialist artists alike to put their work in the center of politics and the people.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres was born in Guaimaro, Cuba in 1957, the third of four children. He and his sister Gloria relocated that year to an orphanage in Madrid, Spain before eventually settling in Puerto Rico with their uncle. Gonzalez-Torres would spend his adult life in America, creating art that interconnected art and politics onto one canvas. Torres joined a small group of artists called “Group Material.” These collections of artists would an

“exhibition as their medium, calling attention to social issues like homelessness, US intervention in Latin America, gender inequality, and sexuality. Most of all, Group Material shared his belief that aesthetics and politics are inseparable - refusing to be labeled "political" artists. (theartstory)”

In 1989, Torres erected a billboard in Sheridan Square, New York City, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, (named after the Stonewall Inn which the LGBTQ community would congregate at and was the center of protests against the police for a raid in 1969.) After leaving us too soon a foundation was set up in his name in 2002 to honor his legacy and work for the equality of all. “Gonzalez-Torres became the second American artist, after Robert Smithson, to be posthumously chosen to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. (theartstory)” His legacy continues on within modern artists who seek to shake the minds of people and see the transgressions made against women and the LGBTQ community.

José Clemente Orozco was one of four brothers in a middle-class family living in Jalisco, Mexico at the turn of the 20th century. His father was forcing him to study agricultural engineering, due to it being more stable than art. Although, when his father died, he then went headlong into art, “a remarkable decision considering he had lost his left hand after manipulating fireworks for Independence Day celebrations in 1904. (theartstory)” His early years entailed caricatures for newspapers and painting dolls. He had one early exhibition using “watercolors depicting female prostitutes and men past their prime, poignantly entitled ‘The House of Tears.’ Perhaps as a mirror to his own struggles, Orozco's focus on human suffering was a predominant theme in his early work. (theartstory)” It was images of the Mexican Revolution that sent him on a path of being an anarchist. He saw the suffering of the people against governments, institutions, military, and clerical alike. Orozco “he felt these institutions were all inevitably and inherently corrupt. (theartstory)” He left for the United States to view the suffering of the Great Depression and to document how the government had given up on the people. It was in America where he “he painted some of his most famous murals in Pomona, the New School, Dartmouth, and the Museum of Modern Art. (theartstory)” Orozco's “oeuvre” series in the 1940’s included paintings of anti-clerical and anti-military alike, denouncing institutions throughout the Americas. He illustrated John Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize book, “The Pearl,” in 1947. He has been compared to Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros for the skill and power of works created. However, he saw politics in a different light. While they saw a communist state to be the centralized power, regulate all aspects of society, Orozco saw governments and institutions as a whole to be the enemy of the people, standing in the way for prosperity.

Tania Brugueras was born the elder of two girls to Communist father Miguel Brugueras, who had been an underground militant during the Batista dictatorship and, from 1959 onward, worked as a diplomat and minister in the Fidel Castro government. She moved back to Cuba at the age of eleven with her mother after divorcing her father. Brugueras study art in Havana until 1983 and then San Alejandro Fine Arts School until 1987. In 1993, it was her own father that became the catalyst for her “rebellious art” to develop. He came to her apartment along with government associates, gathered up all documents and work and then said, “ ‘Let's go for a walk.’ He then put her in a car and drove silently to a house where two other men, whom her father referred to as ‘colleagues,’ began the interrogation. On this episode she says, ‘it was then when censorship became the core of my work.’ (theartstory)” In January 2003, she created the Cátedra Arte de Conducta (Behavior Art School), hosted by the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana. Her goal was to create a safe space for art to develop without government over-reach. She has been arrested numerous times over the years. In 2014 she planned a performance art titled Tatlin's Whisper #6 in Havana’s revolutionary square. She was arrested the morning of with incitement to break the law, inciting public unrest, and other trumped-up charges, all to keep her quiet. She recalled back that “It was at that moment I learned that injustice has a way of manifesting itself physically and isn't just a concept. I stopped eating, not out of courage, but because I thought what was being done to me was unfair, and I had no other way of making that clear. (theartstory)” For the next few years she had been arrested and detained numerous times in an attempt by the government to break her. In 2020 she “reported hearing a high-pitched sound in her Havana home, which caused her high levels of physical distress. This phenomenon is well-documented and referred to as ‘Havana syndrome.’ (theartstory)” She has continuously defied and protested the government through her art thus forcing an awareness of public life in Cuba.


Art invites the viewer to engage with the piece. Poetry encourages the reader to think long and hard about the topic addressed and possibly look at it in a different life. An artist who places oneself in a trash bag and being thrown into a landfill, speaks revelations to murder and gives a voice to the voiceless. Mono helped to train an army of kids to paint murals that would speak of Allende’s agenda, while the group conducted a PAR (participatory action research) to find the best what ways that would connect with the people through murals. This may only be a snippet from the mountains of change that artists made in Latin-X society, but my hope is for the viewer to better understand how art activism can be a tool to reach the general population on major topics that are affecting society. I will continue to create my own art hoping to bring awareness to the systemic issues I find important to bring to light, with a desire for other artists to do the same. The pen is mightier than the sword, but it is the brush can be mightier than an oppressive government.

South American Activist Art Cites

Camilo D. Trumper. 2016. Ephemeral Histories : Public Art, Politics, and the Struggle for the Streets in Chile. Oakland, California: University of California Press.

Christopher Dunn. 2016. Contracultura : Alternative Arts and Social Transformation in Authoritarian Brazil. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. ds-live&scope=site.

Maureen G. Shanahan, and Ana M Reyes. 2016. Simon Bolivar : Travels and Transformations of a Cultural Icon. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. ds-live&scope=site.

Noe Montez. 2018. Memory, Transitional Justice, and Theatre in Postdictatorship Argentina. Theater in the Americas. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

R.K. Britton. 2015. The Poetic and Real Worlds of Cesar Vallejo : A Struggle Between Art and Politics (1892-1938). Sussex Academic E-Library. Eastbourne, UK: Sussex Academic Press. 1090692&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Juan Eduardo Wolf. 2019. Styling Blackness in Chile : Music and Dance in the African Diaspora. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. ds-live&scope=site.

Jorge Coronado. 2018. Portraits in the Andes : Photography and Agency, 1900-1950. Illuminations: Cultural Formations of the Americas Series. Pittsburgh, Pa: University of Pittsburgh Press. 1814086&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Leslie Marsh. 2012. Brazilian Women’s Filmmaking : From Dictatorship to Democracy. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. e025xna&AN=569540&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Johnson, Shelly, and Alessandra Santos. 2012. “REDressing Invisibility and Marking Violence Against Indigenous Women in the Americas Through Art, Activism and Advocacy.” First Peoples Child & Family Review 7 (2): 97–111.

Ángeles Donoso Macaya. 2020. The Insubordination of Photography : Documentary Practices Under Chile’s Dictatorship. Reframing Media, Technology, and Culture in Latin/oAmerica. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.

The Art Story Foundation, The Art Story, 2021, 12/20/2021,

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