December 9, 2013
‘We knew nothing’ was no excuse
In the early years of Argentina’s return to democracy, when the military junta’s human rights horrors started to come to light, the phrase “We knew nothing,” became a catchword of sorts for people seeking exoneration for turning a blind eye on what was going on as the country celebrated its first World Cup and repeated the repressors’ motto: Los argentinos somos derechos y humanos.
The reasoning goes that, if we needed to reaffirm our human rights stance, chances were it was being questioned somewhere else. Escapism was stronger, and it was the artists who stood witness to state terrorism, known here as the guerra sucia or Dirty War. The arts, and journalism — not the prensa canalla (which ignored or blatantly supported the modus operandi of the military), but rather newspapers like the Buenos Aires Herald, which helped a group of women publicize the “disappearance” of thousands of suspected terrorists and innocent people.
One of the artists who challenged the status quo was León Ferrari (1920-2013). Defying the junta’s close scrutiny of what was said and otherwise expressed, Ferrari drew inspiration from newspaper headlines from 1976 and the early years of the military dictatorship to put together a series of works which graphically and metaphorically denounced state terrorism.
Though far from including all the heinous human rights violations committed by the junta, Ferrari’s works, to this day, remain a powerful testament of ther catchphrases: Por algo será, or Algo habrá hecho, a domestic penal code later replaced by the above-mentioned Nosotros no sabíamos.
One of the world’s leading artists (“an iconoclastic Argentine conceptual artist who marshalled ceramics, sculpture and poems as ‘revolutionary weapons’ against war, government and religion,” according to The New York Times), Ferrari’s output transcends art and is a beacon of freedom of expression, political art and human rights struggle.
Apart from modelling materials into artworks, Ferrari’s mission was to achieve social transformation, an outspoken witness, from an artistic and personal stand, to the political, social and cultural changes in Argentina and the world.
Ferrari’s best-known work, perhaps, is the ubiquituous (in the sense of permanence in the collective unconscious) La civilización occidental y cristiana (1965), showing Christ’s Crucifixion on a bomber pointing downwards.
This is the first piece in a series against the Vietnam war and an overall denunciation of the world’s governments’ abuse of power.
In 1968, Ferrari was actively involved with the socio-political art movement Tucumán arde, spearheaded by a group of artists and intellectuals fighting for the rights of sugar cane workers of the centre-north province of Tucumán. Between 1972 and 1976, Ferrari was a member of the Human Rights Movement and Forum Against Repression and Torture.
Following his seer instinct, in 1976 he started to compile newspaper articles about human rights violations and the systematic “disappearances” performed by the military junta. Those newspaper clippings made it to a series of 85 works rightly entitled Nosotros no sabíamos.
That same year, Ferrari was forced into exile in Sao Paulo, where he stayed until 1991 and experimented with new techniques while at the same time reinforcing his artistic commitment with social causes.
Ferrari’s series Nosotros no sabíamos (culled from newspaper clippings from the Buenos Aires Herald, Clarín, Crónica, La Nación, Le Monde, La Opinión, La Prensa, La Razón, and La Voz del Interior), was published in Sao Paulo in 1984, and then in 1992, coinciding with the exhibition Five Hundred Years of Repression, held at the Centro Cultural Recoleta.
Though not included in Ferrari’s series, the Argentine Catholic Church’s connivance and complicity with the Dirty War will be highlighted in the commemoration event at the Centro Cultural Rojas, which documents the hierarchy’s and the congregation’s validation of torture and repression, leading up to the institution’s request for the junta leaders to be pardoned.
Commemorating 30 years of democratic government in Argentina, the mixed-techique series León Ferrari’s Nosotros no sabíamos will be exhibited at the Universidad de Buenos Aires’ Centro Cultural Rojas, followed by the screening of the documentary Argentina — 30 años de democracia. Cultura y universidad, and an interview with Francisco Delich, the UBA’s first dean (1983-1986). The commemoration will include a song and dance festival, screenings and readings.
Where & When
30 años de democracia. Exhibition of León Ferrari’s works and arts festival. At Centro Cultural Rojas UBA, Av. Corrientes 2038. From 7pm. Free admission.
—Herald with online media