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Aesthetics of Disobedience, Part I: A Piscataway Mural Made in Solidarity with Chile

By Florencia San Martín

July 31, 2018

Cover of the September 20, 1973 issue of the Livingston Medium
Livingston medium, vol. 4 no. 3, 1973 September 20. Lucy R. Lippard papers, 1930s-2010, bulk 1960s-1990. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Found among the papers of art critic Lucy Lippard is the September 20, 1973 issue of The Medium, the student newspaper of Livingston College at Rutgers University. On the cover, a black and white reproduction of a mural made by students on campus shows Salvador Allende, the Chilean politician who was elected president in 1970. Wearing his signature black-framed glasses, and sharply illuminated from above, Allende, the first ever Marxist democratically elected president, is portrayed with a confident smile, his head and arm raised, addressing the people, el pueblo.* He is celebrating the victory of his left-wing coalition, Unidad Popular (Popular Unity), and thus the victory of his socialist program centered on the redistribution of land and wages, free access to health care and education, and the nationalization of natural resources owned by multinational foreign corporations. Accordingly, Allende is not alone in the image. Behind him, three men—embodying the indigenous and the peasant, the working class, and the socially committed student and intellectual—march with Allende sharing his joy. Raising their voices, hammers, and arms, they represent individual identities but also a united body that seeks the same ideal: a society with equal rights built on collectivity and solidarity. 

Reprint of article by Eva Cockcroft
Mural for the people of Chile, 1973. Lucy R. Lippard papers, 1930s-2010, bulk 1960s-1990. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Significantly, in this image the representation of collectivity and solidarity expands the temporal and geographical framework of the Unidad Popular’s years in Chile that ended on September 11, 1973, when a military coup, backed by the United States, destroyed the democratically elected government provoking the exile, torture, and death of thousands, among them Allende. This is evident not only in the fact that both this image and its reproduction were made in Piscataway, New Jersey after the coup, but also in the conceptual ways in which these ideas are addressed with the combination of image and text. The text on the upper right declares, “You can kill a man but not an idea!” For People’s Painters, the muralist collective who first created the image—and by extension The Medium, the socially-committed outlet reproducing it—collectivity and solidarity were ongoing and translational models for resisting the capitalist world system. Something similar occurs with the phrase “We support Chilean Workers + Peasants!” The choice to fracture the text, highlighting “Chilean Workers + Peasants!” at the bottom of the image, functions as both an identity politics banner—carried enthusiastically by the Chilean pueblo before the coup—and a post-coup motto made collectively by US cultural workers in a spirit of Pan-American solidarity. The continuity of the notion of pueblo as an international collective and solidarity network is exactly what these two Piscataway-based organizations intended and achieved. This perpetuation of ideas is even more evident in the formation of People’s Painters in the early 1970s, who took as their core influence the Brigada Ramona Parra (BRP), a Chilean muralist collective dedicated to promoting the agenda of the Unidad Popular.

Founded in 1968 by the communist youth organization Juventudes Comunistas de Chile (JJCC) in solidarity with victims of the Vietnam War, the BRP developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, making politically-charged, anonymous murals throughout the country, garnering the attention of socially concerned peoples internationally. In the United States, Eva Cockcroft, then an art history student at Rutgers, learned about the BRP in the spring of 1972. Influenced by the previous decade’s anti-imperialist and feminist movements, Cockcroft felt the need to experience Allende’s democratic revolution with this muralist collective first-hand. Thus, in the summer of 1972, she made a one-month trip to Chile, contacting members of the BRP, talking to them, painting with them, and photographing their work. It was upon her return to New Jersey that Cockcroft, alongside her husband James, then a professor of sociology at Rutgers, founded the People’s Painters collective. As she wrote in her essay “People’s Painters,”

On my return from Chile, I presented some [BRP] slides shows at area colleges to let people know what was happening in Chile. . . . It was in this spirit that our group was formed. After the slides show, a number of people from the audience gathered to talk more about forming a Chilean-style mural collective.

But it was not simply their style—rapid strokes, flat colors with bold black outlines, simple iconography, and the overlapping of image and text—that the New Jersey group took from the Chileans. They understood that the BRP’s formal strategy was in the service to a larger and more complex aesthetic project, making work by and for people with shared histories of repression or in solidarity with them. In so doing, People’s Painters also understood that at the heart of the BRP’s aesthetics was the making of murals that could be covered and repainted as the political agenda changed in the ongoing lucha (fight) against capitalist and neoimperialist repression.

Cover of the April 5, 1973 issue of the Livingston Medium
The Livingston Medium, vol. 3 no. 24, 5 Apr. 1973. Lucy R. Lippard papers, 1930s-2010, bulk 1960s-1990. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The Allende mural, for instance, was created on the same wall where People’s Painters had made another mural five months before. This earlier mural was also reproduced by The Medium for its April 5, 1973 issue, also saved in Lippard’s archive. Representing an episode of police brutality against the Latinx community that had just occurred on campus, a Puerto Rican woman, with her hands tied and knees and head on the floor, is shown at the center of the mural being beaten by a white policeman. She is painted to human scale, and at her right is the Spanish expression “¡Ya basta!” (Stop! Enough!), making visible the long and continuous history of injustice toward Puerto Ricans living in the mainland United States. On the right side of the image is the English phrase “United to end police brutality,” highlighting the urgency to collectively end police aggression toward minorities in a multilingual and multicultural nation.

Tellingly, traces of the phrase, “United to end police brutality,” are still visible on the Allende mural. On the upper right, fragments of the words “United,” “End,” and “Police” appear as ghosts of a collective and shared past that refuses erasure. This overlapping of past and present vis-à-vis police brutality against minorities in the North and state violence in South America is even more striking considering the origin of the name Brigada Ramona Parra.

A twenty-year-old Marxist from the JJCC, Ramona Parra was shot by the police in Santiago in 1946 while protesting labor rights in solidarity with striking nitrate workers. More than twenty years later, the BRP decided to honor a female, non-heroic subject whose struggles in the public space were anonymous but collective, whose death, and therefore life, went unnoticed. Fulfilling a promise made by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who upon Parra’s death wrote in “Los llamo” (“I Invoke Them”) from Canto General, “Ramona Parra . . . juramos en tu nombre continuar esta lucha” (“Ramona Parra . . . we swear in your name to continue this struggle”), the BRP identified itself with a luchadora del pueblo. In so doing, the collective linguistically challenged the modernist idea that public interventions—strikes, protests, art—are only organized or performed by masculine, heroic and authorial subjectivities, differentiating itself from the names used by other brigades in Chile. This linguistic strategy was also central for the People’s Painters. As Cockcroft explained in her essay “People’s Painters,” the collective used their own form of identification: the English translation of the Spanish notion of pueblo followed by the word painters. In so doing, they embodied an art made by and for the people; an art in which collectivity and solidarity were performed together to uphold the always changing demands of those left aside by modernity’s hierarchical structures.

Detail from reprint of article by Eva Cockcroft
Detail, Mural for the people of Chile, 1973. Lucy R. Lippard papers, 1930s-2010, bulk 1960s-1990. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Across the top of the April 5th issue of The Medium, the phrase “United to End Police Brutality” is written in red ink, and next to it “People’s Painters.” It is thus fair to believe that Lippard—who also told me via email that she “. . .may well have met [Cockcroft] in the 60s,” and who knew about Latin American practices merging art and politics after her well-documented trip to Argentina, chronicled by Julia Bryan-Wilson in her book Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era—was aware of the BRP and the origins of it name on the one hand, and about the relationship between People’s Painters, Allende’s Unidad Popular, and international solidarity on the other. Not surprisingly, as I will describe in the second part of this essay, Lippard participated in, and significantly helped to document and disseminate, an important art action in which a BRP mural—painted originally on the banks of the Mapocho River in Santiago and destroyed by the new military regime—was reproduced in New York in October 1973.

 

*Words like el pueblo are gendered male in the Spanish language, but also function grammatically as an all-gender plural.

 

*Words like el pueblo are gendered male in the Spanish language, but also function grammatically as an all-gender plural.

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Florencia San Martín is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Rutgers University, and the 2017–18 Patricia and Phillip Frost Predoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Comments

Very good article. I identify with it because I grew up under the dictatorship pf Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. It lasted 30 years. That's the only reason I came to NYC.

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