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What Does Solidarity by Artists Look Like?

For centuries, outside economic interests have supported plutocratic and fascist governments in Central America. Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras suffered insurmountable and often deadly oppression when the Soviet-obsessed Reagan Administration spent tens of millions of dollars supporting right-wing Contras that committed myriad human rights atrocities against civilians from 1979 to 1990. This series of events catalyzed the formative 1980s activist campaign Artists Call Against US Intervention in Central America.

Currently on view at the University of New Mexico Art Museum (UNMAM), Art for the Future: Artists Call and Central American Solidarities is an exhibition exploring the activist artworks, films, poetry, performances, and actions created by participants in Artists Call. Featured are sound and video recordings, artistic and documentary photographs, paintings and sculptures, mail art, and installations by more than 100 artists, including five commissioned to create new pieces responding to the original movement. The UNMAM in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is the first stop of the exhibition’s multicity tour, following its initial run at Tufts University Art Galleries. 

Inspired by conceptual collective Group Material’s 1982 exhibition ¡LUCHAR! An Exhibition for the People of Central America at El Taller Latino Americano community center in New York City, Artists Call’s campaign was founded in January 1984 to protest US military interventions in Central America, raise funds in support of Central American self-determination and sovereignty, and educate the public about the reality of wars, primarily in Nicaragua and El Salvador, which were shrouded in propaganda. 

Between January and March of 1984, Artists Call expanded beyond New York to organize 31 exhibitions in 27 cities, plus performances, film screenings, and other cultural and educational events across the US and Canada. More than 1,100 artists from the Americas and Europe participated in Artists Call. The group worked with artist-run spaces, commercial galleries, university museums, and public access TV stations to draw attention to humanitarian crises.

Art for the Future developed from co-curator and Professor of Art History at Texas State University Erina Duganne’s rediscovery of archival materials relating to Artists Call in the Museum of Modern Art’s Library. Research and ephemera from the personal archives of prominent artists and organizers Doug Ashford, Josely Carvalho, and Lucy Lippard form the exhibition’s core. Duganne worked with curator and head of public engagement at Tufts University Art Galleries, Abigail Satinsky, for five years to bring the exhibition to the public. 

While Artists Call was a transnational organization, Art for the Future focuses on activities that occurred in New York City. Providing historical context of the events leading up to the Artists Call campaign is the fifth edition of “Brief History of US Interventions in Latin America Since 1946” (2005–2014), a two-sided black-on-white print by Colombian-born multidisciplinary artist Carlos Motta. On one side is a timeline of events recounting the history of US military, financial, and political incursions in Central American and Caribbean nations through 2013. On the other is the haunting image of dripping handprints, the signature of Mano Blanca (White Hand), an anti-communist death squad. On the floor is a stack of prints for museum visitors to take away and refer to as they experience the exhibition.

One question comes to the fore: What does solidarity look like? Can artists working thousands of miles from the sites of war truly be in solidarity with people trapped amid violent insurrections? It’s easy to say no. Most artists involved in Artists Call worked from a place of safety and privilege. However, Artists Call succeeded in swiftly creating a transnational network working toward a single purpose, rallying creatives of many stripes around the campaign’s motto, “If we can simply witness the destruction of another culture, we are sacrificing our own right to make culture.”

While the work and approaches of those involved in Artists Call varied, solidarity was built between the thousands of cultural workers engaged in raising funds and awareness toward the plight of the people of Central America and US involvement in their oppression. Much of the exhibited work remains relevant today — especially in border states with large Latinx populations like New Mexico — given the discriminatory rhetoric and policies against Latin American people. 

While Artists Call did not affect policy, it did demonstrate the efficacy of artmaking as political action. Like the initial organizers of Artists Call, Art for the Future has the potential to inspire others to do more work in researching, exhibiting, and writing about the original movement and applying the successes of the past to the issues of the present and future. 

Art for the Future: Artists Call and Central American Solidarities continues at the University of New Mexico Art Museum (203 Cornell Drive NE, Albuquerque, New Mexico) through December 3. The exhibition was organized by the Tufts University Art Galleries and curated by Erina Duganne and Abigail Satinsky.