Dream of Solentiname at 80WSE, New York

By Jeppe Ugelvig

Susan Meiselas, Nicaragua: June 1978 – July 1979 (detail), 1981, photobook. Courtesy the artist Esperanza Guevara, La Traición (The Betrayal), 1975, painting, 36 × 55 cm. Courtesy Hermann Schulz

When Thomas More wrote Utopia (1516), he envisaged his invented, idealised realm as a reclusive island of the ‘New World’, a republic with social, religious and political customs reminiscent of a monastery. Perhaps utopias have always been deemed impossible sites precisely because of their envisioned and exotic isolation from the global forces of power and capital, which in reality surround and affect every community on the planet. Yet one is tempted to apply such a narrative to the remarkable story of Solentiname, the isolated island at the southern end of Lake Nicaragua. Consisting mainly of farmers who had suffered greatly from a lack of basic resources under the country’s long-reigning Somoza regime, it was transformed into a revolutionary artistic community by the priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal upon his arrival there in 1965. Practising his own take on liberation theology from a chapel distinct for its colourful, glass-clad facade, Cardenal’s society would attract several US artists and poets during the so-called Central American crisis, which saw violent US intervention in the region in order to dismantle several pro-communist revolutions, and would come to play a central role in the 1979 revolution led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front. Dreams of Solentiname bravely sets out to mediate this complicated history of political resistance through aesthetics, and its resonance in a North American context.

Spread over five galleries, the exhibition begins in reverse, with a partial display of Group Material’s Timeline: A Chronicle of U.S. Intervention in Central and Latin America, a 1984 installation by the New York artists’ collective originally shown at P.S.1. The work conveys in factual and chronological fashion the political history of the region from a North American perspective, focusing specifically on the century-long history of intervention by the US government. Below a bold red line, running horizontally along two walls, a disparate group of cultural artefacts (from works of art to revolutionary propaganda) recounts a material history of the conflict-ridden relations between the US and its southern neighbours, while documents from the group’s own activist engagement (shows, fundraisers, rallies) under the Reagan administration sit above. Group Material in many ways spearheaded the New York artworld’s response to the Central and Latin American crises, and actively speculated on the politics of narrative authority: who gets to speak, who is represented, in a conflict?

If Group Material provides a factual contextualisation, Susan Meiselas’s meditative photojournalism adds a haunting visuality to the story of Nicaragua’s violent dictatorship and subsequent revolution, which displaced tens of thousands of people. The American photographer travelled to the region to document the lived experience of the Nicaraguan people during the late-1970s insurrection and published her images in magazines and newspapers around the world, as well as in her book Nicaragua, June 1978 – July 1979 (1981). Here, selected images – striking and paradoxical scenes of a war-torn country – are installed on a dim corkboard background: a desperate mother fleeing with her naked child; revolutionary youths veiled in homemade balaclavas and practising throwing contact bombs; President Anastasio Somoza, cool and dressed all in white, entering the National Congress from his armoured car. Nicaragua’s unruly and radiant green forests serve as background to all of this, most stunningly depicted in Cuesta del Plomo (published in Nicaragua), wherein a decaying corpse, half-eaten by vultures, is enfolded by the bucolic landscape of the dense rainforest. Across the room, tear sheets from magazines collected by Meiselas track how her images were consumed as they were distributed in the global media. Meiselas, too, remains ambivalent towards the skewed representations of war: images aestheticise violence and pain, but can nonetheless possess a power as documentation and as monuments. Meiselas herself has continued to gauge this, returning to the region in 2004 to install 19 mural-size reproductions of her images around the country in collaboration with local communities, creating, according to exhibition materials, sites for collective memory.

That art serves a meaningful function to the victims of war was the basic ethos of Cardenal and the Solentiname community, to which the rest of the exhibition is devoted. Born in Granada, 20km outside Managua, Cardenal enjoyed a moderately successful career in the US with his sculptures – modernist wood-carved and glossily painted animal figures reminiscent of Brancusi – before entering the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where, under the guidance of fellow poet and monk Thomas Merton, he developed his popular theories of liberation through communist interpretations of Catholicism. At Solentiname he spread his gospel while encouraging creativity, bringing along young Nicaraguan artist Róger Pérez de la Rocha to teach technical aspects of painting to the increasingly autonomous community, which they adopted as a way to make sense of the devastating experience of the unfolding revolution. Striking are the many densely detailed oil paintings in their one-to-one allegorising of political violence via classic biblical motifs: in Esperanza Guevara’s La Traición (The Betrayal, 1984), Somoza soldiers acts as stand-ins for Romans in a ‘Judas kiss’ scene; while Julia Chavarria’s La Matanza de Los Inocentes (Murder of the Innocents, 1984) directly renders the regime’s merciless slaying of children as Herod’s infanticide in Bethlehem. In a palette of luminous greens, purples, and reds – echoed, too, in Cardenal’s shiny sculptures – one finds, amidst all this violence, a persistent longing for the idealised image of Paradise, an image to which Solentiname’s lush landscape so easily lends itself, and which its community members strove to practise every day. Over the course of a decade, Solentiname would house several US and Latin American artists and poets (such as Juan Downey and Julio Cortázar), some of whom were even invited to exhibit their paintings at institutions in the US. After the revolution, Cardenal would serve as the reformed country’s first minister of culture.

A site of faith, aesthetics, and revolutionary politics, the story of Solentiname feels more unreal in the context of today’s ongoing conflicts in the small Central American country, where the leftist reformist president Daniel Ortega, a founding member of the Sandinistas and former close ally of Cardenal, has been criticised for severe human-rights violations and a progression towards autocracy. Yet, if the nature of politics and power is as cyclical as Nicaragua’s history suggests, there might also be hope that the utopian organisation of civil life is a recurrently possible scenario, one that again and again spurs radical political imagination through the productive synthesis of art and politics.

1 December – 17 February 2018

From the March 2018 issue of ArtReview