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Story Publication logo February 15, 2012

El Salvador: The Politics of Art and Memory

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A month after the destruction of San Salvador's famous Cathedral façade, little has happened. A protest organized by Salvadoran artists was attended by fewer than 100 people and got sparse news coverage, a handful of editorials were written for progressive online publications, and many national artists have remained vocal about their outrage. But, really, nothing has truly mobilized, no person has been reprimanded, and the event has drifted out of everyday conversation. While at first momentous in creating a dialogue about Salvadoran art, culture, and identity, the destruction of the ceramic mural has nearly been forgotten.

In many ways, this lack of attention to cultural destruction is a deep-rooted reality of El Salvador. Another recent and notable example of murals being destroyed happened in Concepción de Ataco, a small town in western El Salvador. In April 2010, Chicana muralist Judy Baca and her California-based Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) team were invited by the US Embassy to paint murals there. They spent a week hosting mural workshops and working with more than 100 local Salvadoran artists and youth to create five murals. The murals were developed along the lines of the 2010 United Nations Millennium Development Goals: global warming, violence prevention and peaceful coexistence, rights to protect youth and children, gender equality, and the development of citizens' responsibility. The walls incorporated portraits of community residents, traditional Salvadoran landscapes, and Pre-Columbian motifs—bold, bright colors filling the public space with projections of new hopes. In January 2011, months after the paint had dried, Concepción de Ataco's mayor Oscar Oliverio Gomez ordered three of the murals, those dedicated to women's rights, indigenous roots, and environmental activism, to be whitewashed.

In response to the whitewashing, SPARC released a statement condemning the act as a "witness to the erasure of memory," "an act without conscience and regard for others," "a silencing of the people's hope for the future," ending the statement by asking: "For what end and purpose would the powers that be want to deny the people of Ataco their own voice? Why replace the vision of a better future, with the emptiness of white walls?"

Gomez's reason for the whitewashing, true or untrue, was that he was responding to the desires of the community, specifically the homeowners who gave their walls to the project. In a January 2011 interview with Salvadoran newspaper, La Prensa Gráfica, he said he would commission new murals to fill the walls, ones with, he says, "things from our culture, folklore, food, and music; things that are joyful, that bring life and hope." He added, "We are not here to have themes of social resentment, hatred, class differences, or the war. The war already happened." Thus, today, the walls of the whitewashed murals are decorated with ornate leaves or full of scenes of coffee workers happily working under the bright Salvadoran sun.

The Ataco murals illustrate the tension embedded within public art in El Salvador. In Gomez's eyes, the SPARC murals were not Salvadoran enough, and simultaneously too revolutionary and referential of El Salvador's past. Also, while many of the muralists on the project were connected to the left, the mayor is strictly on the right. Essentially, the SPARC murals were too leftist. The three murals whitewashed—indigenous rights, women's movements, and environmental activism— have all been themes in general campaigns of the left since the close of the 1980-1992 civil war. The two SPARC murals that remain are dedicated to children's rights and the history of Ataco, the later including a large detailed portrait of an elderly woman from the community. Whereas women weaving and farmers sowing a pollution-free land are too revolutionary, in the mayor's view, children and elderly are acceptable.

A block away from the SPARC murals, Gomez's office wall is also painted. The walls act as an electoral billboard with ARENA flags weaving around the building and quotations of "Dios, Union, Libertad," (God, Unity, Liberty) painted boldly. Included in the mural is a portrait of Roberto D'Aubuisson, co-founder of the ARENA party and the man responsible for ordering the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. These walls, a block away from one another, would have been a bi-partisan coexistence of political belief systems, perhaps interpreted as a statement to post-war peace. Whitewashing, however, was, in many ways, more fitting to political hostilities and nothing new to El Salvador.

This tradition of erasing has permeated El Salvador since 1932 when national archives were destroyed after a massacre that left 30,000 dead, seeking to remove the event in the nation's history. Following the signing of the 1992 peace accords, then Salvadoran president, Alfredo Cristiani was questioned about the 1981 massacre at El Mozote. His response: "I think it is better for the country if we don't always look back." In light of the cathedral mural destruction, Salvadorans have also recalled the initial conservative response to the mural's design, remembering non-supporters branding it the "towel on our Cathedral," in reference to the folkloric inspired towels that the artist, Fernando Llort, sells at his store. This attempt to erase memory and demean popular art seeks to rewrite history, while simultaneously garnering political power. Forgetting has become a clear agenda for the conservative right.

El Salvador's public walls are clearly used for expression. It is almost impossible to find a wall that doesn't bleed with some sort of message in the country. Along all the major highways graffiti races after buses with tags, characters, and throw-ups competing for wall space. Any left-wing affiliated building proclaims itself with painted portraits of Che Guevera or Archbishop Oscar Romero. The names and colors of political parties wrap around light poles like candy wrappers, while many local communities paint hopeful landscapes of farmers sowing corn in their town plazas. And in San Salvador, painted advertisements hit you at every corner, promoting everything from cell phone companies to chicken flavoring.

Since the end of the civil war wall paintings have been adapted as a medium in which to speak, a public forum that invites the eyes—and potential spray cans—of anyone who walks by. As a population that was largely silenced during a history of oppressive rulers and stark socio-economic divides, Salvadorans since 1992 have used mural painting, in particular, as a central component of historical memory campaigns. Walls became material markers of massacre sites, projections of community hopes, and declarations of rights, often paying homage to fallen martyrs. Murals, and often graffiti, carry a historical lineage that continues a dialogue of national heritage, political upheaval, and social commentary. This revolutionary nature is why conservative powers often order whitewashing. Mural painting's nature innately inscribes walls with political thrust, acting as testimony to social movements and social wrongs. Whitewashing, on the other hand, is a direct attempt to silence witness.

The painted walls that do remain all contribute to the cultural identity of El Salvador. They include a mural marking the entrance to the home of Archbishop Romero depicting Salvadorans raising their fists to the dark, hidden figures of the wealthy and powerful; the names of the massacred filling the wall of an outdoor meeting space in rural Copapayo; portraits of the radical Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton dotting the campus of the National University, along with murals of the Lascaux cave paintings in art history classrooms and political declarations of the US to get out of Libya; and the words "No más violencia" (No more violence) spray-painted amid gang graffiti along a central boulevard in downtown San Salvador. Still living in a post-Peace Accords era, now 20 years later, Salvadorans have a desire and shared struggle in defining themselves in accordance to cultural lineage and political struggles. Within this is the fight to preserve history, to remember the roots and struggles of the country so past wrongs are not repeated.

Conservative efforts to forget deny El Salvador its revolutionary history, ignore social wrongs, and discard the voices and memories shouting out across the country's walls. To answer SPARC's question as to why these murals were destroyed, or artists' outrage over the destruction of Llort's façade: the actions are in keeping with exertions of conservative power that attempt to silence the people and devalue their efforts in establishing a popular, collective Salvadoran identity. In other words, the destruction of the Ataco murals is a whitewashed stamp of power that sees past memories and future hopes as a political threat to a long established socio-cultural hierarchy.

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