Victoria. Venceremos. Uruguay. Margarita Paksa obliterates these words in her distinctive glass-framed works at the Hammer Museum’s “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985” show for Pacific Standard Time LA/LA.
Paksa’s art takes a magnifying glass to Latin American history and burns a hole. Her sharp colorful typography entraps dual sentiments of patriotism and rebellion. Pride and shame. Affection and dishonor. Her pieces, which are effectively posters reimagined, are about the threat of loss. When democracy goes, what is at stake? When art is erased, what is left to resist oppression? One stands in Los Angeles at the Hammer, wondering what the history and political art of Latin America reveals about L.A.’s own creative future.
Two of Paksa’s works contain magnified images of a rifle’s crosshairs. The third, “Venceremos,” avoids the firearm’s focused scope altogether by stamping itself on a drawing that bears resemblance to a military map of the Argentine Tucumán province. All three give the sense a trigger is about to be pulled.
Her work speaks to a history of violence and abuse that enveloped many South Americans lives during the dictatorships of the 1970s. This includes my mother, who was a student in Montevideo at the time Operación Cóndor (the name of the political repression campaigns by South American dictatorships) was in effect. For many, that period remains sinisterly murky and unexamined; routine kidnappings by the governments of Uruguay, Chile, Argentina and others never fully coming to light.
The piece in the center of Paksa’s trio, “Uruguay,” also has a secondary word upon which the gun sight is trained: “Tupamaros.” This was the guerilla group in Uruguay which was active from 1967-1973. Known for its far-left Marxist politics, they routinely raided provisions from the wealthy and gave them to the poor. The Tupamaros also kidnapped powerful figures for ransom and killed an Italian-born FBI agent who had been training the military in advanced torture techniques.
Tupamaros is a divisive subject of conversation for many Uruguayans, with their supporters believing in the righteousness of their cause under an authoritarian regime, and their detractors viewing Tupamaros’ intentions to “liberate” as highly suspect.
Within my family the Tupamaros fueled arguments, with my grandparents seeing the leftist opposition to the regime as flawed and my mother viewing them more sympathetically. My mother was a highschool teacher in Uruguay before we moved to the States. Now she is a Professor of Latin American literature, with memory of trauma being a major aspect of her studies. She was a child when the Tupamaros were most active, but even now, with Jose Mujica as president (a former Tupamaro who was imprisoned for years) she recognizes the significance of their struggle. Although my mother does not believe she would have joined the group had she been old enough, due to her own morals and perspective on armed struggle, she says she would have marched. Once she was old enough to vote, she used that political right to support the opposition which had many former Tupamaros amongst their ranks.
I took the opportunity looking at Paksa’s work to draw personal conclusions, including this: whatever one’s opinion about the Tupamaros, there is no doubt that they were systematically targeted, hunted and imprisoned. The gun sights here pull time’s Band-aid off what is for many South Americans a never fully healed wound. Violence happened. Survivors, like Paksa, show us what is was like to live under the perpetual threat of elimination. And it is still terrifying, if remote.
Uruguay, una situación fuera de foco, is the middle piece of Paksa’s wall. It usurps the clean composure of military font as a backdrop for its trigger-happy explosion of color. Her work – which seems the opposite of turmoil with its clipped edges, pure colors and poster-propagandistic flair — is born from a period of turmoil. In our age of post-factual narratives, Paksa’s work conveys a timely reminder: someone is watching and ready to take away our freedom. Be wary.
The exhibit which is among the most-discussed of all the PST LA/LA shows, highlights female artists from across the region, focusing on topics ranging from human rights, sexuality and race in society. Many of the pieces made 20-30 years ago still seem radical in even today’s landscape.
The mediums vary widely; Chilean artist Gloria Camiruaga’s “Popsicles”, a film of women licking popsicles that hide plastic army soldiers within them, dominates my memory. A Venezuelan artist that goes simply by Marisol presents a life-sized sculpture in an adjacent room that clusters together multiple faces, legs, and body parts, titled Self-Portrait.
“Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985” is at the Hammer Museum in Westwood through December 31. Then the show moves to The Brooklyn Museum (April 13-July 22) and the Pinacoteca de Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo (August 18-November 19).