December 1, 2017 – February 17, 2018
Dream of Solentiname examines the subjective thoughts and images that emerged around the spiritual, artistic, and political community from which the exhibition takes its name. Located on an archipelago in the south of Nicaragua, the art community on the Solentiname Islands was founded by Nicaraguan priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal in 1965 and, until its forced closure in 1977, was a destination for many politically-minded artists and writers. The detailed exhibition pamphlet—necessary for any visitor unfamiliar with Nicaraguan history—opens with “Apocalypse at Solentiname,” a story by famed Argentine author Julio Cortázar. Written after his own trip to Solentiname, the narrative describes Cortázar’s fascination with the community and his photographic documentation of the intriguing people and artworks he encounters. He looks forward to developing the photographs upon his return to Paris. However, when he does so, he instead finds images of the war-torn country—citizens brutally beaten, a youth shot by the National Guard, and women and children fleeing a massacre. “Apocalypse at Solentiname” confronts the line between fact and fiction, and the complex relationship of objectivity, photography, and voyeurism.
Curated by Pablo León de la Barra, Dream of Solentiname reflects the themes of Cortázar’s story, assuming multiple perspectives on the recent history of Nicaragua and its neighboring countries, and questioning the distinction between reality and constructed narrative. Highlighting diverse perspectives, León de la Barra takes the idea of apocalypse seriously. Apocalypsis, the Latin word for revelation, signals a gradual disclosure of information, which occurs as one travels through the exhibition’s five sections. Each room displays a different artist or group’s production—made either in response to or within the context of a tumultuous moment in Central American history—and is dedicated to the perspective of a distinct “witness:” New York-based artist collective Group Material, documentary photographer Susan Meiselas, Cardenal, the painters in Solentiname itself, and photographer Sandra Eleta and architect Marcos Agudelo.
Installation view of Dreams of Solentiname, 80 Washington Square East Gallery, 2018.Courtesy of Doug Ashford.
Beginning in the mid-1960s and extending into the present, the exhibition covers an era of radical change in Nicaragua. Between 1936 and 1979, the country was controlled by the Somozas, a violent authoritarian regime. The Sandinista National Liberation Front overthrew the Somoza Regime in 1979 but was left with a country in economic and political disarray. This instability was only exacerbated by President Ronald Reagan’s attempts to undermine the new government. On view in the first gallery, projects by Group Material confronted this U.S. imperialist interest in Nicaragua and greater Central America. They collaborated on exhibitions such as ¡Luchar! An Exhibition for the People of Central America at the Taller Latinoamericano in 1982 and, two years later, Timeline: A Chronicle of U.S. Intervention in Central and Latin America at P.S.1. The latter exhibition was part of an initiative named Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America, and many of the documents they circulated are on display, including letters signed by Louise Bourgeois, Leon Golub, Eric Fischl, and Barbara Kruger. These artists and others were working to convey the immediate threat of U.S. intervention, but Dream of Solentiname makes it clear that the letters and propaganda posters were limited in their ability to produce concern among foreign audiences.
The highlight of the exhibition, on the other hand, is a selection of paintings executed in Solentiname which synthesize many of the divergent viewpoints introduced in the rest of the exhibition. Small and vibrant, and set against lush, tropical backgrounds, the paintings are deceivingly enchanting. For the most part they are allegorical, intertwining biblical scenes with Nicaragua’s social and political turmoil. In Esperanza Guevara’s La Traición (The Betrayal) (1981), Judas’s betrayal of Christ unfolds in a rich setting of overwhelming vegetation. The National Guard—controlled by the Somoza regime until its overthrow—emerges from behind a tree. Even in Solentiname’s utopian community, the violent reality of Nicaragua was unavoidable.
Documenting the devastation throughout Nicaragua, Susan Meiselas’s well-known photographs are immediately captivating and reveal an outsider’s view of the brutal conflict. Meiselas traveled from the U.S. to Nicaragua in the 1970s, and her work often depicts the daily lives of her subjects against the backdrop of war. While the photographs are striking on their own, León de la Barra contrasts the full images with clippings from mainstream newspaper articles that used Meiselas’s photographs to promote U.S. intervention. The power of images, their reproduction, and their circulation is made visible. It is particularly interesting to contrast Meiselas’s images with the photographs of Sandra Eleta, a Panamanian artist whose work is included in the exhibition’s last gallery. Eleta, also working during the 1970s, presents a very different Nicaragua—black and white images reveal tranquil scenes of piety and peace at the church in Solentiname. In the face of pervasive violence, day-to-day life continued, as did the dream of utopia.