Exhibition at 80WSE Gallery explores the relationship between aesthetics and politics in Central America

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Exhibition at 80WSE Gallery explores the relationship between aesthetics and politics in Central America
Installation Shot: Gallery 5: Marcos Agudelo, 2010-2017. Reconstrucción de Iglesia de Solentiname.

NEW YORK, NY.- In 1965, a spiritual, political, and artistic movement emerged on an archipelago of islands in the south of Nicaragua: Solentiname. Ernesto Cardenal, a leading poet and priest, established this community in its remote location on Lake Nicaragua. For over 50 years, Cardenal has been committed to social change, starting with Solentiname, which played a significant role in the Sandinista revolution over the U.S. backed Somoza regime. ‘Dream of Solentiname’ looks at this key moment in the relationship between aesthetics and politics in Central America as well as its impact on artists working in New York City during the 1980s as the contra war against the new Sandinista government was underway.

Correspondence between Ernesto Cardenal and fellow priest Thomas Merton document the founding ideas for Solentiname as a social and artistic utopia built around principles of art, liberation theology, and social justice. Painting became a way of political expression, economic support, and lifestyle for the inhabitants of the archipelago. Residents of the communal society also wrote poetry, created ceramics, handicrafts, and works in wood, leather, copper, bronze, and silver. Over the years the community hosted a number of writers and artists including novelist Julio Cortázar, artist Juan Downey, museum director James Harithas, poet Allen Ginsberg, and photographer Sandra Eleta.

Solentiname’s community was established from 1965 until 1977 when it was destroyed by the Somoza regime. The Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) overthrew the Somoza dictatorship two years later in the people’s revolution. When the new government was formed Cardenal became the minister of culture and the Solentiname experience was seen as a model for the cultural program of the revolution.

Many of the historical paintings from the original Solentiname community were sold abroad as a way to earn funds for subsistence in Solentiname; this exhibition brings a number of these works together with some key pieces from the artists’ own collections. This series contains Oscar Mairena’s depictions of community celebrations, Rodolfo Arellano’s portrayal of the assault of San Carlos Fort during the Sandinista Revolution, and Elena Pineda’s visions of a post-Somoza future. While there was no formal training, painter Róger Pérez de la Rocha spent time working in Solentiname, working with the community and supporting the development of their distinct style of painting. In the adjacent gallery, works by Ernesto Cardenal span the last 50 years. The sculptures are inspired by the nature and wildlife of the islands and echo Cardenal’s ideals of living amongst nature, in harmony within paradise. Publications by Cardenal are on display alongside those of Argentinian novelist Julio Cortazar, who visited Solentiname in 1976, culminating in his work Apocalipsis de Solentiname. Also included are archival materials documenting the community’s local bulletins, in addition to Cardenal’s correspondence with Merton, who encouraged Cardenal in developing his vision for the community of Solentiname, but passed away before he had the opportunity to visit the islands and witness Cardenal’s vision come to fruition.

The exhibition includes a recreation of the Solentiname chapel by architect and artist Marcos Agudelo, son of William Agudelo, poet and co-founder of Solentiname. The chapel was the spiritual and political center of Solentiname and was restored by Agudelo in 2011. He presented a first version of this architectural installation at the 2016 Bienal de Nicaragua. The installation includes a video slide show of the process of renovation of the chapel, as well as posters designed by his father depicting the spirit of the revolution.

This exhibition also features the Panamanian photographer Sandra Eleta. In the 1970s, Eleta struck up a friendship with Cardenal and traveled to Solentiname a number of times, creating a visual testimony of the community. Accompanied by writer Gloria Guardia, Eleta began the first comprehensive documentation of Solentiname in 1974. Their travel experiences were published in a book titled Con Ernesto Cardenal: Un viaje a Solentiname (With Ernesto Cardenal: A Journey to Solentiname).

The work of photographer Susan Meiselas – documenting the insurrection in Nicaragua and resulting in the book Nicaragua: June 1978 – July 1979 – was widely disseminated throughout international news outlets during the 70s and 80s. Meiselas traveled to Nicaragua not for the sole purpose of documenting the war, but to capture the lived experience of the Nicaraguan people residing in a war-torn country. Meiselas returned to Nicaragua ten years after the Sandinista revolution to revisit the people and places she had previously captured, resulting in her film project, Pictures From a Revolution, which allowed her to reconnect with the subjects of her photographs. Meiselas has an interest in re-contextualizing her work; she often uses other photographs and materials in conjunction with her own, creating installations that continually re- examine historical and personal narratives. For many Americans, the only insight into the revolution was through the mainstream media, which often misrepresented the situation in order to gain support for the country’s interventionist strategies. The revolution’s treatment in the news galvanized artists in NYC, resulting in the 1984 New Museum exhibition The Nicaragua Media Project, which challenged the misunderstandings perpetuated by Reagan-era propaganda. ‘Dream of Solentiname’ emphasizes the importance of artists during this historical moment and how painting and photography, as well as the other forms of art and literature that developed in Solentiname in the 1960s and 1970s, can serve as a tangible example of sociopolitical transformations. The exhibition explores this radical period within Nicaragua, as well as the relevance of these ideas today.

1984 was also the year that New York-based artists’ collective Group Material (Doug Ashford, Julie Ault, Mundy McLaughlin, and Tim Rollins) joined the wider initiative, Artists Call: Against U.S. Intervention in Central America, which resulted in a network of artists and cultural workers coming together to organize a program of exhibitions and benefits in order to raise awareness and funds for the popular revolutions. Timeline: A Chronicle of U.S. Intervention in Central and Latin America was first presented in 1984 at P.S. 1. The original Timeline featured a mix of historical and contemporary artworks, artifacts, and documentary materials to illustrate the tumultuous relationship between the U.S. and Central and Latin America. Group Material’s practice hinges on the critical orientation of their installations, bringing seemingly disparate narrative parts together, and allowing for the emergence of new insights and connections

The exhibition – curated by Pablo León de la Barra with 80WSE Gallery – runs December 1, 2017 through February 17, 2018. This exhibition will tour to the Jumex Foundation in Mexico City in March 2018.

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