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Tucson Weekly Primal Screams

Uruguay's Women Artists Are Finally Free To Express Their Horror

By Margaret Regan

SEPTEMBER 2, 1997:  TINY URUGUAY, TUCKED in between Brazil and Argentina, may be one of the smallest of the South American nations, but a decade or two ago it surpassed its neighbors in torture.

Run by a brutal military dictatorship between 1973 and 1984, Uruguay was condemned by Amnesty International as the "torture chamber of Latin America." Secret police regularly subjected its citizens to the usual torments that fester where civil liberties are suspended: People were plucked from their beds in midnight raids, imprisoned without cause. Hidden away in the depths of the jails, they were variously beaten, raped, given electric shocks to the genitals and killed. Tens of thousands fled into exile.

So it's not too surprising to find that Uruguayan art reflects the savagery of those times. Las (In)visibles: Women Artists of Uruguay, a new show at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, is full of images of nightmarish human bodies. There are people who are half beast, half human; animals that stroll along nonchalantly with human heads in their jaws; headless human torsos with skin ripped off and internal organs leaking out; tattooed dwarves; piles of skulls and bones. And the colors of these works, which are in every medium from paint to prints to photography to video, are either the dull tones of bruises, muted blues and purples, or the virulent reds and oranges of open wounds.

Put together by independent curator Stacey Wescott, an American who's traveled to Uruguay numerous times since 1989, the traveling show gathers together works by 17 Uruguayan women artists. Nine of them were in exile during the worst years of the regime. Some of their art dates from the years before the dictatorship, as early as 1965. Some of it was produced at the height of the terror, when rage had to be concealed under layers of metaphor. The most explicit works were made in recent years, when censorship has eased. Yet nearly all the works register dread.

For instance, back in the '60s, when the nation was sliding toward oppression, Leonila González was already working on her tense Brides of the Revolution series. This group of woodcut prints foreshadows the horrors that were to come. The artist has taken the white-veiled bride, conventional symbol of hope and purity, and installed her into settings of despair. In "Number 5," she's dead, crucified on a cross, her veiled handmaidens wailing at her feet. "Number 9" more explicitly pinpoints the reasons for fear. Here the bride is trapped in a circle with other hapless brides, their veils tripping them up and tying their feet. Looming over the scene is a dark soldier, who stands erect and powerful, his guns on his hips, carefully watching the women he's ensnared.

Many of the works tap into the gender dimension of the Uruguayan repression. Naturally, the secret police and the military leaders were men, and they subjected their female prisoners to sexually specific tortures. Additionally, women who were pregnant when they were jailed had their newborn babies sold off on the black market, Wescott tells us. Patricia Silva's haunting "Woman of Silence," an acrylic on paper painted in 1996, is a tribute to the suffering of mothers whose children died or disappeared. A large central female figure, rendered in bold black outlines and tinted in purples and golds, holds her arms out, trying unsuccessfully to retrieve the ghostly spirits of the pale children floating around her. The blindfolded woman becomes an emblem of loss, a sainted Mother of the Dead.

Lacy Duarte, who went into exile in Brazil during the bad years, paints the atrocities in a fable that examines male and female power. "Rituals, Myths, Mirrors and Lies" is a 1990 mixed media on canvas composed of violent slashes of red and orange. In wild expressionist style, the work portrays a slain woman lying at the feet of a grinning king. Yet a tree has sprung up from her belly, suggesting the woman's legacy of life will outlast the king's legacy of death.

Many of the artists reported to the curator that the new, free Uruguay still remains a patriarchal machista country, where women in general and women in the arts have to struggle to become visible (hence the show's title). Women, says one, are in the sombra de la sombra, the shadow of the shadow. Some of the boldest work in the show lampoons male power. "Fat Until Further Notice" is a big mixed-media painting on unstretched canvas by Pilar González. Like her other works, it features a huge looming male, fat with greed and self-satisfaction. This one's in a business shirt and tie, but González cuts his pride down to size by fashioning him out of humble women's materials: patchwork cloth and rough stitches.

Still, it's a sign of new times that these artists dare to make their criticisms so transparent. During the time of torture, such artists as Vera Sienra worked in the language of metaphorical mutilation. Her mixed media watercolors show humans transmuting into beasts, in strange landscapes full of foreboding. A bleak untitled work from 1979 has two of these nightmare creatures wrestling to the death, one atop the other. In 1984 Ana Tiscornía painted bomber planes covering the skies: a giant mother plane seems to be disgorging an infinity of smaller planes.

Press photos by Nancy Urrutía dating from 1980 give an appalling view into what daily life in the dictatorship looked like. One of the black and white photos pictures only the lower bodies and legs of people in a crowd. The dainty white slippers and flowered skirt of a little girl are crowded out by the black jackboots and big guns of the police who are hemming in the crowd. In another, a little girl looks directly at the photographer. Her mother's hand is protectively resting on the girl's shoulder, but it's a hand without power. Directly next to the child's head is the policeman's gun.

Las (In)visibles: Women Artists of Uruguay continues through September 21 at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Hiber Conteris, a humanities professor at AIC and native of Uruguay, gives a free gallery talk at 2 p.m. Sunday, August 31. Donna Guy, a UA history and Latin American studies professor who specializes in gender issues, reports on her recent trip to Uruguay at 12:15 p.m. Wednesday, September 3. And at the same time on Wednesday, September 17, José Galvez, photographer and gallery owner, will discuss photojournalism. Regular gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. For more information call 621-7567.

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