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Beauty in the Aftermath of Bloodshed

Argentine Artist Explores Human Rights Terrain

By Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs
Posted March 15, 2000

The recent return of General Augusto Pinochet from house arrest in England to the country he once ruled &endash; aging and ill, but free &endash; is a riveting development not only for those in Chile but throughout Latin America, where fragile new civilian governments hope to unite nations traumatized by Cold War-era human rights violations.

At the Center for Latin American Studies, the human rights questions at the forefront for the continent took center stage last week, with the opening of a gallery exhibit by Argentine artist Claudia Bernardi and a public lecture the following day by Guatemalan prosecutor Mynor Melgar, the center's first human rights fellow.

A 1985 master's degree graduate of Berkeley's art program, Bernardi creates hauntingly layered, color-saturated prints by running wet paper through a press as many as 200 times to imbed powder pigments into it, and then etching the color with a sharp but flexible porcupine quill.

Her work is informed by the trauma of Argentina's "Dirty War" of 1976 to 1983 &endash; in which at least 30,000 people were "disappeared" &endash; and her role in helping to exhume mass graves in Central America and Ethiopia.

"It is impossible to be in a mass grave and return unchanged," she said in remarks at the March 8 opening of "Frescos on Paper." "Everything I need to learn about life, good or bad, I learned at El Mozote."

At El Mozote, El Salvador, 767 civilians, including many children, were killed in 1981 by an elite battalion of the Salvadoran military. Bernardi created archeological maps for the forensic anthropology team sent to gather evidence as to what had happened and who was responsible for the massacre.

Taking measurements inside the mass grave, she encountered intimately the evidence of human inhumanity at its worst. But at El Mozote she also met Rufina, the sole survivor of the massacre, who "had the courage to speak about it without belligerence." Civilians who testify about such incidents are "nothing short of heroes," Bernardi said. "I met many Rufinas and Rufinos."

The Berkeley-based artist and teacher spoke of the "enormous trust" that Latin Americans place in poets and visual artists who are able to express widely-felt yearnings for justice in the wake of such tragedies.

In the United States, artists receive "strong instruction in exercising one's individuality," Bernardi observed. She said she and many Latin American artists subscribe to an "opposite understanding" -- that the artist has a kind of antennae that allows her or him to pick up on what "the majority" is experiencing, and to say "the same thing at the same time" as others.

After democracy was restored in Argentina in 1983, a number of military officers were convicted of human rights abuses and sentenced to jail in a series of trials that have been likened in importance to those at Nuremberg following World War II. Later, taking advantage of newly promulgated amnesty laws, all of the Argentine officials, even those who received life sentences, were set free. A few are now under house arrest, due to the work of human rights organized.

"It's possible to be totally discouraged about justice when you witness that," the artist said.

But the evolving body of international human rights law is largely about creating precedents, Bernardi noted, and "if the (Argentine) trials wouldn't have happened, the Truth Commissions in El Salvador and Guatemala (following the establishment of civilian rule) would not have happened."

"All of us who work in human rights," she said, "must take an urgent vaccination of super hope."

"Frescos on Paper" is on exhibit at the Center for Latin American Studies, located at 2334 Bowditch Street, until Sept. 1. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4 p.m. For information e-mail or call 642-2088.



March 15-21, 2000 (Volume 28, Number 25)
Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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