NYC’s First Exhibit on Contemporary Guatemalan Art Reimagines the Country’s Bloody Past

“I was born in 1974, after that, there was the earthquake, then the coup d’état, then Sundays with Rios Montt giving us sermons on TV. After that, people were sentenced to be shot, then entire towns were erased without anyone saying a thing …calm never came, the peace accord was signed but never came. Mutilated bodies and raped women arrived, desperation arrived.”

Last Thursday evening, at Parsons’ Aronson Gallery, artist Regina José Galindo kicked off her talk at the opening of Guatemala Después with these heavy words – a stark reminder of the 36 years of violent conflict fueled by U.S.-backed military regimes that have have plagued Guatemalan society.

Remembering is at the heart of Guatemala Después, a new exhibition exploring this nearly 40-year legacy of conflict. Collaboratively curated by over 40 artists, researchers, activists, and political scholars from The New School and Guatemala’s Ciudad de la Imaginación respectively, it is NYC’s first exhibit on contemporary Guatemalan art.

“Historically depicted in American media as the quintessential ‘Banana Republic,’ Guatemala continues to struggle with the legacy of 36 years of armed conflict and genocide,” said Julian de Mayo, a member of the curatorial team that put the exhibit together.  “The peace accords between guerrilla groups and government were signed in 1996, yet it is still afflicted by systemic impunity, violence and a perpetual state of post-colonialism.”

According to de Mayo, in the midst of this environment – and perhaps as a consequence of it – a generation of influential artists, activists, and philosophers emerged.  They created innovative cultural spaces, formed interdisciplinary collectives and developed unique artistic practices that make sense of their surroundings.

One of the installations at the exhibit shows Galindo performing ¿Quien Puede borrar las huellas? (Who can erase the traces?), in which she walks from the Guatemala Congress to the National Palace, dipping her bare feet in a bowl of human blood and leaving bloody footprints along the way. The vigorous and powerful performance was done to protest the 2003 presidential candidacy of the country’s former dictator and alleged perpetrator of genocide, José Efraín Ríos Montt.

“These artists are critical mirrors of the reality of the country,” said co-curator Pablo José Ramírez. “The project is trying to do many things: To open new spaces to showcase contemporary art from Guatemala, to build international networks that connect artists from different countries, and to address issues dealing with Guatemalan and Latin American society.”

Installation Me escuchas? Can you hear me?  plays with many of these concepts of place, transnational interactions, technology and dialogue. It consists of Skype gatherings between two small groups of diverse Guatemalans, located in New York and Quetzaltenango respectively. The idea is for participants to prepare and eat identical meals and drinks – they are “together” but at a distance, engaging in unscripted conversations on a variety of subjects.

“Me escuchas?” Daniel Perara and Jessica Kairé
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“We wanted to organize identical scenarios and spaces in both locations, use the same utensils, same table cloth, same recipes, to be shared,” said Jessica Kairé, one of the two artists collaborating in the installation/performance. “We are leaving an empty chair on both ends so people can come and join at some point in the five-hour long performance” she explained.

“Hopefully what we are trying to create are the conditions for people who never talk about these things amongst themselves – genocide and war – to dare and be expressive with family and personal histories,” added Daniel Perera, Kairé’s counterpart in the project. “It’s an experiment and at the end of the day everyone we are bringing together has a connection to this past and its aftermath.”

In addition to the exhibit in NYC, Guatemala Después will also include an exhibit in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, a digital collection, academic courses, and public programming.

Guatemala Después is on view at Parsons’ Aronson Gallery, 66 Fifth Avenue at 13th St, New York, April 10-29 and Guatemala in June 2015.