Transcending a nation’s horrors

Sophie Rou Davies on “Madre” at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Argentina, until 28 February 2014


Marcos Adandia, Elvira Lucía Días de Triana, 2000. Courtesy of he Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

“Unflinching” may be the art critic’s favourite overstatement, but the word is apt for “Madre” at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires. This photo essay by the celebrated Argentine photographer Marcos Adandia captures the faces of the mothers whose sons and daughters “disappeared” during the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s, the later years of which became known as the “Dirty War”.

The wounds still fester, despite the 30th anniversary of the birth of democracy, which Argentina celebrated on 10 December. It is estimated that as many as 30,000 Argentines went missing between 1976 and 1983, and their remains are still being uncovered and identified.

The photos are large, black and white portraits of the mothers. A single line of text below each photo tells us the mother’s name, that of her son or daughter, and the date when he or she went missing. They tell a story of unbearable suffering, of a mother losing her child. The photos feel dignified and unadorned, with no trace of sentimentality or mawkishness.

Despite years of grief etched on their faces, no two mothers look alike. Some are hurt, some defiant, others still angry after all these years. Yet others are still searching, tormented by their worst imaginings. For years, many believed that their loved ones were still imprisoned, as no remains were found. Many of the women wear white headscarves, a symbol of the peace and the purity of a mother’s love. It is a stark contrast to the darkness and opacity of that shameful era.

The exhibition’s curators chose a graceful location in which to house the photographs. Displayed on the top floor of the museum, the exhibition continues outside on two separate terraces, interspersed with sculptures and plants. Generous views over Palermo Woods and the Neo-Classical law faculty of Buenos Aires University give the sense of a nation’s grander and more contented past. In the early 20th century, Argentina was one of the richest nations in the world. European immigrants flocked here to take advantage of the fertile land of its vast, sparsely inhabited pampas. This exhibition, in an effort to transcend the barbarism of the dictatorship, gently allies itself with a more peaceful period of Argentina’s history.

The Dirty War saw a brutal military regime wage war on its political opponents. The thousands of Argentines who “disappeared” during that time are presumed to have been murdered. Some of their bones were found in 2011 in a large mass grave at a secret detention centre called the Arsenal Miguel de Azcuenaga in the northern province of Tucuman. Since then, painstaking forensic work by the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team has tried to identify the bones, each of which is being held in a separate box labelled NN, standing for “No Name.” Scientists say that while identifying the remains they have found evidence of torture. 

Former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, who seized power in the military coup of 1976, died aged 87 in May this year, while serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity. But the memories of the atrocities committed during his years in power have outlived Videla. An organisation called the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, which marked its 35th anniversary last year, still walks around the square in central Buenos Aires every Thursday in protest at the abductions.  Their numbers are now dwindling,because many of the mothers are too old to walk or have died.

These mothers still inhabit an important part of the Argentine psyche, though they compete for attention with a glut of contemporary problems. Bitter social unrest makes present day Argentina a troubled nation. Spiralling inflation means that many Argentines are finding it increasingly difficult to survive on stagnant wages. The streets have been mired in violence in the past few weeks as a strike by the police force over wage cuts resulted in a spate of looting across Argentina. Twelve people have lost their lives in the violence to date.  With President Cristina Kirchner threatening action over the Falklands, these unlikely islands have once again become a convenient means of distracting the country’s attention from the real economic and social problems that it faces.

Argentina has, in the last half century, been the site of violence and repression, to which this exhibition bears witness. Its people have, however, managed to make their voices heard, and through strength and perseverance have risen above the horrors through which they have lived. These photographs convey that strength and forbearance, and should in some way, start to heal a terrible wound that Argentina must wish it never had.

Published Wed, 18 Dec 2013 16:15:00 GMT

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