Archived Opposition: “Art for the Future” at Tufts University Art Galleries

Greg Sholette’s Insurrection (1984/2021) involves a short text repeatedly silkscreened on four adjacent panels that remain half-concealed under a lush thicket of synthetic flora native to Latin America. The phrase is from an 1858 treatise by archaeologist and onetime United States chargé d’affaires in Central America E.G. Squier, who promoted the white supremacist ideology of Manifest Destiny via the tropes of evolutionary naturalism, calling US colonization nothing more than assistance to a fate that would otherwise unfold at a slower pace: “Deus Vult––it is the will of God!”

Insurrection was first exhibited at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York as part of the 1984 exhibition “Artists Call Against US Intervention in Central America,” one installment of a nationwide grassroots initiative that artist Doug Ashford, critic Lucy R. Lippard, and several others started in 1982, as the Reagan Doctrine of covert political meddling and overt military intervention was rapidly unfolding. In the following decade, “Artists Call” mobilized more than a thousand artists, writers, filmmakers, activists, and collectives—including Group Material and Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PAD/D), along with Fluxus publisher Barbara Moore and Sholette himself—who engaged in activities ranging from fundraising and media advocacy to street protest and direct action.

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This history, particularly some of its forgotten chapters, served as a point of departure for the exhibition “Art for the Future: Artists Call and Central American Solidarities,” curated by Erina Duganne and Abigail Satinsky across the two venues of the Tufts University Art Galleries in Boston and Medford, Massachusetts. Along with a selection of artworks exhibited in various “Artists Call” events throughout the 1980s, “Art for the Future” brought together recent and newly commissioned pieces. Also on view was a rich collection of archival materials, many of which were on public display for the first time, including newsletters, posters, zines, correspondence, financial records, calendars, and logbooks that show the scope and organizational complexity of such a massive effort. The exhibition also contextualized other, more contemporary forms of artistic opposition to US imperialism, such as Decolonize This Place.

One of the campaign’s most iconic posters, depicting the silhouette of a toppling banana statue, was designed by Claes Oldenburg. It greeted viewers arriving at the exhibition’s Medford venue. Additionally, one of Oldenburg’s collaborative projects with Coosje van Bruggen was featured in the show via two pieces from a series of drawings and maquettes for an unrealized monument titled Blasted Pencil (That Still Writes), 1983–84. Broken near the tip, with its long graphite rod exposed, the oversize writing implement was meant to honor the victims and survivors of an armed assault on striking students at the University of El Salvador by the National Guard in 1980, which  led to the persecution of the academics during a four-year period of military presence on the campus.

Paintings on gallery walls with vitrines holding materials in front

Installation view of “Art for the Future: Artists Call and Central American Solidarities.”

Among the newly commissioned pieces in the show was 1984: Space-Time Capsule (2021) by Beatriz Cortez. A steel-framed geodesic dome covered with black and yellow feathers, 1984 welcomed museumgoers through a low opening. Under the dome, Cortez gathered different archives, displaying small-scale reproductions of press clippings and envelopes containing the “Artists Call” correspondence, papers from Oldenburg’s estate, and relevant pieces from van Bruggen’s personal archive dating back to 1984. Part shelter, part memorial, the piece epitomizes Cortez’s practice as an artist, activist, and archivist, and shared her intimate sense of historicity with the audience. Another work that provided an acute sense of connection across time and space was Muriel Hasbun’s Arte Voz (2016), a domed radio tower of average human height standing on four slender legs and equipped with a stethoscope and earphones. Linked with another radio tower in San Salvador, Arte Voz allowed visitors here and there to record their heartbeats and transmit them between the Tufts galleries and the concurrent exhibition “Artists Call NOW,” curated by Hasbun and Duganne, at the Cultural Center of Spain in El Salvador.

Despite these attempts at recollection and connection, during the discussion that followed her keynote address at the opening reception for the show, Lippard made two crucial but rather despairing points. She framed “Artists Call” as a “failure” particularly on the level of policy making, since it did not reach the actual corridors of power. Intervention in Central America and elsewhere remains a hallmark of US imperialism decades after the heyday of organized activism against it. Additionally, while reflecting on the inadequate historiographic efforts that “Artists Call” has received so far, including its uncatalogued and ill-organized archives at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Lippard shrugged and simply said, “The art world forgets,” whether by default or design.


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