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“Two Boys — The Same Inner Light,” by Jeri Griffith, posted on Facebook on the day of George Floyd’s funeral.

Voices / Viewpoint

Could it happen here?

In 1973, a new regime in Uruguay abruptly turned an active arts scene into terrible years of exile, incarceration, interrogation, disappearances, and even death for creatives and intellectuals. A local artist ponders her role and the potential consequences of her work in our current political context.

Jeri Griffith is a Brattleboro writer and artist. “I am afraid — I admit it,” she writes. “Anger frightens me, especially anger occurring on a national scale. I turn on my television to see police in military garb and formation facing down crowds of unarmed civilians. These images make me think about Uruguay where, in 1973, the conservative government seized absolute power in a coup d’état. My notes, taken while visiting Montevideo in 2011, tell a story I fear might repeat itself in our country. Unthinkable things can happen.” She can be reached at jerigriffith.com or at jeri_griffith@comcast.net.

Brattleboro

A gritty wind whips sand into my eyes, a spring wind in Uruguay as the month of October in 2011 brings an end to winter. This roadway, La Rambla, runs for miles, edging the country’s capital and major city, Montevideo, to mark the division between land and sea.

Beyond its walls, salt water from the Atlantic Ocean mingles with the egress of the Río de la Plata. Here at the delta, the great river fans out to dump silt from the interior of the South American continent.

La Rambla’s concrete walkway runs for miles and offers democratic access to beaches and a water view. Anyone can come here — lovers, joggers, dog walkers, children on bikes, fishermen, old ladies, young girls, bird watchers, and even a few tourists.

But Montevideo is not a tourist town. It hasn’t been manicured, organized for my pleasure, or set up to save me from any discomfort.

Each morning, we climb to our hotel’s roof for breakfast. There we have an industrial view of the port and watch a woman below us as she hangs her laundry on a sagging line spanning her flat, corroding rooftop.

The Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti characterized his compatriots as a country of office workers. Like many writers, Benedetti was forced into exile during Uruguay’s political troubles. Uruguay is a democracy now, considered to be one of the most stable democracies in Latin America.

Still, during the 1970s, the military did take control here.

The golpe, or blow, in 1973, set into motion a period of terror. Creative people and intellectuals were most threatened. Many fled for their lives, often with little more than a suitcase of clothing or even less, while those who stayed behind risked imprisonment and torture.

It seems standard practice for conservative regimes to go after artists, writers, playwrights, composers, musicians, and actors. Somehow, the arts represent freedom and allow entrance into a world of spirit, a natural world of mind, an architecture of the soul.

Creativity is thinking that is outside the box. Imagination provides escape from fixed points of view. Then too, artists lead lives that, at least to outsiders, seem free of monotony and routine.

At the time of the golpe, Uruguay had an active arts scene with many creative people committed to social and economic change.

Club de Grabado de Montevideo (the Print Club of Montevideo, also known as CGM) was started in 1953 by a group of idealistic printmakers committed to bringing artists and the populace together in a collaborative and meaningful relationship.

A signature product was CGM’s calendars. First appearing in 1966, the inexpensive calendars included a print for each month to illustrate a poem or passage of literature. By 1969, the printmakers began to illustrate the words of popular Uruguayan songs — songs that often protested the country’s growing political repression. The 1972 calendar featured protest songs written by Uruguayan songwriter Daniel Viglietti.

Viglietti was later arrested and imprisoned. Copies of the calendar were seized by the authorities before they were made available to the public. Artists prominent in CGM were also arrested. No one knew how long they would be held or what would happen to them.

These were fearful times, terrible years of exile, incarceration, interrogation, disappearances, and even death. How did things go badly so quickly? Uruguay had an educated population and high level of literacy, and yet the worst came to pass.

* * *

Mario Benedetti wrote for the weekly Uruguayan newspaper Marcha. When the paper was forcibly shut down after the golpe, Benedetti lived in exile for the next 12 years. It was particularly difficult since his wife remained in Uruguay to care for their aging mothers.

He finally returned in 1985 at the end of the dictatorship to write about the wounds and scars left behind, even as the country and people evolved toward a new normalcy. Things had to somehow be put right again.

But how to do so? Uruguay is not a large country. Memories linger. Torturer and victim can pass one another on the street or collide at the grocery store. So many had played a role.

There were the exiles: those who left Uruguay to live abroad as strangers in places that did not belong to them and where they did not belong. At least they survived.

Those imprisoned and tortured fell into yet another group.

And then there were the rats, the squealers, the informers — those who gave information, true or false, in order to save themselves. They had their excuses and, after all, what would you have done in their place?

Lastly, there were the torturers, as well as those who sanctioned and ordered the torture — the ones with the belief that they were right, that they were entitled to do what they did, and that whoever resisted got what was coming to them.

Among them, there had to be those who simply took pleasure in causing pain. They had the capacity to hear the screams and later go out for dinner.

* * *

A mural designed by Uruguayan artist José Torres-García thrusts into sky above the museum in Montevideo, dedicated to his memory. The vivid image is a grid of boxed, bright, primary colors that seems to lift the gray concrete building right off its foundations.

Much of Torres-García’s visual work is based on grids. Within that structure, he placed human figures, birds, fish, boats, buildings, letters, and signs — all used to create an imagined world, often depicted in primary colors brought together in a unifying composition.

Torres-García believed that art could and should facilitate a reorientation of human values. He did not experience the golpe, having lived in an earlier time.

After a period of study in Europe, he returned to Uruguay in 1944 to found an art school in Montevideo based on his thoughts about the universal human and about the potential for a unifying act of vision he believed could save humankind. In everything he painted and wrote, he posited his idea that human beings had to struggle toward common ground rather than remain apart enumerating their differences.

But in the end, what good is a painting or a sculpture in the face of desperate social problems, racial inequality, and economic disparities?

Can art really bring about a reorientation of human values?

Can it prevent oppression, torture, and genocide?

Is there truly a vision that might protect us from our capacity to inflict suffering on one another?

* * *

With some reservations, I am a person who says that art matters. I am an artist. I make art.

On the day of George Floyd’s funeral, I posted a painting on my Facebook page. Entitled “Two Boys—The Same Inner Light,” the canvas shows a white boy and an African American boy. The lower halves of their bodies are fragmented and rise up out of darkness. The interior of both bodies is filled with the same flickering lights.

The painting expressed what I wanted to say about what was happening. Many people responded. One person sent me a powerful poem that I keep on my desktop to read over.

And not one of these persons was arrested for speaking out. The government did not hack my page and take the painting down. I still remain at large.

I am glad that, as yet, I don’t live under a regime where image making is an imprisonable crime. Still, our future may not be all that secure.

I hope not to face the difficult choices made by so many Uruguayan artists and intellectuals in 1973, but when the dark side sharpens its knives and violence ripens, who can say what will happen?

I am not foolish. I am no heroine. Yes, I am afraid.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #572 (Wednesday, July 29, 2020). This story appeared on page B1.

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