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Four Ways Public Art is Making the Invisible Visible in Buenos Aires

article-imageWhite scarf of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires (photograph by Allison Meier)

The sunny disposition of Buenos Aires, Argentina — where there is literally constant sunshine, parties until 6 am, and every greeting includes a kiss — can blind visitors to the country’s darker chapters. There is a dramatic layered history of homelessness, poverty, missing people, and untimely deaths.

Street art exploded on the scene when Argentina’s Dirty War ended in the early 1980s; all the bottled up emotion was released and the people of Buenos Aires let the colors of their emotions paint over the city. Street art has since become commonplace in the city, where graffiti tagged walls mingle with murals that decorate nearly every public park. It has become such an integral part of the architecture and landscape that often people walking by a mural appreciate its vibrancy, but forget that the art is how the invisible is being made visible.

By looking at four street art projects, we can see how art is bringing light to the darker issues of Buenos Aires.

article-imageStreet art in the Olivos neighborhood (photograph by the author)

Milo Lockett is an Argentine painter who uses the process of creating street art as a tool of social change. He calls his work social art because each project involves a community and while he initiates and guides each art project, the final product is only possible because of the efforts of many. Whether bringing together kids to paint murals in their school or directing workshops for indigenous groups in the north, his work (both in theme, practice, and place) is meant to bring a message of love and hope.

article-imageMural painting project in Buenos Aires (photograph by the author)

There are over 15,000 homeless people in Buenos Aires and nearly a third of them are children. Some 690,000 people live in villa miserias — the slum neighborhoods of Argentina. These are the people Milo Lockett is passionate about. Hogar de Transito Cura Brochero is a homeless shelter in the Olivos neighborhood of Buenos Aires. In 2011, Lockett visited Hogar Cura Brochero and brought art to the people there. He painted the outline of a mural and invited the community to come and participate in giving color and life to the painting. Homeless men who had never held a paintbrush added to the mural alongside young mothers who had come out to volunteer, all while music was played by the famous singer Javier Calamaro.

A volunteer I interviewed told me that Lockett had once said while painting at the shelter: “The painter lives inside the frame of the painting. To me, to be born means to go out of the frame.” That same volunteer told me the story of a homeless man who was suffering from HIV. He was shivering and weak, but as he painted he lit up and was overjoyed at the opportunity to engage with art and with the community. Shortly afterwards, he passed away. The mural is where his humanity lives on. The mural project is called Art in Your Place and is an ongoing effort by Mundo Invisible, a cultural solidarity movement. 

article-imageOne of the tiles created by Barrios X Memoria Y Justicia Zona Norte (photograph by the author)

Another invisible group are those who disappeared or died during the National Reorganization Process of 1976-1983, better known as the Dirty War. People who opposed the government were taken from their homes and never seen again, and the pain of lost family members echoes on decades later. No official number exists, but it is believed some 30,000 people either died or disappeared during this period.

Some of those who lost loved ones have begun an initiative called Barrios X Memoria Y Justicia Zona Norte to create tiles that commemorate the missing. Each tile identifies a lost person and what happened to them. They are ceremoniously inserted on a sidewalk where that person walked in his or her daily life. The footsteps of the disappeared are mapped and made visible through this project.

article-imageStencil of El Eternauta (photograph by Allison Meier)

El Eternauta has become iconic of street art in Buenos Aires. The science fiction comic strip and its eponymous hero were created in the 1950s by Héctor Germán Oesterheld with artwork by Francisco Solano López. After its initial success between 1957 and 1959, Oesterheld brought El Eternauta back, only this time it incorporated political commentary. After joining a radical far left group, the writer and much of his family vanished in 1977, and they are believed to have died in prison.

article-imageEl Eternautas on the street (photograph by Gabriel Rocha)

Yet the art lives on through El Eternauta-inspired street art. As a symbol of resistance, artistic expression, and inspiration, sometimes Argentine political leaders even use it for marketing purposes. Some images of El Eternauta have the face of the late Néstor Kirchner, who was a humanitarian and president of Argentina from 2003 to 2007. This merging of Kirchner with El Eternauta is called “El Nestornauta.” El Nestornauta, unlike El Eternauta, is not carrying a gun, and often is making the “V” symbol with one hand.

article-image
Wall of names in the Parque de la Memoria (photograph by Gustavo Márquez Villegas)

A memorial that was more formally created, but no less important in terms of bringing the invisible to life, is the Parque de la Memoria de Buenos Aires. Located in Belgrano, a central neighborhood, this memorial was opened in 2007 as the Monument to the Victims of State Terrorism. In contrast to the brightly painted walls of street art, this monument was designed to be an “open wound” that cuts into the flesh of the city.

Nearly 9,000 steel plates engraved with the names of victims of the Dirty War adorn the four large concrete walls that break open the space. There are thousands of empty plaques, to represent the unanswered questions that still linger. The memorial is grand in size, simple in design, and immensely powerful in emotion. The project continues to be edited and added onto with sculptures and other forms of art, each carefully chosen and crafted to maintain the simplicity of the memorial’s architecture. Art is being utilized as a tool of expression that works in opposition to tyranny.

article-imageMural in Palermo (photograph by the author)

It seems fitting that a city with as much sunshine and gusto as Buenos Aires would embrace public art in such an all-encompassing way. What’s important to note is that there are many Argentines in the middle who are not particularly politically extreme either way, only grateful that today the country is what it is. They disagree with the government’s response to dissidents during the Dirty War, but also feel a strong sense of concern about what would have happened if Marxists had successfully taken control of the country. 

The Dirty War was a spectrum of violence, opposing views, oppression, and extremism. What’s notable here, is that artistic public projects are bringing light to a dark time and adding to the multilayered history of this vibrant city. Art is dense here, with trains covered in murals, tango dancers in the street, and folk guitarists in the subway. There is so much depth to the art in Buenos Aires, knowing some of the history and seeking out the lesser known memorials brings the humanity behind the art to life in a tangible way.

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