In 1976, Josefina Auslender was working on a series of graphite drawings titled La Ciudad (The City), inspired by her native Buenos Aires. In the statement she wrote for her show last summer at Sarah Bouchard Gallery, she recounts how, suddenly and in spite of herself, “figures began to come out,” asserting themselves with unflinching potency. When she finally gave in, “the figures took me completely over like a storm” and she ended up working non-stop, making “hundreds of them.” Although at first, she “didn’t know why the figures were coming,” she eventually realized that they “were showing [her] something that was going on.”
At the time these figures emerged in Auslender’s work, Argentina was in the throes of the most traumatic era in its history. On 29 March 1976, a coup had brought to power General Jorge Rafael Videla and along with it a military dictatorship that ruled Argentina until 1983. A period of state terrorism, that the junta itself called the “Dirty War,” had started in 1974, a few years prior to the coup, during which dissidents of the regime were unrelentingly persecuted. A staggering number of victims were arrested, tortured, and killed—perhaps as many as 30,000. We will never know the exact death toll because of the treatment and fate of the victims, the desaparecidos (missing), whose bodies literally vanished after being tortured and killed, many by being dropped from the vuelos de la muerte, military planes, flying high above the Atlantic.
“Enforced disappearance” is a crime against humanity, and is defined by the International Criminal Court as “the arrest, detention or abduction of persons by, or the authorization, support or acquiescence of, a State or a political organization, followed by a refusal to acknowledge that deprivation of freedom or to give information on the fate or whereabouts of those persons, with the intention of removing them from the protection of the law for a prolonged period of time.”
In Argentina, thousands “disappeared” and their families demanded their bodies—a literal expression of the concept of habeas corpus, “you should have the body,” the law tenet that is indeed meant to safeguard against such arbitrary and surreptitious treatment of citizens. And that’s what Auslender does with these drawings: she shows us these bodies—that’s why after a while the series became Los Cuerpos (The Bodies). Auslender notes that she realized that “these drawings began when Argentinians began to be tortured and they finished when the militares were gone.” It is poignant that the bodies appeared while she was at work on a series on the city (La Ciudad), for Auslender reminisces: “We didn’t know where they were going. We didn’t know there were places in the city where they were torturing people.” Revealingly, these detention centers were referred to by the junta itself as clandestine (Centros Clandestinos de Detención). Eventually, after the dictatorship, those places became known and forever singed into the national consciousness—places of utter horror, along with the gruesome jargon that was used by the milicos to refer to torture and its tools.
And indeed, in each of these drawings there is a body. At first, in the early ones from La Ciudad, an inchoate mass lays in the lower part of the composition, appearing at once shrouded and wrapped. It is in the later ones, mostly dating from 1979, as the series became Los Cuerpos, that we see shapes evoking an actual human body, as if they had emerged from a chrysalis. Although we discern legs, torsos, arms, we do not see faces. In Los Cuerpos (01), a hood covers the head and shoulders.
The faceless bodies contort, remnants of their wrappings around their torsos. Their arms seem to be tied behind their backs, and in many cases their head is tilted back, exposing the neck. We are reminded of the etymology of “vulnerable,” from the Latin for “wound.” The figures are placed on ledges or pedestals as if being displayed and offered to their henchmen.
These bodies—Auslender tells us that they are female and one is a self-portrait—are still alive but are oppressively held in claustrophobic interiors where they fill the picture; often, framing devices further enclose them. In the drawings from La Ciudad, in which the masses occupy less of the pictorial space, we get the suggestion of walls and a ceiling that press upon the bunched mass.
Auslender’s handling of the graphite medium is remarkable and profoundly meaningful. Marks are piled up until the surface becomes dark, endowed with a metallic sheen, which reminds one of the name given to another troubled time in 20th-century history, Italy’s Years of Lead (anni di piombo). Through her use of graphite, Auslender confers to her bodies a heaviness that stresses their corporeal materiality. This is of course, confirmed and reinforced by the title of the series: Los Cuerpos. About the time that these bodies emerged in her work, actual bodies were missing and as early as 1977, despite the risks, the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo started demonstrating in the square in front of Casa Rosada, the Argentine equivalent of the White House, demanding that their loved ones be returned to them, marching with photos of their desaparecidos pinned on the white kerchiefs they wore on their heads. On 5 December 1980, a slogan emerged: aparición con vida (literally: apparition with life): the Madres were asking for the bodies to be returned to them—but alive. Aparición is a word chosen with great discrimination, as it stands in forceful opposition to the fate of the victims of the dictatorship, who had disappeared.
The development of Auslender’s drawings over time is eloquent, as we see, just as the artist did, figures emerging, their bodily contours gaining definition, and their anonymity eventually giving way to a self-portrait. What Auslender gives us is an assertion of truth in the face of the lies of a state that, by making bodies disappear, was denying their murders. In the ICC’s definition of “enforced disappearance,” the mention of “the refusal to acknowledge” is fundamental, as it refers to an obdurate denial that is much more nefarious than a simple lie by omission. More lies were, of course, uttered by the state when government officials referred to the victims as subversive enemies of the state. With her work, and the remarkable story of how it came about, Auslender bears witness not only to a dark period in history but makes us reflect on the experience of living under a dictatorship and how, in the last analysis, totalitarianism is fundamentally grounded and dependent on lies.
A personal note:
I first encountered Josefina’s work at Sarah Bouchard Gallery last summer. Sarah had told me about Josefina’s forthcoming exhibition when she found out that I was born in Argentina. As it turns out, I was spared the experience of the Dirty War when we moved to Switzerland when I was eight, following my father’s death. My mother once remarked—and that left an indelible mark on me—that the sad circumstances that took me away from my native country might have saved my life. Maman explained that I would have been just “the wrong age” during the dictatorship, at a high risk of being arrested. And she was right: many of the desaparecidos were young people, with the highest number of recorded deaths between the ages of 20 and 24 (I was 24 when democracy was restored; see figures in this report, which also show that the overwhelming majority of people were from Buenos Aires and its province). Later on, one of my professors at the University of Geneva, the great linguist Luis Prieto, a fellow Argentine, talked about the way in which everyone was at risk, and how, for instance, the address books of those who were arrested would be mined and whoever would appear in them would be in danger of being arrested as well.
Image at top: Josefina Auslender, La Ciudad (03), graphite, ink, and colored pencil on paper, 25.75 x 21.5 in., 1976 (photo: Luc Demers, courtesy of Sarah Bouchard Gallery).