by Julián Serna1
In 1892, the Colombian political cartoonist Alfredo Greñas (1852–1949) published the back of an engraving plate as a sign of protest for the government censorship of his work (fig. 1).2 Un penitente (A penitent), a monochrome print with Catholic undertones in its title, is a testimony of how images not only represent the external world but function as active agents that allow us to understand our experience of reality. The image marks the immediate aftershock of a traumatic experience by representing a distressing act of censorship that vividly describes daily life in Colombia under the conservative dictatorship of the last decade of the nineteenth century. In this case, the author explains in the image caption that the print he prepared for the fifth issue of his newspaper, El Barbero, could not be published as the editorial board was forced to directly impose the government’s prohibition on the distribution of satirical images.3 Even though at that moment no laws were censoring the free press, the police directly threatened Greñas with severe penalties. In response to this illegal official repression, the cartoonist denounced this silencing by depicting an eloquent image of the censoring act.4
Greñas’s absent image of a penitent comes to mind when thinking about trauma and the role of art in actively constructing an aftershock of this censoring event. Only through representations of traumatic experiences can memories of such occurrences be articulated in the present. By visualizing the official suppression via a public image, Greñas made the space to have a critical distance from the violent act through its narration.5 Only through this suggestive depiction of the official silencing do we know about this event today, as we are able to imagine the violence of the Latin-American strongmen governing the different countries of the hemisphere in the second half of the nineteenth century. My republishing of Greñas’s eloquent silence is a small homage to the harsh experiences we have collectively felt since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic: an ongoing series of events that seems so overwhelming that it eludes any satisfactory form of representation. Consequently, as we seek to engage with the convoluted and complex events of our recent past, looking back at earlier examples from different parts of the world can be a way for us to learn to confront the remains of a complicated and painful experience.
The past two years have been difficult not only because of an ongoing pandemic but because we have been dealing with several other unfolding calamities, including climate change; the consequences of the withdrawal of the twenty-year military occupation of Afghanistan; the United States Capitol takeover during the transition of presidential power; and worldwide social and political unrest that locally has taken the form of the Black Lives Matter movement and other social justice movements. For many, these events have been painful experiences, while for others they may have fostered reevaluations of the importance of the social bonds that compose one’s life. What is clear is that together we have experienced history in the making. Surely, it is not an understatement that the events related to a worldwide health crisis have affected us on a personal and a collective level. Consequently, many of us are asking: how will the experience of the past two years be remembered?
As art historians, we need to think about the importance of images in these scenarios as the visual arts have a privileged position in the discussion of memory. Memory is not considered as providing authentic and verifiable access to the lived experience of the event, but it is a narration made in the present to engage with what previously happened. To form a memory is to build a representation of the event: a window that separates the lived experience from the present.6 Art as a form of representation has the potential to engage with trauma; it provides a means of reinvesting in new beginnings.7
For this issue of SEQUITUR, we invited perspectives on an urgent issue: the aftershock. As we try to process the experiences of the past two years, the question now centers around the impact of these events. How can we know when the COVID-19 pandemic will be a thing of the past? How can we re-engage with daily life as new variants of the virus continue to emerge? And, how do we learn to live with its effects? What have we absorbed from the social movements that surfaced in response to political unrest? How are we and generations to come going to remember the lessons learned and the lives lost? What teachings from the past can we look back on to confront the remains of a painful experience? And from the perspective of our journal: what knowledge can we find in the discipline of art history to think through these questions?
Back in September, when we sent out the call for papers, it seemed that we finally had a handle on the pandemic while we were processing the social and political unrest parallel to this crisis. This issue was intended to reflect on the aftershock of the health crisis. However, the emergence and spread of the Omicron variant has proved that this is an ongoing matter with which we are still learning to live. The contributions of the seven authors selected for this issue attest that the issues related to the general notion of the aftershock are far more encompassing. Three of these authors directly address the experience of living through a pandemic, whether through the lens of disability studies, the personal experiences of family separation amidst international border closures, or a historical comparison with depictions of isolation in the seventeenth century. Another considers questions of heritage preservation in response to climate change catastrophes. Other contributions focus on colonial legacies and their consequences around the world as they relate to contemporary indigenous communities, the transatlantic slave trade, and violent repressive events related to imperial power, racial and ethno-nationalist conflicts.
Jake Matthews opens our issue with a feature essay that explores the Karrabing Film Collective’s Wutharr, Saltwater Dreams (2016). Matthews examines the film’s ontological distinctions between the binaries of things living and non-living, as well as human and non-human. Matthews studies how the Indigenous collective engages with this distinction not only through their choice of narrative but in their selected medium. The author discusses how the present-day Indigenous communities of Australia navigate the long legacy of settler colonialism.
The second feature essay is by Madison Whitaker and focuses on the work of the contemporary artist Park McArthur, particularly her 2013 installation During the Month of August Essex Street will be Closed. The author engages in a discussion with disability scholars and activists to recognize how care work fosters social connection and social justice. It offers a reflection on how to start thinking about ways to better support ourselves and one another in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The artistic work of Illinois-based Ghanaian artist Japheth Asiedu-Kwarteng is presented in a visual essay. Inspired by Kente cloth of the Asante and Ewe weavers, the artist’s mixed-media sculptures function as a personal visual vocabulary through which to communicate Asiedu-Kwarteng’s experience of living in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic. Asiedu-Kwarteng sees his three-dimensional works as a means to process his family’s pain due to his absence from Ghana.
Heather Burich’s research spotlight focuses on the author’s thesis project about cultural heritage protection for art museums that are threatened by climate change and natural catastrophes. Taking three case studies from New Orleans—the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and the New Orleans African American Museum—Burich argues that museums need to review their approach to collections management in the light of increasingly frequent natural disasters. The author asks how and what these organizations have learned from their experiences of disaster preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery of cultural heritage.
The issue features three exhibition reviews that relate to our theme of aftershock, as well. Firstly, Colleen Foran discusses the works presented by Firelei Báez and Stephen Hamilton at the ICA Watershed in Boston. The author explores the dialogue between these exhibitions through the color indigo and reflects on the material legacies of the transatlantic slave trade. As Foran argues, the worldwide dispersal of indigo fabric and its production connects millions of kidnapped and enslaved Africans to the Americas and the Caribbean.
Secondly, Hailey Chomos reviews the exhibition Studies in Solitude at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Ontario (Canada). Curated by Dr. Suzanne van de Meerendonk, the show contextualizes the experience of pandemic isolation within historic representations of solitude in seventeenth-century Dutch paintings. As Chomos explains, the exhibition invites us to renew our appreciation for these paintings by connecting Early Modern depictions of solitude with our newly-defined relationship with isolation.
Finally, Max Gruber reviews Glenn Kaino’s In the Light of a Shadow, on view at MASS MoCA, discussing the installation’s engagement with our contemporary experience in relation to the self-destructive tendencies of British imperial power and climate change. The installation connects international protest movements and the legacy of violently repressive episodes to explore broader themes of protest, exploitation, and resilience.
As we think through the questions associated with the aftershock of experiencing these histories in the making, and what the future may hold in store, we would like to thank the authors who contributed to this issue of SEQUITUR. Their contributions provide a range of different approaches to the question of aftershock and speak to the complexities of building (and preserving) a unified image of what we have collectively experienced in the recent past. Although we may wish we had grappled more effectively with various incidents in the moment of their occurrence, by commemorating the aftershock we can learn from Alfredo Greñas and process traumatic events through artistic means and regenerative acts.
Julián Serna is a PhD Candidate studying Latin American Art of the 19th and 20th centuries. He is currently working on the relation between the private Arts Academies of Paris and the emergence of the official Art Academies Latin American between 1870 and 1900. Before joining Boston University, he was working as a curator on several projects in his home country, Colombia. He has worked as the chief curator of the Art Collection of the National Museum of Colombia, the exhibition coordinator of Bogota’s contemporary art Kunsthalle, the Galeria Santa Fe, and as advisor of the Visual Arts Office of the Bogota Institute of Arts (IDARTES).
1. I want to take this opportunity to thank Professor Melanie Hall and my fellow editors at SEQUITUR for their comments and contributions to this editorial note.
2. Born in Colombia in 1853, Alfredo Greñas was an engraver and a political cartoonist who died in exile in Costa Rica in 1949. He was the founder and editor of several liberal newspapers critical to the Colombian government which was famous for his militant illustrations. After experiencing the forced closure of his publications, and shortly after the publishing of this image, he was condemned to exile in 1892. During the period of his relocation in Costa Rica, he acquired a printing press in the city of San Juan while he worked for the diary La Presa Libre.
3. Alfredo Greñas, Un penitente (1892). El Barbero n° 5 (April 24, 1892): 1.
4. Beatriz Gonzalez Aranda, “Grafica Critica entre 1886 y 1900,” in Miguel Antonio Caro y la cultura de su época, ed. Rubén Sierra Mejía (Bogotá: Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 2002), 279-317.
5. Dominick LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore, London: John Hopkins University Press, 2001).
6. Aleida Assmann, Cultural Memory and Western Civilization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
7. LaCapra, Writing History.