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Exhibit explores artists' efforts to end U.S. intervention in Central America


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Artists Call was the name of the effort back in 1984 when the artistic community throughout North America rallied to protest U.S. intervention in Central America.

An exhibition at the Tufts University Art Galleries focuses on that nearly forgotten moment that ultimately provided a blueprint for movements to come.

Special correspondent Jared Bowen of GBH Boston has a look at the exhibit as part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jared Bowen: By the mid 1980s, Central America was awash in war. With the U.S. government sending money and weapons to militant forces, tens of thousands of people were slaughtered. In Guatemala, Indian villages were leveled. Soldiers waged guerrilla warfare in Nicaragua. Death squads patrolled El Salvador.

Artist Beatriz Cortez was a child at the time.

Beatriz Cortez, Artist: It was the most terrible experience, because there were massacres and there was a complete destruction of entire villages, et cetera.

But I was in the middle class in San Salvador and my parents were really great at protecting me.

Jared Bowen: The violence was so horrific, protests rose up across North America. One of the most forceful and fleeting was a movement called Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America, a grassroots effort that quickly coalesced among artists, galleries and museums from January to March of 1984.

Beatriz Cortez: Part of the message of Artists Call was, we can't be indifferent. We can't create culture if we participate in the destruction of others' cultures.

Cortez is one of the contemporary artists featured in the show Art for the Future at Tufts University. It's as much excavation as it is exhibition. Five years in the making, it's the first time the Artists Call efforts have been comprehensively reexamined.

Erina Duganne, Tufts University Art Galleries: This exhibition is really focusing on the activities that happened in New York. But, in fact, there was 27 cities that participated as part of Artists Call.

Jared Bowen: Erina Duganne is the show's co-curator. It launched when she discovered that 12 tucked-away boxes at the Museum of Modern Art's Library in New York held a trove of Artists Call history.

Erina Duganne: It was like a kind of awakening. It was like, oh, wow, this is like way bigger than anyone has made it out to be.

Jared Bowen: The Artists Call efforts spread rapidly across the U.S. and Canada with some 31 exhibitions. In New York alone, 1,100 artists pitched in to raise awareness and aid. They marched and sold work. They performed, recited poetry and produced films.

Erina Duganne: They wanted to just kind of ignite, ignite actions.

There's a procession for peace, where everyone walked with the names of the disappeared, and then they read the name and they tied it to a balloon and let the balloon fly into the sky as this kind of recognition of those who had been disappeared.

Jared Bowen: With the searing images of photographer Susan Meiselas as an early prompt, the Artists Call was trumpeted by teams of organizers and committees making phone calls, sending letters and distributing flyers.

Abigail Satinsky, Tufts University Art Galleries: I think there was a lot of direct pointing to violence and the expression of U.S. power.

Jared Bowen: Abigail Satinsky is the show's co-curator and says the call and response was so thunderous, it took the organizers by surprise.

Abigail Satinsky: They were overwhelmed with the response. And so that was why it spread to all these different cities, is, basically, they just said, OK, all you have to do is take our letterhead, add your own listings and do your own thing. And this is not about a unified expression. This is about artists together.

Jared Bowen: Claes Oldenburg was among the high-profile artists who galvanize the effort, designing a widely distributed poster. He and his wife, Coosje van Bruggen, also conceived a monument. Though never built, it was a symbol of hope, a pencil that, while broken, still writes.

Leon Golub offered up a piece he made to protest the Vietnam War, echoing a 1980s refrain that El Salvador was Spanish for Vietnam. And Alfredo Jaar appropriated a "Fortune' magazine ad with a halting twist.

Abigail Satinsky: We see here this sort of layered understanding of how artists are pushing against institutions to do better and pushing against media representations to do better and really building that conversation.

Jared Bowen: The curators have continued the conversation into the present. They have invited artists to plumb the movement to archives for their own contemporary response to Artists Call.

Beatriz Cortez designed a geodesic dome home for the archives.

Beatriz Cortez, Artist: He also speaks of the shelter and the homelessness of immigrants in the middle of the pandemic. And so it's a shelter for this archive that preserves a moment when the war in El Salvador connected with migration and with the art world.

Jared Bowen: For the several months the movement took hold, the Artists Call was heard. Art was made. Funds were dispatched to Central America. Its impact was big, broad and brief, all by design.

Erina Duganne Part of the organizing committee really argued that it needed to be ephemeral, that it needed to just dissipate, and that people would go on to take those experiences and do other things with them.

Jared Bowen: And they did, because, virtually at the same time, there was another looming tragedy that warranted artists' attention. That was the emerging AIDS crisis.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Medford, Massachusetts.

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