In 1965, the Nicaraguan priest, poet, and activist Ernesto Cardenal (born 1925) established an alternative religious community on the Solentiname archipelago, in the south of Lake Nicaragua. Cardenal’s utopian experiment, an artists’ colony based on Christian liberation theology — a movement informed by Christianity that spread in Latin America during the late twentieth century— was formed with the local peasants. The colony aspired to social equality and communal sharing, while opposing American imperialism and Anastasio Somoza Debayle’s abusive dictatorship. The remarkable exhibition Dream of Solentiname, curated by Pablo León de la Barra at 80 Washington Square East Gallery, New York University, uses the Solentiname experiment as a case study to explore the confluence of aesthetics and politics in Central America during the revolutions of the late twentieth century. The exhibition, the result of de la Barra’s exhaustive research, also considers the impact of the political struggles in the region on the work of international artists and intellectuals such as New York–based collective Group Material, American photographer Susan Meiselas, and Argentine writer Julio Cortázar.
Cardenal, a former Catholic priest turned Marxist, who studied in the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky with the poet, activist, and Trappist monk Thomas Merton, founded Solentiname on the principles of liberation theology. The movement asserts that God is closer to the poor and oppressed and that Christians should be chiefly concerned with the redemptive process of social and political liberation for those victimized by inequality. According to Cardenal, this liberation may only be obtained through socialism, which can offer a fair redistribution of wealth and allow the poor to share the means of production with colonialist elites. This socialism stance necessitated embracing the anti-imperialist ideals of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, FSLN), the revolutionary group that in the ‘60s and ‘70s had struggled to overthrow the long-lasting Somoza regime.
Cardenal’s revolutionary religious preaching rapidly became popular with the peasants who felt politically included by his interpretation of the Gospel. The unorthodox mass Cardenal held at the Solentiname chapel incorporated group readings and open discussions of the Bible, allowing participants to take part in interpretation of the sacred text — a practice that subverted the idea of the priest as the sole valid interpreter of the word of God. The chapel was conceived as a multipurpose structure that served both as a religious space and a community center. Dream of Solentiname includes a re-creation of the Solentiname chapel, made out of wood by Marcos Agudelo, the architect who worked on the renovation of the original chapel. Two video monitors installed within the structure show documentary footage of Solentiname and an interview with Cardenal, and a photomural conveys the tropical nature of the island, which seems to provide an ideal context for Solentiname’s utopian dream. Entering this installation, the viewer symbolically experiences the political activation of the consecrated space.
Cardenal also encouraged creative community activities at the chapel, including poetry, music, and especially painting. Painter Róger Pérez de la Rocha conducted a series of workshops with the peasants, who produced a distinct style of Primitivist painting, examples of which are displayed in the exhibition. The paintings depict biblical events transposed onto the reality of Solentiname, connecting Christ’s suffering with the community’s struggles — violence, torture, and censorship — during the dictatorship. The painting “Jesus Expels the Merchants from the Temple” (1981) by Mariita Guevara depicts the revolutionary peasants expelling the counterrevolutionaries from the interior of the Solentiname church. “The Beheading of John the Baptist” (1981) by Esperanza Guevara shows Jesus Christ alongside peasants and figures from the revolution, such as Cardenal and the leader César Augusto Sandino, who used guerrilla tactics against the U.S. Marines to force them to leave in 1933 after the U.S. had begun occupying Nicaragua in 1912. The painting “Jesus in Front of Pilatus” (1984) by Pablo Mayorga also represents Jesus Christ as a peasant, while Pontius Pilate is portrayed as Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the de facto ruler of the country from 1967 to 1979 and the last member of a dynasty that had been in power since 1936. These paintings were conceived as easily understood allegories and thus serve as agitprop for the Sandinista revolution.
Because of Cardenal’s extraordinary talent as a preacher and cultural promoter, many international poets, artists, and intellectuals visited Solentiname, eager to experience the utopian movement directly. One of these visitors was the writer Julio Cortázar, who arrived in 1976. After his trip, he wrote the fantastic short story “Apocalypse at Solentiname,” which was published in his 1984 book Nicaragua, So Violently Sweet (Nicaragua tan violentamente dulce). Impressed by the paintings executed by the artists in the community, Cortázar writes:
I can’t remember who it was that explained they’d been done by local people, this one was by Vicente, this one’s by Ramona, some signed, others not, yet all of them incredibly beautiful, once again the primeval vision of the world, the pure gaze of someone describing his surrounding in a song a praise: dwarf cows in the meadows of poppies, a sugar cabin that people were pouring out like ants, a green-eyed horse against a backdrop of swamps, a baptism in a church with no faith in perspective that climbs and falls all over itself, a lake full of little boats like shoes, and in the background a huge laughing fish with turquoise lips.
Cortázar’s book is on display at the exhibition, and a translation of the short story is provided in the brochure.
In a remarkable leap from the local to the international, curator de la Barra also includes the work of Group Material as well as Susan Meiselas’s documentary photographs to show the repercussions of the Nicaraguan upheaval in the United States. The artists’ collective Group Material, established in 1979 by the artists, Doug Ashford, Julie Ault, Mundy McLaughlin, and Tim Rollins, who used strategies derived from conceptual art to produce a series of critical exhibitions conceived as artworks in and of themselves, exhibitions which focused on the politics of information and the institutional structures that publicly disseminated information. Active until 1996, the group championed collaborative exhibitions mounted in alternative spaces and community engagement activities that addressed subjects such as housing and AIDS. One of the most memorable exhibitions organized by Group Material was Timeline: A Chronicle of U.S. Intervention in Central and Latin America, held at PS1 in 1984 as part of a nationwide campaign titled Artists’ Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America which produced a considerable program of cultural actions. Dream of Solentiname stages a smaller version of the 1984 show, including a display of the original printed matter from the exhibition, as well as a slideshow documenting the installation at PS1.
The work by well-known Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas in Dream of Solentiname consists of a series of photographs of Nicaragua taken from 1978 to 1979 that portray the horrors of the war. In the late 1970s, Meiselas arrived in Nicaragua, not realizing that she would be able to photograph the popular resistance that led to the triumph of the Sandinista revolution in 1979. Meiselas captured torture, martyrdom, and the violence unleashed against the dictatorship in support of the Sandinista revolution.
When the new government led by the Sandinistas was formed, Ernesto Cardenal became Minister of Culture and Solentiname became the official model for their cultural programs. The revolutionary government lasted a decade in power, then lost the elections to opposition leader Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, who replaced Daniel Ortega as president of Nicaragua in 1990. In the 2006 general election, Daniel Ortega (the eternal candidate of the FSLN for the presidency) was reelected president, and has been in power since. Unfortunately, the revolutionary ideals of the early days seem long forgotten, now being tainted by autocracy, nepotism, and corruption.
It would have been interesting to revisit what the Sandinista revolution means today in the exhibition, but perhaps this needs to be done in a subsequent exhibition. Today, Ernesto Cardenal talks about the “lost revolution”; he considers himself a persecuted politician and believes his former peer, current President Daniel Ortega, has acquired the same habits as Somoza. Perhaps, as Cardenal wrote many years ago in a visionary poem:
was like a paradise
but in Nicaragua
paradise is not yet possible.
The exhibition Dream of Solentiname continues at 80 Washington Square East Gallery at New York University, Steinhardt School (80 Washington Square East, the Village, Manhattan) through February 17, 2018.