The past is never fully buried by the passage of time; it whispers incessantly. Some artists listen, their art crystalising the wrongs wrought throughout history into powerful modern voices. So it is with many of the artists in Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofia that houses Picasso’s Guernica, arguably the world’s most famous political artwork, and two contemporary masters of artistic anger – Cian Dayrit (with RJ Fernandez and Henricus), and Taring Padi (in conjunction with Just Seeds).
Cian Dayrit’s “Natural Histories of Struggle” comprises tapestries exposing the exploitative excesses of colonialism, focusing on American colonial rule after they took over the Philippines following the Spanish-American war in 1898. The Filipino artist builds on the photographs of the American colonial administrator Dean Conant Worcester, himself criticised in the 1908 article on “Birds of Prey” as having “characteristics of … a vampire“. Dayrit took the photos and transformed them into tapestries and weaves in a disturbing layer of truth using his unique language.
Six tapestries hang on crossbars ending in human hands: four reaches out in solidarity or exasperation, two clench their fists, angry and unreachable, and six hands look like Jesus’ peace signal, but they could also simply be weary. The hands never meet. The tapestries are titled from top left to bottom right: Sovereignty, Class, The Wilderness (top three), and Rhizome, Cult and For Land. Made in 2021, they are a contemporary cry against colonialism.
Starting top left: Sovereignty. At the centre is a downed “100% savage” animal, with red lines depicting incision zones like a butcher’s chart for the different beef cuts. Instead of sirloin, shank or brisket, the areas here include export processing zones, the military industrial complex, mineral extraction, agri-business plantation, and the debt-trap. Red, blue and yellow barbed wire forms the artwork’s inside frame – the colours suggest innocence, but no one can escape. The top and bottom of each frame are lined with feathers, perhaps emblems of the loss of nature, collateral damage of exploitation, or yet another statement of how colonialists saw the “exotic” locals.
The second, Class, is even more disturbing. It is a type of company family photo, most with eyes whited out by the artist, as if they lost their souls. Flames float above their heads, and titles adorn their chests – sugar baron, retired general, drug lord brat, puppet strong man. One man, in black, with charcoaled all-seeing eyes and bloodied mouth – a devil or vampire sitting fat among the prey. The foundation is a sea of red body-outlines, a crime scene with the chalk replaced by blood. Welcome to hell, says a green gate.
These are part of Dayrit’s wider body of work on How to wipe colonialism off the map and critique of modern power structures that create social injustice. They remind me of the works of another giant of political art: William Kentridge who railed against South Africa’s Apartheid.
The collaboration between the Indonesian art collective Taring Padi and the Justseeds resulted in the second powerful political cry that struck me in the Museo Reina Sofia. The colourful statues in front of and below the black and white prints together condemn destructive mining, corruption and corrupting power, oligarchs, drugs. The message of hope “one song, one struggle” is eclipsed by the four-star skull-faced military figure breaking the world apart.
At the centre of the top-left print is the face of death formed by hundred skulls that make the walls of the burrowing mine. The trucks, polluting industries, and ships exporting raw materials are the backdrop of this dystopian landscape. On the front bottom, people stare at each other. It looks like a meeting, organising, exploring how best to extract, organise, export. I can’t see any guilt. But there is weariness and no colour of life.
The bleak print on the top right shows stripped mountains with machines of deforestation underneath. On the right a pipeline protected by an armed man in black separates the luscious jungle from the skeleton elk. The man wears underpants on the outside of his uniform, presumably to show his stupidity. He is being guided by a badged man with a checklist, underlining the banality of destruction. On the left, a group of calm men and women discuss. Another normal day. Squeezed into the top-left corner, a whale leaps from the waves – a second reminder of majestic nature at risk. The sky looks psychedelic but tamed into black and white – the wild utopian dreams of mankind become dystopia.
These two polemical contemporary artworks condemn the wrongs of the world – colonial crimes and destructive exploitation, also in modern times. These are not whispers but a desperate cry to right social injustice, a plea to apply human genius in a different way. Artists can be prophetic and honest witnesses of the world around, showing things others, in their daily rush, fail to see. Go to the Reina Sophia museum and spend time with these two searing visions. Then see Picasso’s Guernica and reflect on the reality in Ukraine, Sudan and Syria. This is the world we live in. My apologies for a dark article, but this is what I hear as the art speaks to me. What do you see when dwelling on these creations?