Using Public Art to Narrow the Gaps
After his father was killed in a 1976 terrorist attack in Washington, D.C., Francisco Letelier turned to murals as a tool for building solidarity and reducing economic, political, and cultural divides.
Research & Commentary
September 19, 2016
On September 21, 1976, agents of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet carried out a brutal assassination in the heart of the U.S. capital. Orlando Letelier, a vocal Pinochet critic and leading thinker on global economic inequality, was killed in the attack, along with Ronni Karpen Moffitt, a 25-year-old American colleague of Letelier’s at the Institute for Policy Studies.
Forty years later, this tragic event continues to stoke the flames of activism for social and economic justice around the world. One of the people who picked up the torch is Orlando’s son Francisco Letelier.
After his father’s murder, Francisco joined with other Chilean exiles to paint a mural in Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Park to create a sense of unity and hope in the face of Pinochet’s reign of terror. The artists called themselves the Brigada Orlando Letelier.
Eventually, they would paint Chilean solidarity murals in 11 cities involving thousands of participants and Francisco Letelier would devote his life to using art as a tool for narrowing political, economic, and cultural divides.
Inequality.org co-editor Sarah Anderson caught up with Francisco Letelier in Washington, D.C., where he has just completed a mural to mark the 40th anniversary of the assassination. Recently featured in the Washington Post, the “Todas Las Manos” mural will be on display at the Katzen Center at American University through October 23, 2016.
Pinochet’s 1973 coup toppled the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, whose Unidad Popular movement focused on reducing economic inequality. As a young teenager you were very enthusiastic about Allende’s movement, even though your own family was quite privileged. Why were you drawn to his vision?
My formation as a young person was greatly influenced by my father’s efforts to create experiences for us that tied us to rural and working class culture. At an early age we learned to cross economic and cultural borders and I formed friendships with the children of fishermen, ranchers, and workers, as well as youth with backgrounds similar to mine. I was particularly drawn to nature, so the mountains and oceans of Chile drew me towards people who held the wisdom and understanding of these places.
The Unidad Popular empowered youth to be important collaborators in the creation of a new society and this created constant opportunities for new friendships, experiences, and responsibilities. Chilean youth culture was not as defined by media and market forces as it was in the United States and although there were myriad similarities, I was attracted to the innovative and authentic thinking that was occurring in Chile.
You’ve said you’re continuing to build on the legacy of the Unidad Popular with your art. Can you explain what you mean by that?
The Unidad Popular gave rise to something we call the “Chilean Mural movement.” The murals were characterized by a collective and participatory nature and grew out of the organized squads of working class youth who would hit the streets to write the names of candidates on walls.
During the Allende election campaign and government, these graffiti squads were joined by politicized artists, leading to the creation of a visual vocabulary of simple forms, bright colors, and black outlines. After the coup in 1973, these murals were outlawed and whitewashed.
In exile in the United States, we formed the Brigada Orlando Letelier and picked up the threads of Chilean mural-making to build resistance and solidarity, engaging audiences in education about events in Chile and about the murder of my father. We applied ideas from Paolo Freire and others and soon learned that murals, solidarity, and education create a vibrant and potent combination.
In the 1980s, Ernesto Cardenal, a poet-priest and then the minister of culture for the Sandinista government, invited us to Nicaragua as part of their literacy campaign. There our murals took on a powerful immediacy as hundreds of people participated who had never before had an opportunity to express themselves or affect their physical surroundings.
The murals became a vehicle through which people were allowed to have a voice and where community problems could be solved.
We demonstrated that murals are not only objects of art but opportunities for a process that creates a space for the vital necessities of liberation culture to occur. I first became exposed to these ideas through the Unidad Popular. And through the processes of exile and personal experience, those ideas have become a global concept of cultural exchange and creation that crosses borders and national boundaries.
How could public art be part of the efforts to address extreme inequality in this country?
My intentions when I start a public art project have to do with including voices that are marginalized and uncovering untold stories. Addressing inequality starts with getting the other narrative, the one that’s been hidden. There is no social or economic justice without inclusion, collectivity, participation, or enrollment.
Often with public art projects, people just want to fund big names in the art world and the public ends up feeling very unenrolled and sometimes insulted by it. I’m from a stream of people who believe public art is a tool that we can use to begin conversations aimed at correcting certain things in our culture, in our economic systems, in our cultural histories.
It’s here where we get a chance to confront inequality in processes that lead to moments of co-creation across cultural and economic divisions. We try to create processes that are inclusive, safe, and meaningful so that we can experience how both sides are missing something essential when divisions are in place.
You worked closely with the Latin American Youth Center in developing this mural. Can you discuss the importance of youth involvement in this project and in the broader struggle for social and economic justice?
Social movements tend to be generational, whereas it often takes many generations to achieve social goals. Yet leadership often forgets to replace itself with younger leaders. I am fortunate because I received mentorship from an older generation and believe in the idea that the student should surpass the master.
Another challenge with many of the older people involved in the struggles for social and economic justice is that they are suffering from culture deficit disorder. This disorder is related to the many “isms” that we are all subjected to. No one is exempt from the oppressive conditions created by a world that judges us by what we have and not by who we are. One way we internalize those conditions is the way we imagine ourselves in terms of creation and imagination.
Engagement in the arts is often seen as good for all children but not necessarily for all adults. Even the most well-meaning people urge us to read and be informed but not to keep dancing, singing, or drawing. This is mostly a creature of market forces, forces that perpetuate the extraordinary monetary value assigned to little scribbles of paint on cloth and art objects. These forces can create conditions of power, privilege, and exclusivity that stand in the way of social and economic justice.
We need to avoid perpetuating these conditions through the mystification of creatives and creative processes. And the data is clear: Singing, drawing, dancing, and other creative and imagination-based activities make us better at math, cognition, organizing, ordering, science — and at creating a world of economic and social justice.