Susan Meiselas: Berkeley and Beyond

By Lesdi Goussen

A postcard from Susan Meiselas’ 2018 exhibition at SF MOMA depicting her photograph “Las balas (The bullets)…” (Photo by CLAS staff).

On the eve of the inauguration of her retrospective exhibition “Mediations”- currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art- Susan Meiselas travelled back to Nicaragua where she took the image “SOS Nicaragua: The bullets…” in June of 2018.

Depicting a graffitied cement wall with the words “SOS Nicaragua,” next to an unknown man with a t-shirt over his face who writes, “las balas (the bullets)…” in bright orange spray paint, the image confronts us with an ad-hoc, self-proclaimed call for help that is unfolding and unfinished. Like the phrase “las balas…”, which is left to be translated by an ellipsis, Nicaragua finds itself in a precarious present that is characterized by omissions, disappearances, and silence. Reminding us of the many images that Meiselas took of the Nicaraguan Revolution in the late 1970s, this image stands at the crosswords of history. I chose this image, as Meiselas did, to illustrate the ongoing dedication that is at the core of her practice – as a mediator, an activist and ultimately, as a photographer.

In this context, the Center of Latin American Studies and the Arts Research Center had the pleasure of hosting Susan Meiselas on the UC Berkeley campus for a series of talks and events perambulating her retrospective exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Susan Meiselas joins Berkeley students and faculty for lunch at CLAS. (Photo by CLAS staff.)

The first of these events took place on a Friday afternoon in the Center of Latin American Studies where faculty and students from across the campus gathered around a table for an intimate and informal lunch with Susan Meiselas. During our lunch hour, the topic of Nicaragua was immediately foregrounded. Having recently returned from Nicaragua, Meiselas spoke openly about the current social and political crisis taking place in country, and the ways in which today’s conditions relate back to her work in the late 1970s.

Infuriated by the lack of media attention that the Nicaraguan crisis has received in the United States, Meiselas explained the purpose of converting her photograph, “SOS Nicaragua: The bullets…” into a postcard that was meant to be disseminated and circulated at her exhibition. For Meiselas this was a small but calculated effort to bring awareness and visibility to the repression that the Nicaraguan people are again facing.

In the days that followed, the topic of mediation was further elaborated on during a film screening and conversation between Susan Meiselas and the Nicaraguan writer and poet Gioconda Belli at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Commencing with Meiselas’ film, made in collaboration with Marc Karlin, Voyages centers the photographer’s voice through a thread of narrated letters that were written during her time in Nicaragua in the late 1970s. The juxtaposition between Meiselas’ photographs and letters capture her emotional processes as she beings to think critically about her role as a photographer in a country at the precipice of war.

Setting the tone for the conversation that followed, Voyages took on new valence in the context of Nicaragua’s contemporary crisis. Responding to the film, Gioconda Belli began by remarking on the temporal and emotional dissonance one experiences when coming to terms with the ultimate failure of the revolution- seen today in the guise of the Ortega-Murillo regime. With several Nicaraguan viewers in the audience- including myself- the tone of room was melancholic and full of disillusionment.

With no knowing how today’s crisis will pan out, Belli spoke not only of grief and mourning but also of resistance. She reminded us of the many ways in which the Nicaraguan people continue to speak out, fight back and resist dictatorial violence, despite the terror that grips the country. During the conversation, Belli thanked Meiselas for her ongoing efforts to represent and document a history that may very well have been lost. For Belli, Meiselas’ mediation sets the precedent for a type of solidarity that makes oneself an active participant, included – to some degree – into the body politic of resistance.

Iterations of Susan Meiselas’ “Molotov Man” at SF MOMA, 2018. (Photo by Torbak Hopper.)

After a weekend in San Francisco, Meiselas joined us once again on the Berkeley campus, where she gave a talk about her retrospective exhibition, “Mediations,” through the Arts Research Center, co-sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies.  While the topic of Nicaragua had been centered in the preceding days, Meiselas spoke broadly about her larger body of work included in the exhibition. Spanning the breadth of her career, “Mediations” includes work from her carnival strippers series from the 1970s, to the civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as well as her ongoing work on the Kurdish genocide.

Joined by UC Berkeley Professors Natalia Brizuela and Leigh Raiford, Meiselas spoke candidly about her discomfort with labels and expectations around documentary photography. As signaled by the title of her exhibition, the concept of mediation lies at the core of Meiselas’ practice. Suspended in the in-betweenness of difference, Meiselas’ work is informed by the ongoing process of negotiating her role as an American photographer whose privilege, ability, and fluidity allow her take up a position that is unachievable for her subjects. As part of this reflexive positionality, Meiselas elaborated on the politics of seeing and the ethics surrounding visuality present in her work. As Meiselas puts it, “The ethics of seeing, are the ethics of caring.”

Susan Meiselas presents at UC Berkeley. (Photo by CLAS staff.)

Tied in with these critical perspectives is her relentless commitment to places and people, as she continues to go back to the sites in which her images were taken. For Meiselas, this is much more of a relationship than an objective imposition, or documentation of an event or subject.

“SOS Nicaragua: The bullets…” underscores the type of relationship and commitment implicit in Meiselas’ work. It is through this type of engagement that we are able to see the insidious ways in which history has iterative tendencies- as not to become disillusioned but rather remember the work we must continue to do, as we negotiate our positionalities and bear witness to our times. I would like to thank Susan Meiselas for giving us an access point into this conversation- especially today, as the situation in Nicaragua continues to precariously unfold.

 

LESDI GOUSSEN is a PhD student in the History of Art department. She studies mid-20th century Latin American art in a transatlantic context, focusing on the exchanges taking place between Latin America, Europe, and the United States. Framed within this context, her work primarily looks at the development and dissemination of Central American aesthetics from the 1950s through the aftermath of the Central American crisis in the 1990s, a time marked by armed conflict, US intervention, and revolutionary struggle within several countries. Working alongside a range of fields, Lesdi’s research interests include women of color feminisms, Latinx studies, postcolonial theory, and decoloniality.

 

 

 

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