The Silences of Antonio Bonilla's Memory Murals

Detail of the Jesuit Massacre, Bicentennial Mural MUNA, Antonio Bonilla 
Last summer I had the unique opportunity to interview Salvadoran human rights activists, editors, journalists, historians, state officials, artists, writers and poets over 6 weeks about their perceptions of collective representations of memory.  Using Olga Gonzalez’ Unveiling Secrets of War in the Peruvian Andes (2010) as a model, I asked Salvadorans about the images in two state sponsored murals that re-present key historical events.  The first of these, Antonio Bonilla’s Bicentennial mural (2011), shows images from the history of El Salvador since pre-Columbian times and is located at the National Museum of Anthropology.  Bonilla’s second mural, Alegoría de la guerra civil y los Acuerdos de Paz (2012) represents images from the war and signing of the peace accords and is located at San Salvador’s International Convention Center (CIFCO).  When President Mauricio Funes revealed the CIFCO mural he called it a minimal gesture toward those that lost family and friends during the twelve years of armed conflict.  He added that it was a small act acknowledging the families of the victims of El Mozote, the family of Archbishop Oscar Romero, and the families of the Jesuit priests.  According to Funes, the murals symbolize a concerted national journey toward a full recuperation of memory. Yet both murals have been met with heavy criticism from members of the political right and left. Many Salvadorans argue that the murals only present a one-sided view of the past especially in terms of the role of the wealthy, of politicians and of the military (see “Funes devela”).

In the interviews I asked questions to determine what research participants perceived the purpose of the murals to be, how they interpreted the central narrative of the murals, and how they responded to this state sponsored version of the past.  I also wanted to know what experiences and perspectives were excluded from the murals.  I wondered if people perceived the memory work emerging since 2009 as a passive opening of “memory” or as a conscious effort by the state to construct a hegemonic narrative; one that would provide a moral and ethical justification for the FMLN’s political position and underscore the end of the 20-year reign of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party. 

As I listened to people reflect on the events depicted in the murals, I realized that they responded to the historical references, people and symbols much as I imagined they would respond to questions about places on a map, by contextualizing them through stories about the spaces anchored in personal memory or referred trans-generational memory.  I found that the murals represent an emblematic narrative; a frozen and caricaturized panoramic fiction portraying a view that everyday people immersed in urban living do not, in fact, often see.  The murals necessarily turn lived experience into an abstract and theoretical text that requires a living performer of memory to interpret the emblematic narrative.1

I found that people generally organized their memory narratives about the war in terms of the political ideologies of the “left” and the “right” and frequently mentioned traitors that betrayed these imagined spaces.  I wondered if the traitor was a metaphor for someone that was uncategorizable in terms of “left” and “right”; their presence indicating the internal conflicts of these political groups while at the same time establishing their existence by marking and transcending their outer limits.  Stories about “traitors” reveal a history of internal conflicts that, I realized, are an important part of peoples’ memories of war that are excluded from the murals.  While the murals clearly represent an opening of public space to memories that were previously excluded from the official record, they also shut out selected memories; memory from the perspective of the right, the memory of human rights violations committed by the left, and memory that is still too controversial to display publicly. 

“Réquiem de los Mártires” UCA Chapel, Antonio Bonilla. 
It was interesting, for example, to compare Bonilla’s representation of the Jesuit massacre that is located at the UCA chapel with the representation of the same historical event in the mural.  In the mural the figure of ex-President Alfredo Cristiani is absent, while in the UCA chapel Cristiani is signaling the Jesuits as if to turn them in to the military.  I think that the omission of Cristiani from the murals has to do with the ongoing controversy surrounding the ex-President’s role in the Jesuit massacre.  Also missing from the detail in the MUNA mural are the soldier-grim reaper figure and the elegantly dressed woman who can be read as a reference to the oligarchy.  In contrast to the murals, the UCA is a space that memorializes the Jesuits and "Réquiem"is an indictment of the agents in the massacre while the mural has a commitment with representing a less polemical and more watered down collective memory.

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1 Steve J Stern coined the term "emblematic memory" in his trilogy about the memory of Chile's Allende period.