León Ferrari (1920-2013) was a pioneering conceptual artist who stood up against the military dictatorship (1976-1983) and the Catholic Church’s complicity in human rights abuses in his country, Argentina, and who produced many committed artworks that rebelled against conventions. I chose him as my favourite rebel as he proved that art and artists can play an important role in raising difficult questions about society. In his lifetime, Ferrari challenged censorship and attempted to bring about accountability in Argentina after a period of extreme violence.
Ferrari’s life was dramatically altered by Argentina’s last coup in 1976, after which the military took control until 1983. The dictatorship was an incredibly violent period where many of those considered opponents of the military regime were kidnapped, tortured, killed or were ‘disappeared’ by the state. Enforced disappearance was a practice where opponents were taken by military forces and were never seen again. Following the coup, Ferrari’s life was at risk because of his art and politics and went into exile in Brazil in 1976. It was in Brazil that he learnt of the disappearance of his son, Ariel, by the dictatorship.
Ferrari used his art to speak out against what was happening in Argentina. In one series of artworks called Nosostros no sabíamos (We didn’t know) (1976-1992), he collected newspaper clippings describing the discovery of the bodies of the disappeared in Argentina. This series confronted those who attempted to deny people were disappearing in Argentina during the dictatorship. Ferrari collected and reproduced the few articles that passed through censorship and which spoke of disappearances and killings. After the return to democracy in 1983, Ferrari continued to use his art to seek justice for the crimes of the dictatorship. In 1995, Ferrari illustrated Nunca Más (Never Again) an official report first published in 1984 on the people disappeared by the military. Ferrari made a series of collages to accompany the report’s republication in the Argentine newspaper Pagina 12, where he protested the lack of accountability for the dictatorship’s abuses and also highlighted the Catholic Church’s complicity in human rights abuses during this time.
“León Ferrari, La autopista del sur (Southern Highway), 1982-2000, Artwork © León Ferrari. Image © Essex Collection of Art from Latin America”
Ferrari’s approach to making political art was something that he begun in the 1960s. His artwork La civilización occidental y Cristiana (Western and Christian Civilization) (1965) depicted Christ’s crucifixion on a US fighter jet and was made to speak out against the war in Vietnam. This artwork proved to be controversial for many in Argentina and led to the closure of Ferrari’s 2004 retrospective exhibition in Buenos Aires following a petition by members of the Catholic Church in Argentina. Archbishop Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, criticized the work as blasphemous. The courts succeeded in closing the exhibition only to reopen it after many people came out in support of the artist and his right to free speech. Some of Ferrari’s works were destroyed by groups protesting against the offence it caused them. Ferrari said, of Bergoglio’s reaction to the exhibition, that ‘Bergoglio did me a kind of favour’ by publicising the exhibition through his opposition. This incident highlighted a series of complex problems relating to free speech, art and religion in contemporary Argentina.
León Ferrari died in 2013, aged 92, and by the time of his death he was recognised as one of Argentina’s foremost artists whose contributions to art internationally are lasting. In 2007, he was awarded the Leone d’Oro at the 52nd Venice Bienale which was awarded ‘on grounds of aesthetic quality and ethical values.’
“León Ferrari, Sin título (Untitled), 2001, Artwork © León Ferrari. Image © Essex Collection of Art from Latin America”
Ferrari is my favourite rebel as he proves that artists can challenge the social and political landscape which surrounds them and they can strive for change. The accounts of censorship during the dictatorship and attempts to silence Ferrari in democratic Argentina remind me that it is fundamental that artists are able to express themselves freely. Past students and staff of the University of Essex were lucky to have been able to see two exhibitions of León Ferrari’s work at Art Exchange, one in 2002 and another in 2006. Current students are still able to see some of the 15 works that the Essex Collection of Art from Latin America (ESCALA) holds in its space in the Constable Building at the Colchester Campus.