The collapse of democracy in Chile hit Juan Conde ’86 very close to home.
Conde grew up in Chile with his parents. He lived through the Sept. 11, 1973 Chilean coup, as well as the military dictatorship that was eventually established.
“A lot of the fighting that went on in terms of overthrowing the government took place right around the house I grew up in, because we were two or three blocks away from one of the presidential palaces,” Conde said. “Chile was a very small country at the time, so everybody knew somebody that was part of the dictatorship or somebody that had disappeared because of the military dictatorship.”
Conde’s parents tried to leave the country when Chile’s elected government was overthrown. Conde was in sixth grade when he left Chile and moved to Northern Virginia. He attended a boarding school in Massachusetts and then came to the College of William and Mary in 1982.
“In William and Mary, I found a place where I could freely express my opinions and study whatever I wanted to without any repercussions from the government,” Conde said. “To me, William and Mary was a bit of a haven compared to what it would have been like if I had stayed in South America and in Chile.”
After majoring in religion and minoring in Hispanic studies, Conde spent much of his life collecting art from various creators. Among them was Roser Bru, one of Latin America’s most notable contemporary painters. Born in 1923, she fled Spain at a young age due to the prohibition of Catalan language and culture. She fled again to France during the Spanish Civil War and was then one of about 2,000 refugees that secured passage on the S.S. Winnipeg to Chile prior to World War II. The collapse of democracy and harsh military dictatorship in Chile inspired many of her paintings, which take on themes of politics, maternity and femininity.
In 2013, Conde donated five of Bru’s paintings to the College, where they became a part of the President’s Collection of Art. Today, the paintings are on display on the second floor of Earl Gregg Swem Library, near the Center for Geospatial Analysis. Conde’s personal experiences with the Chilean dictatorship combined with his appreciation for Bru’s work led him to share the paintings with the College.
“Roser Bru is one of the most acclaimed artists in Chile,” Conde said. “I felt it would be important as a piece of history of my country for [the paintings] to be displayed where people could learn about that time period in my country … where military dictatorships were trying to combat communism in the most oppressive manner.”
The process of putting Bru’s paintings on display has been an arduous one, spanning three to four years. Melissa Parris, exhibitions and collections manager at the Muscarelle Museum of Art, collaborated with Hispanic studies professor Regina Root to brainstorm display spaces for the artwork, but many did not pan out. One of the potential locations for the set of paintings was Washington Hall, but the attempt to move them there for display in 2014 was unsuccessful.
“Melissa Parris and I worked very hard to place [the paintings] in [Washington Hall], gaining approval from the program and the department’s policy committee,” Root said. “The chair at the time, however, felt the paintings didn’t represent all the languages housed in the department, and there were safety concerns.”
In spring 2017, the paintings ultimately transitioned from the Muscarelle to a display in the Sadler Center and moved to the second floor of Swem in fall 2018. Parris feels that Bru’s paintings are a welcome contrast to the art traditionally featured in Swem and is glad that they have found a home there.
“We had a number of portraits of deans and chancellors that had gone on view [in Swem], and it’s a very formal portraiture that’s not really speaking to the student body in terms of their experiences and their lives,” Parris said. “I’m super glad that [Bru’s paintings] are something to counter the other very formal, patriarchal portraits that are there.”
Root centered much of the curriculum in her COLL 100 class, Censura/Censorship, on Bru’s paintings — particularly the five that are on display in Swem.
“In the [COLL 100] course, the paintings are part of a larger context of censorship as expressed by artists, authors and filmmakers,” Root said. “Bru’s paintings and the amazing life story that accompanies her work have guided our thoughts and projects.”
Root said that Bru’s work in particular conveys critical messages about human interaction and betterment.
“Whether representing the hope of refugees embarking on a journey to another country or the literary and artistic portraits to inspire our collective thoughts, Bru’s paintings ask us to ponder what actions we might take to make the world better for ourselves and others,” Root said. “There is no innocent bystander in [the Bru] exhibit.”
Mary Trotto ’21 and Jackie Golden ’21 both enrolled in Root’s class in fall 2017 and performed in-depth research on one of the paintings, “Ejecución por Garrote Vil,” for their final group project and presentation. Trotto appreciated the figurative nature of Bru’s work.
“All of [Bru’s] paintings were very abstract; there’s a lot of ways to interpret [them],” Trotto said. “We looked at the year [‘Ejecución’] was painted, where [Bru] was at the time and what was going on at the time, and we could really tell the message behind it.”
Golden felt Bru’s deliberate use of color brought something different to each individual painting.
“[‘Ejecución’] was a dark subject matter, so [Bru] picked purples and reds,” Golden said. “But some of her other paintings, like [‘La Memoria: A los 50 años de la llegada del barco Winnipeg a Chile’] were a lot more colorful, and even though she was being forced to leave her country, it’s more of a symbol of hope.”
Bru created the painting that Trotto and Golden studied, “Ejecución,” in defiance of the new Chilean regime following the overthrow of its socialist president in 1973. The painting “Ejecución” was featured in Chile’s very first exhibit opposing its new leader, army chief Augusto Pinochet. Bru’s painting sends a clear message against methods of violent torture, as the subject of the painting, Salvador Puig, was severely tortured and executed.
“It’s empowering that [Bru] went through [the Chilean dictatorship] and still wanted to express her emotions through the paintings,” Golden said. “[Bru] especially expresses the idea of no torture and establishing a common ground with everybody, but in a way that’s nonviolent.”
Root hopes the political and societal messages present in Bru’s paintings will start key conversations now that they are on public display.
“One thing that really excites me about [studying Bru’s paintings] is the awareness it conjures for critical conversations on history, memory and human rights,” Root said. “Many understand human rights as a concept, but not everyone enacts the day-to-day considerations that make for universals.”
According to Parris, the goal is to keep Bru’s paintings on display on Swem’s second floor throughout the 2018-19 academic year. Parris is hopeful that Bru’s art represents key steps forward for the College in terms of representation and inclusion.
“What we’re really trying to achieve with the public art program is starting a conversation,” Parris said. “When you think about the thousands of years of art that we could look at … there’s very little representation of women in the arts, so it’s a great thing to put a woman artist forward, and hopefully, that will inspire other people as well [and] bring diversity to campus.”
For Conde, the role of the College in shining a light on his home country and Bru’s story is inspiring.
“It is really magnificent to see how students are taking on some of the thinking that [Bru] was pushing forward and making it relevant to today’s situations,” Conde said. “From that perspective, I’m really heartened to know what [Bru] was pushing forward has not come to an end.”