Telling the stories of Chilean exiles through art
Last Wednesday afternoon, Bay Area artist and cultural anthropologist Lydia Nakashima Degarrod crouched over a monoprint titled “Jaime,” which lay on a tarp on the floor of Chico State’s Valene L. Smith Museum of Anthropology. The print—featuring the head of a man split in two—was one of many awaiting its turn to be hung inside the museum for Degarrod’s upcoming show, Geographies of the Imagination: An Ethnographic Installation of Memories of Exile, Nostalgia and Migration, which opens tonight (Aug. 29).
Degarrod’s artistic representation of Jaime Salazar—a Chilean who fled his country for exile in the Bay Area after Augusto Pinochet took over as dictator in a 1973 coup d’état—captures the “very fractured sense of self” felt by Jaime and the eight other Chilean political exiles that Degarrod worked with for her project.
Degarrod—born in Chile, though not an exile from the Pinochet era—created the pieces in the Geographies show over a period of 18 months, from March 2007 to October 2008, after extensive interviews with each of her subjects, whom she met through La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley. All nine exiles have lived in the Bay Area for more than three decades.
The exhibit provides a rare opportunity to learn about the effects of long-term exile on those who experience it. Most studies of people in exile have centered on people in refugee camps who have left their home countries within five years of being interviewed, Degarrod pointed out. In addition to collaborative monoprints, videos of each subject speaking of their experiences are also featured in the thought-provoking exhibition.
“From an anthropological point of view, we don’t know much about long-term exile,” said Degarrod, who teaches at California College of the Arts in Oakland. All of her subjects came to the Bay Area “thinking they would go back [to Chile] in one or two years,” she said. That was not the case. Until a democratically elected president took over in Chile in 1990, none of the exiles went back; in the meantime (almost 17 years in some cases), they “didn’t want to settle [in the United States], so life was pretty much ‘in parentheses’ [for them].”
And when they all did finally go back to Chile, after “dreaming of their homeland, they went back to a country they could not recognize.” One of the women, Degarrod said, “would walk on the streets [in her former hometown] and say, ‘I know that person,’ but no, that person would [have been] 17 years older than that.”
In addition to feeling a strong sense of disconnect from their former homeland, all nine exiles—they still refer to themselves by that term—had children since leaving Chile, and “they didn’t want to give them a ‘double exile.’” In other words, they did not want to put their kids through what they had been through, so they all returned to the States.
It took several sessions to get the exiles to open up about their memories of what it was like to be forced to leave Chile after enduring awful conditions under Pinochet, Degarrod said. “I would make art based on our conversations,” she said, which she would take back to each of them in their next session for approval or for suggestions for any changes she should make in order to most accurately represent their experience. “It was collaborative, but I was the hands who did this,” she said.
“I needed to see my country from the outside, to take a break,” says Salazar, in a rather understated fashion, in the moving video titled “Jaime.” After finally returning to Chile, Salazar—who spent time as a political prisoner in a penitentiary in Santiago during Pinochet’s reign—found he had a “different feeling” about his homeland.
He sums up that he has “a lot of love” as well as “a lot of hate” for Chile. As for his painful memories: “I try to put them to the side.”