- The Art of Truth-Telling about Authoritarian Rule
In the aftermath of authoritarian regimes, artists, intellectuals, new governments, and civil societies at large try to come to terms with a traumatic past. Critics have often talked about the reconstruction of this past as battles in which conflicting versions compete with what used to be the "ofﬁcial story of a country." In the midst of the battles to reconstruct memory there is a proliferation of genres that attempt either to denounce the horrors of human rights abuses or to grieve the pain of loss. The Art [End Page 483] of Truth-Telling about Authoritarian Rule compiles a large variety of articles on creative responses to social trauma. The word choice of the title reflects a will to find the "truth," vis-à-vis terms preferred in the past, such as committed art or protest art. The wide impact of national truth commissions has emphasized a community's need to reconstruct "the facts." The editors are aware of the concerns that might arise from the idea of "truth telling" where there are conflicting versions of truth regarding recent history; they declare that their contributors "accept and report without judgment or comment statements of truth offered in apparent good faith" (9). Their main interest is to explore the many artistic means oppressed people have found to search for the truth.
The book is a beautiful paperback with glossy pages and high quality pictures and collects pieces by thirty-five contributors on works coming out of a number of countries, including Chile, Indonesia, Nigeria, South Africa, and Thailand, among others. The book is divided into sections that address the use of different modes of truth telling: narratives, visual art, rumor, music, film, humor, performance, and memory sites. Each section usually begins with an essay that lays down the characteristics of the genre as it attempts to represent a past that is painful to remember and sometimes hard to put into words. Although the book is visually very attractive, the layout does not always help the reader to differentiate short reviews and illustrations from excerpts and tables from their longer articles. Each introductory article starts with a greenish-gray page, with a black banner with the title on it. However, the book is so heavy in graphics that even such chapter marks are not always enough to signal the transition between one section and the next.
The pieces vary greatly in length and depth. Some are very short reviews on an artist, like Jelena Suboti´c's "Laughing at Power: The Work of Corax," or on a specific work of art like "Coming Back" by Cecilia Herrera, which reviews Silvio Caiozzi's documentary Fernando Is Back (63). These short pieces make the book into a wonderful catalog of the diverse and creative ways artists and activists have responded to authoritarianism and to human rights abuses. However, it is hard to understand the context that gave origin to these works of art, even with the appendix's short accounts of the histories of the countries dealt with throughout the book. The contributors to the volume are also diverse regarding their national origin, area of interest, and field of expertise. There are writers, activists, and scholars, and their different perspectives are likely to appeal to diverse audiences. Most likely, two different readers would favor different styles among the different pieces, since the book offers everything from testimonial texts, to art reviews, to more analytical essays.
Like any ambitious project, the book will not satisfy every reader drawn to its topic. In putting together this vast material, the editors might have found themselves trying to fulfill conflicting expectations. In the introduction they state, "This volume examines the creative expression of personal and social truths outside official processes. As such, the book involves more than stockpiling the atrocities committed by authoritarian regimes" (5). If their goal is to provide an analysis of those creative processes, the book falls short in...