Interview in Hour Community
Originally published at hour.ca on September 25, 2008.
Montreal is a vibrant international center for artistic expression and culture production. Cultural Crossroads is a new interview series on hour.ca that features in depth conversations with Montreal’s leading artists and cultural actors, all who of whom are inspiring new and innovative forms of artistic expression and thinking here and around the world.Montreal artist Freda Guttman discusses her œuvre for Hour.ca’s monthly instalment of Cultural Crossroads
Groundbreaking art has always flourished on the edges of society, and often intersected with political movements for social justice. And so it goes that artists usually play a critical role in articulating popular history for generations to come.
A grandmother, celebrated artist and committed social activist, Freda Guttman explores that intersection between art and social movements, covering topics and struggles from all corners of the globe. From her major exhibitions in the 1980s, which focused on the horrors of U.S.-backed paramilitary campaigns against indigenous people in Guatemala, to the struggle of peasant movements in the Philippines against military dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Guttman’s work has zeroed in on struggles against injustice, both locally and globally. Recently Guttman’s work has focused on the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
This month, some of her older, more personal work, called The Maid – about the maid who laboured to make the feast for her 13th b-day party – is on display as part ofDissident Art, a month-long art event dedicated to Montreal’s dissenting artists and their work.
In this interview for Hour’s monthly web feature Cultural Crossroads, Guttman explores the role of art in social movements around the world and meditates on decades of her own work, touching on some of the most profound moments of the last centaury.
Hour: Your art stretches back decades, and the themes of your work address struggles for social justice all over the planet. But first, to provide a sense of your own history, could you offer a couple of thoughts about growing up in Montreal?
Freda Guttman: I always had a strong identification with people who were persecuted – it was clear to me early on that if an injustice occurs anywhere in the world, we all have a responsibility to address it.
Growing up Jewish in Montreal meant that we lived in quite a closed community, because according to the Quebec school system at the time, if you weren’t Québécois and Catholic you were placed in a Protestant school, even if you were Jewish.
Living in Outremont, an area that was basically Québécois and Jewish, meant that my class was essentially 99 per cent Jewish. This experience made me very hungry to understand other cultures, different parts of the world, because my identity was boxed in or predefined by a system beyond my control.
Hour: One major focus of your work in the 1980s was Central America. You co-ordinated several exhibitions that toured Canada and brought to light the massive injustices being carried out by U.S.-backed military forces there at the time. Can you talk about your work on the Americas?
Guttman: Throughout the 1980s in Montreal and in North America there was a really strong solidarity movement with Central America, with Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. At the time my political involvement was within solidarity groups with Central America in Montreal.
In 1984, my efforts were focused on putting together a major exhibition on Guatemala, which had a historical parallel to Chile – in both countries, U.S.-backed forces eliminated a social democratic leader. In Guatemala, the left-elected government ofJacobo Arbenz Guzmán made efforts to reclaim land from the United Fruit Company [an American fruit company that has had a deep impact on the economic and political development of several Latin American companies] for landless peasants to use, and the U.S. responded with a violent coup.
Guatemala is a country with a very large indigenous population, whose people were facing extreme violence for decades, as paramilitaries and the military were slaughtering entire villages in a military campaign supported by the U.S., while Canada never seriously protested against this injustice.
We created a major exhibition at the time called Guatemala: The Road of War, which included a great deal of information about the situation, and showed in 14 different galleries across Canada. All the exhibitions were held in artist-run centres and in collaboration with solidarity organizations, and included various presentations and film screenings. The exhibition included large handmade mini mountains, each representing a village. On each mountain transfer-Xerox was used to put written information about the struggles, and violence, taking place in Guatemala.
Also the exhibition incorporated symbols of indigenous culture and resistance in Guatemala, including the famous brightly coloured indigenous dresses. In Guatemala, each region has a different design or pattern for the dress, representing distinct regional identities. The U.S.-backed military government of Guatemala orchestrated a campaign of forced displacement, dislocating entire communities at gunpoint, all in an effort to undermine people’s connection to the land and eliminate the collective identities of indigenous communities.
The exhibition aimed to outline the genocide in Guatemala taking place against indigenous people while offering concrete ways for people to engage with the solidarity movement.
Hour: Your exhibitions have always had an international focus, but remain tied to the local. You’ve done work on Latin America, the Philippines, Palestine and the struggles of indigenous communities in Canada. Can you talk about how your work outlines the interconnectedness between struggles for social justice at both a local and global level?
Guttman: After the exhibition on Guatemala, my focus turned to illustrating the direct involvement of people living in Canada to situations of war or injustices taking place in the [Global] South. Then I started working on a show concerning food, called The Global Menu, which examined the global system of food production and distribution.
This exhibition was also very large, and including different sections: a part on Chile, illustrating how after the Pinochet dictatorship took power, land was seized from peasants for multinational agribusiness; another site in the exhibition was the Philippines, which [featured] a reconstruction of a sugar worker’s home built from shipping crates. Behind this was a Canadian dining room that included a video with manipulated food ads that [ran continuously] throughout the exhibition.
Also in the exhibition there was a section on Iqaluit, where food is so expensive within a community where so many are forced onto welfare. Food is sold according to how much it weighs, so the cheapest things are sometimes junk food.
Juxtaposition was used in the exhibition to illustrate profound differences in living standards – but also how our lives in Canada are closely linked to the conditions of people in the South. It was well received and was an attempt to convey through clear examples of how [things on the other side of] the world are related to us directly, and that we all have a responsibility.
Hour: What is the role of art in society for you?
Guttman: Art is a tool for change – an important tool because it connects with people at an emotional level and people can be deeply impacted by art. Throughout my life, my artwork was fuelled by this belief.
Look to the Picasso painting Guernica, which depicted the fascist bombing of civilians in Guernica, Spain, during the Spanish Civil War, as a famous reference. As a painting it is a powerful piece, however it is also a critically important symbol of the power of art to send a message. In the UN there is a tapestry replica of Guernica, which was behind Colin Powell during a press conference in the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. U.S. officials pressured the UN to cover up the painting for the press conference. Clearly the highest levels of the U.S. outlined a fear of the power of art to send a message.
Hour: Your work is also focused on history. One major installation was about the philosopher and theorist Walter Benjamin, the Nazi regime in Germany and fascism. Can you speak about this period of your work and the ideas behind your projects?
Guttman: I produced a series of installations over a decade. The first installation was focused on my own experiences, the forces in my life and my Jewish identity. The next exhibition focused on Walter Benjamin, it was an exhibition that honoured him.
In a sense, the installations were an examination of the last century, and Benjamin was a great victim of the last century. He was forced to commit suicide after receiving information that the Gestapo was coming for him in 1940. Benjamin feared this would happen and always carried poison pills in the event that the fascists were about to arrest him.
Benjamin always wrote about fascism being ever-present, that we must always watch out for fascism creeping up in society. Today, in Canada, there are “security certificates (PDF), which are fascist in essence. We have legislation that allows indefinite detention without a fair trial.
The exhibition built from Benjamin’s ideas and was an attempt to find a visual language to wake people up […] to the presence of creeping fascism in all societies. The exhibition used many images of Hitler, including images of him with children and with massive crowds in Germany. This imagery was used as a way to remind us that Hitler was a human being who whipped a nation into a hysterical, fascist frenzy. It aimed to illustrate that this could happen anywhere. There is an element of seduction woven into maintaining absolute political power, used by fascist forces. Prior to fascism, Germany was a very civilized and cultured country, but very quickly it became a monster. We can’t forget this because it could happen again anywhere.
In the exhibition, [we used] a method of image manipulation from the Renaissance, called anamorphosis, where an image is mathematically distorted. It’s only by looking in a mirror cylinder that you can actually see the image. In the installation, someone would approach the piece of art to try to make sense of the image, not seeing anything at first and then slowly they would realize that they could look in the circular mirror and see images of fascism. This installation was really an attempt to illustrate that ordinary people were swept away by fascism and this is something that could happen again.
Hour: In recent years you have taken many trips to Palestine, where you have produced work concerning Israel’s military occupation of Palestine. Can you speak about your connection to Palestine and your work on these issues?
Guttman: Recent years brought me to Palestine, a main focus for my activism and my art today. In Bethlehem I worked with the International Middle East Media Center(IMEMC), writing and editing. I lived in Palestine in Beit Sahour, a small village just beside Bethlehem, and from this trip produced a series of artistic postcards on the Israeli colonization of Palestine, dealing with the issue of Israeli settlements.
In the past there was a beautiful mountain above Beit Sahour, a mountain with unique fauna that belonged to the Palestinian municipality. After the war in 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank and annexed the mountain with the long-term plan of extending a fully Israeli-occupied Jerusalem.
Until the late 1990s nothing really happened to the mountain until the former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to build a major Israeli settlement there. Palestinians began a very long struggle to stop the settlement, including non-violent demonstrations – they set up a tent city, they fought through the settlement construction in the Israeli courts.
In the end, Israel built a settlement called Har Houma, which is a monstrosity, a really ugly fortress within the very beautiful landscape of Palestine. Throughout occupied Palestine there are awful looking Israeli settlements, militarized fortresses that scar and destroy the Palestinian landscape.
Given the massive size of the settlement, […] [it has become] a symbol of the Palestinians’ loss of land, of the mindless might of the Israeli state [and their ability] to take any land it wants from the Palestinians. Seeing Har Houma in the daylight under the sun is almost like seeing a mirage – you can’t believe that this colonial fortress is in front of you, it is disjointed from the rest of the landscape.
More and more Palestinian land is being stolen by Israel, and my artistic work on Palestine, specifically the postcard series and a graphic poster produced for Fuse magazine, illustrates Israel’s colonization of Palestine.