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Fifty Years of Hope and Struggle

Written by Anna Grimaldi and Richard G Smith |
Chile Solidarity Mural, University of Leeds Student Union
Chile Solidarity Mural, University of Leeds Student Union


On 18 April 2023, students at the University of Leeds launched a month-long exhibition titled Hope, Struggle and Solidarity. The exhibition, the result of collaborative archival research and workshops, represents a creative and innovative approach to memorialising struggle against dictatorship in Chile and wider Latin America since the 1970s. It shows how the solidarity of the past can be reactivated and retransmitted in the present to take on new political meaning.

The exhibition formed part of a wider project titled ‘Thinking Inside the Box: 1973’, a collaboration between the Universities of London (KCL, QMUL, LSE), Leeds and Liverpool. It connected students to each other and to a range of archival materials, broadly themed around 20th century Latin America, to inspire a contemporary response to events in Latin America fifty years ago. To this day, the year of 1973 remains most evocative of the Chilean military coup in which Salvador Allende was overthrown by the military, who went on to imprison, torture and kill tens of thousands. This year was, however, pivotal for many other countries in the region, as authoritarian military rule spread and intensified, including in Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil.

Opposition to these regimes came in various forms, ranging from cultural resistance to armed struggle. The events of 1973 saw Latin American solidarity proliferate across the world. Groups gathered data on human rights abuses, petitioned local political actors, rallied support from unions and other social justice organisations, and raised awareness through publications, press conferences, performances, and demonstrations.

Material remnants of these expressions of hope, resistance, struggle and solidarity are to be found in archives, digital and physical. Indeed, what we know about 1970s solidarity largely comes from archives: correspondence, political ephemera, newspaper clippings, photographs, posters, government documents, testimonies. Artefacts are often used to historiographically reconstruct events relating to state terror and political violence. Political and economic interests strive to influence this process by the: 

… inoculation of collective memory from State systems; the defensive oblivion assimilated by civil society; the depoliticisation of subjectivities in restructuring neo-liberal economies; the aestheticisation of counterculture, etc. More than forty years on from the outbreak of dictatorships in a significant part of Latin America, the ensuing traumatic effect still smothers intellectual life in our societies and immunises the poetic-political potential of those experiences.

The creation, collection and preservation of archival materials thus give us a snapshot of the past that would otherwise be lost to censorship, inaccessibility, denial and collective oblivion.

Seeking to reawaken the lived experiences contained within such archives, students at the University of Leeds carried out a lengthy research project and designed a ‘festival of events’ to take place in April 2023. They engaged with three specific archives: the Robert Pring-Mill collection at the University of Liverpool’s Popular Music Archive, the Senate House Library Latin American Political Pamphlet Collection, and the recently digitised collection, Memories of Resistance: A Digital Archive of Chile's Graphic Resistance. Their experiences and subsequent activities were innovative, performative and interactive, leading to a particular memorialisation of the past that actively pushed back against the bleakness imposed by the military regimes. Through a critical debate about memory and aesthetics, an interaction with a Chilean activist, and the pedagogical design of a series of workshops, Hope, Struggle and Solidarity reawakened the transformative potential of solidarity and hope for a better future. Here, we reflect on some of the key sources of inspiration for the design of the project.

Resistance, Hope, Struggle and Solidarity
Choosing hope and solidarity as the principles of the project was based on a debate around the aesthetics of political artworks. In early January 2023, students spent a day at the Robert Pring-Mill Collection at the University of Liverpool’s Popular Music Archive. Robert Pring-Mill (1924-2005) was an Oxford academic, studying and teaching Hispanic and Latin American literature. He first visited Argentina, Uruguay and Chile as an undergraduate in 1949. It was in Chile that he encountered the poetry of Pablo Neruda, while Neruda was in hiding in Chile after the Communist Party, for which he was an elected Senator in the national Congress, was outlawed during miners’ strikes. That trip sparked a life-long interest in socially committed poetry and music, resulting in his collection of canciones de lucha y esperanza, ‘songs of hope and struggle’, a term he preferred to ‘protest music’, because he considered protest to be against something, yet these songs were always in favour of something - land reform, literacy, better housing, democracy, and so on. The collection included books, pamphlets, posters, vinyl sleeves, and cassettes, artefacts for which visual artwork played an important role. Arriving at the archive to see brightly coloured artworks, celebrations of music and culture, and lyrics that transmitted hope, was not quite what the students were expecting.

This stimulated a debate about different visual communication strategies. The aesthetics of victimhood and denunciation differ from those of hope and resistance. In the former, images are designed to shock or intimidate; resistance to oppression highlights violence, injustice, inequality, and identifies their perpetrators. Furthermore, transnational solidarity with victims needs to convince distant publics and political actors of the veracity of claims of illegal imprisonment, torture, murder, and disappearances. The visual and semiotic language of resistance has to be striking: visually vivid or with violent or shocking imagery.