Tania Bruguera Exhibition in Chile Becomes Ensnared in Battle Over Former President’s Legacy

The Salvador Allende Solidarity Museum (MSSA) in Santiago was always going to make the headlines this year, given that 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of Augusto Pinochet’s coup d’état in Chile. But so far, the museum has been in the news not because of its namesake mission, but because of controversy generated by one of its exhibitions.

The museum had initially scheduled an exhibition by the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera to open on September 8. Shortly after the event became known, however, several people, including the grandson of the deposed President of Chile, Salvador Allende, publicly decried Bruguera. These statements, in addition to threats received via Bruguera’s social media, moved the museum to delay the opening by a month, citing security reasons. The exhibition is now open—with some modifications.

After Bruguera’s show was announced, Pablo Sepúlveda Allende, grandson of President Salvador Allende, requested its cancellation by sending a letter to the museum and publishing an extensive tweet on his X account. He also began soliciting signatures on an open letter repudiating the show.

He wrote that he considered the exhibition a “grotesque provocation” and an “insolent insult.” Sepúlveda called Bruguera “an artist who only stands out because her staging is politically contrary to the Cuban Revolution, that same Revolution that both Allende and millions and millions of people in Cuba and around the world admire, defend and love.”

Sepúlveda went on to claim that the exhibition was especially offensive because it coincided with the anniversary of the assassination of Salvador Allende, “who died holding the rifle that his dear friend, Commander Fidel Castro, had given him.”

According to a press release from the museum, one of the central projects of the exhibition was suppressed.

Bruguera wanted to mark the houses nearby the museum that were detention and torture centers during the dictatorship with an “x” in front of each building. She told ARTnews, “Everything was going well and the community was involved in the process of even defining texts, colors, distribution, etc. Everything changed when the influence that the Cuban government still has on some political groups in Chile became evident.”

“The tentacles of Cuban repressors and censors reach very far,” she continued. “When this happened, all the memories of the interrogations, torture, and censorship that I had suffered in Cuba were immediately activated in me.”

The announcement of her exhibition in Chile has also received opposition from the journal of the Communist Party of Chile, which published an article stating that the artist traveled to the country “seeking support in Chile for anti-Cuban positions and contrary to the Revolution and demanding the end of the island regime.”

The mayor of a commune in Santiago de Chile, Daniel Jadue, described Bruguera as a “North American agent disguised as an artist.” Activist Víctor Hugo Robles published an article titled “Tania Bruguera non grata,” in which he states that the artist “mobilizes money and multinational support for the Cuban opposition and travels the world promoting “democracy in Cuba.”

The director of MSSA, Claudia Zaldívar, has described the words of Sepúlveda Allende as an attempt at “cancelation.” In an interview with ARTnews, Zaldivar said that “this attempt at canceling the show comes from a small group that considers Bruguera a dissident of the current Cuban government, transferring a local Cuban problem to Chile.” Additionally, she believes that the criticisms have nothing to do with Bruguera’s artistic proposal.

Bruguera, who came to Chile to prepare the show, told ARTnews that she decided to incorporate the criticism she has faced into the exhibition: “I decided to make transparent the entire process that the exhibition itself went through, the political tensions, censorship, and pressure. This is what I call Arte para un tiempo político determinado (Art for a given political time).”

The exhibition, titled “Magnitud 11.9,” is based on the artist’s previous research in Chile, and is intended to “delve deeper into the challenges of democracy,” per a description on the museum’s website.

In June of this year, Bruguera visited spaces of memory inherited from the Pinochet dictatorship, such as the former Villa Grimaldi detention and torture center, at Calle Londres 38; the memorial of the victims of the Degollados Case (a politically motivated series of murders of opposition figures that took place in during the dictatorship); and the Museum of Memory. She also held a meeting with the Association of Free Cubans in Chile.

The MSSA, which was founded during Allende’s presidency and was even personally inaugurated by him in 1972, is administered by a foundation made up of representatives from the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Cultures, Arts and Heritage, and the Salvador Allende Foundation. This last institution, according to Zaldívar, had given its approval to Bruguera’s exhibition.

Bruguera, an artist well known for the political content of her works and art actions, has been arrested on several occasions during her stays in Cuba. On her social media accounts, she has consistently cried out against censorship and authoritarianism, and issued opinions in opposition to the policies of the Cuban state. She has also requested the release of political prisoners and called Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel a dictator. She usually posts with hashtags like #EnCubaHayUnaDictadura, #LibertadParaCuba, #CubaEstáSecuestrada and #SOSCuba (#InCubathereisadictatorship, #FreedomforCuba and #Cubaiskidnapped).