Los ninos del Proceso in Never (Again) Land
In her series of paintings and drawings, Los ninos del Proceso, Marfa Giuffra starts where the story of La casa de los conejos ends. If Alcoba’s novel finishes just weeks before the outbreak of the coup, Los ninos del Proceso depicts the lives of many children of disappeared parents during the period of military rule or shortly after the return to democracy, revealing the flipside to the festive spirit of the so-called democratic spring, when echoes of the “never again” slogan condemning military crimes sat alongside prejudices about popular militants that made the regime possible. Moreover, if the girl in Alcoba’s autofiction is confined within four walls by the force of circumstance, the children of Los ninos del Proceso occupy a city that has itself become a prison. They are doubly orphans: parentless and abandoned by a society that was supposed to protect them.
In Los ninos del Proceso there are also echoes of children’s literature. More specifically, Giuffra’s images are a visual testimony of an orphaned generation that frequently draw on the imaginary of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (1904). In this work, marked by an infantile aesthetic (some of the drawings pretend to be made in notebooks like the ones used at school), Marfa Giuffra painted both her childhood memories (her father, Romulo Giuffra, was kidnapped by the military on 22 February 1977, when she was six months old) and the memories of other children of parents disappeared or murdered during the dictatorship (Fig. 5.2). In her images, the candid appearance of the playing children contrasts with harsh phrases, such as “the subversive little criminal” or “the shitty little lefty,” reproduced in some of the paintings. These phrases evoke everyday comments during and after the military regime. The language of politics is introduced in the pictures on three different levels: as part of the drawings (and part of the scenes), as additions to the drawings superimposed on the scenes, and as epigraphs explaining the scenes.
These phrases sometimes belong to children (“I don’t have a dad or a mum” and “I know nothing about my mum or my dad, I don’t have a picture of them, I don’t have memories”) (“To no se nada”), and sometimes to public opinion (“Ha ha ha,” “you children of disappeared parents always want to be the victims”). Just as their parents were targeted by the military, the children became stigmatized by civil society, as suggested by the arrows pointing at them in pictures such as “La nina comunista” and “La hija del guerrillero”.
The variety of techniques employed by Giuffra—charcoal, acrylic, collage and watercolour—and the chromatic palette in these images helps
Fig. 5.2 Maria Giuffra, La hija del guerrillero, Los ninos delProceso, 25 x 35 cm, mixed technique, 2006
to evoke the children’s subjective memories and how they perceived the events. Strong colours are used throughout and red is predominant, suggesting that blood is everywhere (“Mi papA ensangrentado,” “Burbujas,” “Nina en rojo” and “No te confundas”). Together with children’s drawings, some of the pictures also show children playing with toys or, alternatively, frightening teddy bears or dolls whose intrinsically sinister nature is reinforced by the context in which they are reproduced. Moreover, the drawings and toys in Giuffra’s images are contaminated by violence: in “Este dolor” (Fig. 5.3) the bear is bleeding; in “Nina y juguetes”, a painting from the series Familia y exilio, a girl is playing with a pile of toys, dolls, bears, books and animals among which is hidden a skeleton. In these scenes, the children’s once-comforting companions are no longer able to protect their owners from the threats of the outside world.
In a text written for the 2010 exhibition Amontonados, in which Giuffra showed her work alongside Lucila Quieto and Ana Adjiman, Mario Santucho made an explicit connection between the images of these female artists and Peter Pan. In the exhibition he said:
Fig. 5.3 Maria Giuffra, Este dolor, Los ninos delProceso, 40 x 50 cm, charcoal and acrylic, 2005
there are many literary allusions to characters that never grew up. Peter Pan and the Little Prince are only the most famous. But our life was different.
We grew up, got wrinkles and white hair, got fatter and had children. Yet we always go back to that infantile dimension from which, luckily, we might never be able to escape.38
The echoes of Barrie’s book in Giuffra’s images are perhaps not that surprising if we remember that Peter Pan, transformed by the popular imaginary into an innocent bedtime story, is in fact a sad and complicated portrait of childhood. As pointed out by Nicolas Prividera, Peter Pan describes the darker aspects of childhood, a cruel world in which everyone abuses everyone else. For Prividera, Peter Pan is a despotic and moody father who abandons his children, and Wendy is an impossible mother who only knows how to look after her dolls and who wants her children to die like perfect gentlemen. He concludes that he “has also been in Neverland, inhabited by captains more cruel than Garfio, one of them, blond as an angel—a fallen angel, angel of death—who pretended to be a Boy,” an obvious reference to Captain Alfredo Astiz, known as the Blond Angel, who pretended to be the son of a disappeared mother during the dictatorship in order to infiltrate the Madres de Plaza de Mayo and denounce their activities. Prividera then adds that he also met other “lost children” like himself in Neverland.39
Mirroring the adult-free world of Neverland, the children in Los ninos del Proceso are alone or with adults who are rarely their parents but rather mere substitutes. In one painting, for instance, a child plays with an adult but the title—“El papA que no tuve”—prevents us from looking at the scene as if it were a traditional family portrait. In another image, entitled “ElpapA de otro,” a girl sits on the lap of a man, an image that might be a self-portrait as suggested by a comment made by Giuffra in an interview:
I have my childhood very present ... I remember many feelings from those times. For example, I remember when I had to leave with my mother to Brazil my uncle, who was also in exile, raised me as if I were his own daughter. I loved him, but I remember very clearly the feeling of him being other children’s father.40
The children are completely lost in these scenarios. The spatial coordinates are invisible; surfaces and landscapes are indeterminate; and the distinction between outdoors and indoors is unclear. The images are dreamlike, timeless and only contextualized by the phrases on the drawings and their titles. The beach is one of the few clearly identifiable places in these pictures. But a landscape usually associated with peace and relaxation becomes threatening here (“ Tres elementos subversivos,” “La familia delincuente subversiva” and “Los papAs que no tuvimos.”) It is thus not surprising that the children are “almost never smiling and that they are bathed in a sky that seems to bleed and fall on their heads.”41
Together with the imaginaries of Peter Pan, Giuffra’s images remind us of the illustrations that accompany children’s fables (she herself has illustrated Aesop’s fables) and fairy tales, inhabited by little girls lost in the wilderness, ferocious wolves and scary ogres, with the difference that none of these is the product of the children’s imagination and that there are no happy endings here to comfort the viewers. Many of the images also show seemingly happy families in portraits accompanied by phrases that reveal the fatal destiny of their members, as if a spell or a curse had been cast on them and there is nothing to do but await that destiny. We thus read in two particularly pointed paintings: “the father looks at the family that he will soon lose, he already knows his destiny,” and “the father hurries to get on time to the appointment during which he will lose his life.”
In the exhibition at the Centro Cultural Recoleta, Giuffra complemented her images with an installation that simulated a child’s bedroom full of teddy bears and children’s books, like the ones she draws on her canvases. These stories accompanied many of these children during times of solitude and fear, and now they provide Giuffra with a frame of reference to paint the nightmarish and yet very real stories of the youngest victims of the dictatorship. If Neverland has been said to be the infan- tilization of an oppressive world, the images of Los ninos del Proceso show instead how oppression in Argentina systematically invaded the world of children.