On September 12, 1959, Thomas Merton, a scholar, poet, and Trappist monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, wrote a letter to a Nicaraguan seminarian who had previously spent two years at the abbey. “There is great danger that the revolution in Nicaragua may serve as nothing but a cat’s paw for the Communists,” he wrote. “Let them get burnt.”
Ernesto Cardenal, the recipient of the letter, would later become a prominent figure in the very revolution Merton had warned him about. And the language of Merton’s letter—“Let them get burnt”—would prove prescient. By the revolution’s end, Cardenal’s parish would be in flames.
In 1965, Cardenal, a Catholic poet-priest, established a parish on the archipelago of Solentiname in Nicaragua. The priest introduced the residents of Solentiname—whose presence on the islands predated his own—to liberation theology, a school of thought that views the Christian Gospel as a vehicle for social justice. In The Gospel of Solentiname, Cardenal defines the kingdom of God as “a just society, without exploited or exploiters, with all possessions shared, like the society in which the first Christians lived.” This Marxist-inspired vision manifested itself first in the participatory, collaborative Masses that Cardenal led, and eventually in Solentiname’s communal agricultural structure.
Cardenal’s leadership also contributed to the islands’ participation in the ongoing Nicaraguan Revolution—a conflict, at the time, between the Sandinista National Liberation Front (a socialist revolutionary group) and the autocratic Somoza family (which ultimately ruled Nicaragua for more than 40 years). Cardenal resolutely supported the Sandinistas—he became the minister of culture in the post-revolution Sandinista government—and some members of the Solentiname community even fought in the conflict on the Sandinistas’ behalf.
But perhaps the most lasting legacy of Solentiname is neither its theology nor its politics, but its art. Cardenal, a sculptor and poet, encouraged his parishioners to sculpt, write poetry, paint, and otherwise create. The Nicaraguan painter Roger Perez de la Rocha came to Solentiname to teach its community formal painting techniques, and other artists, like Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar and Panamanian photographer Sandra Eleta, visited to make art of their own.
Now, NYU Steinhardt’s 80WSE Gallery has an exhibition looking back on this unusual artistic community. “Dream of Solentiname,” curated by the Guggenheim's Pablo León de la Barra with 80WSE Director Nicola Lees and Assistant Curator Ellesse Bartosik, considers how the artwork created by Cardenal’s flock fit into the broader national and international context of the Nicaraguan Revolution. Speaking to a group of visiting students in December, León de la Barra reflected on how Solentiname seized the revolutionary potential of art.
“Painting becomes a tool for visualizing—to represent to their own reality a mix between the ideas of socialism and ideas of the Bible, but also as a way to imagine another future,” he said.
The 80WSE exhibition begins in 1984, with selections from the New York-based artist collective Group Material’s Timeline: A Chronicle of U.S. Intervention in Central and Latin America. The work was first presented at P.S.1 as part of a broader activist art initiative, “Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America.” With American interventionism as their target, Group Material and Artists Call had plenty to protest. Nicaragua, like Vietnam, was a Cold War proxy battlefield. The Soviet Union supported the Sandinistas, while the U.S. backed not only the Somozas, but also the Contras: counter-revolutionary militants who opposed the Sandinista government that seized power after Anastasio Somoza DeBayle’s downfall in 1979. The ensuing Contra War persisted until 1990, killing tens of thousands of Nicaraguans.
Alongside Group Material’s timeline, another timeline, this one created by the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), relays the history of American interventionism in Latin America, spanning from 1868 to 1983. Thirty-one of its 47 entries begin with “U.S. troops intervene in…” followed by a country. By putting the CISPES timeline in conversation with the Group Material archive—propaganda posters from Guatemala and El Salvador, flags, invitations to art exhibitions—the gallery honors the centuries of resistance that have met centuries of imperialism.
Such resistance drew photographer Susan Meiselas—a former SIR (Something In Residence) at NYU Tisch—to Nicaragua in the 1970s. “Dream of Solentiname” displays some of what she captured on that trip, and one image is especially haunting: disembodied legs and a spine, lying on a patch of dirt overlooking rolling, green hills. Another shows a Sandinista preparing to throw a Molotov cocktail made out of a Pepsi bottle, highlighting the hypocrisy of America’s foreign presence: the country funded dictators while exporting goods that would become the weapons of revolutionaries.
If the exhibition examines the role of art in revolution, it also explores the ways in which art can be manipulated in times of crisis. In addition to her photos, the gallery of Meiselas’s work contains newspaper and magazine clippings of stories that featured her images. In a recent interview, Meiselas explained that she’s fascinated by the way the photos spread and ended up being used in support of various different political causes. A photograph of a Sandinista, for instance, could become a tribute to freedom fighters, or a condemnation of insolent rebels.
“A photograph might have been seen in a magazine, it could have been seen in a museum, in a book where I contextualized it, or it could have been part of a film,” she said. “Many of those photographs have had those multiple lives.”
While the world was documenting the Nicaraguan Revolution, the residents of Solentiname grappled with it through their art. And over time, as they became increasingly adept painters, they sold their work to international markets—and funneled some of the profits back into the revolution.
The Solentiname paintings were political not just in their economic function, but also in their content. One of galleries in “Dream of Solentiname” consists of paintings created on Solentiname, many of which evoke biblical imagery—such as Esperanza Guevara’s La traición (The Betrayal), a recreation of the kiss of Judas in which the Romans have become Somoza loyalists.
But even the works that don’t explicitly refer to the Gospel blend faith with politics. Another painting of Guevara’s, Compas liberando loras (Comrades Liberating Parrots), depicts parrots flying away from the cages that were to be used to smuggle them into the U.S. The parrots are multifaceted symbols: they are Nicaragua, breaking free from the thrall of American political and market demands; they are farm laborers escaping economic subjugation; they are souls fleeing material confines.
The symbolic power of nature is similarly present in another of the exhibition’s galleries—a collection of Cardenal’s sculptures. In it, arranged on and above a raised platform, are 17 sculptures created by the priest from 1974 to 2017: plants and fruit, birds, fish, and other animals. León de la Barra explained that uniting the sculptures on the symbolic island of the platform “in a way recreates [Cardenal’s] own idea of paradise, of a place where man and nature can coexist in peaceful bliss.”
A key element of Cardenal’s community was the chapel of Solentiname, in which he held his conversational Masses. But in the decades following Cardenal’s time on Solentiname, humidity and wood-eating insects wore down the chapel. So in 2011, Marcos Agudelo, a Nicaraguan artist and architect and the son of one of the founding members of the Solentiname community, set out to renovate it. Working off of Sandra Eleta’s photographs of daily life on the islands, he accurately restored the building’s exterior and reconstructed the chapel’s entire wooden structure. “Dream of Solentiname” contains Agudelo’s installation Reconstrucción de Iglesia de Solentiname, a tribute to his work on the chapel and a reflection on the goal of fostering peace and togetherness.
“It represented a lot to me, because of my personal history, the history of my family,” said Agudelo. “There is a utopia still under construction.”
In 1977, Solentiname’s revolutionary project compelled Somoza DeBayle’s regime to attack the archipelago, burning parts of it to the ground. A year prior, Julio Cortázar had visited Solentiname, and he eventually detailed the experience in Nicaragua, tan violentamente dulce (Nicaragua, So Violently Sweet), a copy of which lies in a glass case in the 80WSE exhibition. In “Apocalipsis de Solentiname,” one of the book’s essays, Cortázar describes a Sunday Mass he witnessed, during which the congregation discussed Jesus’s arrest in the garden:
[T]he people of Solentiname treated [the theme] as if it dealt with them personally, with the threat hanging over them at night or in broad daylight, their life of constant uncertainty not just on the islands or on the mainland and in all of Nicaragua but also in nearly the whole of Latin America, life surrounded by fear and death, life in Guatemala and life in El Salvador, life in Argentina and Bolivia, life in Chile and Santo Domingo, life in Paraguay, life in Brazil and in Colombia.
But just as the people of Solentiname felt tied to the uncertainty and danger of the rest of Latin America, they also felt tied to the region’s potential. They kept creating art after soldiers attacked Solentiname, and, in doing so, they kept Cardenal’s hopeful vision alive.
The people of Cardenal’s parish at Solentiname were, in essence, like the priest’s myriad sculptures: molded by him—he less a god than a brother—to be one with all humankind. That was the mission of Cardenal’s liberation theology, and it became the mission of Solentiname’s community, and of many others who found themselves drawn into the Nicaraguan Revolution—its horrors and its promise. 80WSE’s “Dream of Solentiname” showcases that promise in motion, a project of faith, unity, and peace.