Born in the coastal city of Valparaíso, Chile, the Austin-based artist Liliana Wilson practiced drawing at an early age, but thought that she would make her living in either architecture or law. While attending law school in 1973, her studies were cut short by the political atrocities that began when the militaristic regime of Augusto Pinochet ousted the democratic government of Salvador Allende. Under Pinochet’s dictatorship, which lasted until 1990, approximately 3,000 dissidents, known as “the missing,” were arrested by the military junta and never again seen, and an estimated 200,000 Chileans — including Wilson — were forced to flee the country.
Since she had a friend living in Austin, Wilson settled there in 1977. While working menial jobs, she returned to a childhood pastime and took up drawing again. Encouraged by Chicana artists, writers, and activists, Wilson took drawing courses at Austin Community College in the ’80s and studied painting at Texas State University in the ’90s. She had her first solo exhibition at Austin’s La Peña gallery in 1989, and has been actively exhibiting ever since.
Through Aug. 29, Wilson is presenting a retrospective of drawings and paintings produced over the past 38 years at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio. The exhibition was organized in conjunction with the release of a monographic publication on the artist, which is edited by Chicana scholar Norma E. Cantú and includes contributions from several authorities in Latino Studies, among them feminist historian Antonia Castañeda, University of Texas at San Antonio President Ricardo Romo, and art historian/gallerist Patricia Ruiz-Healy, all of whom are based in San Antonio. While the exhibition showcases several significant artworks from the artist’s prolific career, the monograph is a valuable resource that offers an extensive exploration of her life and work, considered from a variety of perspectives.
During the 1973 siege by Pinochet’s forces, Wilson saw people forcefully abducted from buildings and witnessed gunfire in the streets. As time went on, she learned that political prisoners were brought to a ship where they were tortured to death and their bodies were dumped overboard. Untold numbers of men and women were taken to the national stadium where they were raped, beaten, and killed by the military. During the four years that Wilson remained in Chile under Pinochet’s dictatorship, she managed to complete her law courses while living at home with her mother and siblings, and she remembers this as a time of extreme repression and censorship.
Not surprisingly, Wilson’s drawings from the year of her arrival in the United States reveal her efforts to come to grips with the horrific events that she had experienced firsthand. In her drawing “City of Blood,” Wilson depicts a man floating above buildings that drip blood. With his arms outstretched, he appears helpless and defenseless, and the weightlessness of his body suggests that he might actually be the freed spirit of one of the missing. Rather than depict explicit violence, Wilson has always preferred to employ a gentle style and rely upon symbolism to communicate her sentiments. By presenting disturbing material in a calm and visually palatable fashion, the artist hopes to engage viewers in a contemplative conversation, rather than shock them with gruesome details.
Such an approach is also at work in the drawing “Los desaparecidos en el cielo (The disappeared in heaven),” which was motivated by Wilson’s having seen the bodies of two dead prisoners that had been washed ashore after being disposed of in the ocean. Posed as if they are sleeping at the ocean’s edge, the men appear to be at peace as the sun shines brightly above them. Within the context of this scenario, the sun could be interpreted as a symbol of otherworldly divinity. Such spiritual connections, in fact, become more literal in Wilson’s drawings of the ’80s.
Throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s, Wilson lived a somewhat secluded existence, but all this changed when she became involved with La Peña, a Latino cultural arts center in Austin where she met artists, writers, musicians, and political activists. Through her affiliation with La Peña and subsequently with San Antonio’s Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, Wilson found a community where she felt very much at home. In particular, she identified with the struggles of Mexican immigrants and, in her 1987 drawing “El color de la esperanza (The color of hope),” she expressed her sympathy for the perilous situations of those attempting to cross the border. In this drawing, Wilson depicts the plight of a young boy who never made it across in a poignantly poetic manner. Again using sleep to represent death, the artist shows the boy lying peacefully on the ground with the barbed wire border fence behind him. In the background, images of a large Aztec sun and the Virgen de Guadalupe represent spiritual protectors who watch over him.
In “Rodrigo Rojas,” a related drawing about a Chilean boy who was burned to death by the military junta, the deceased youth is portrayed as a winged angel who has risen like a phoenix from the ocean. In both of these drawings, a soft pastel palette lends a tone of serenity. Although raised a Catholic, Wilson currently practices Zen Buddhism and believes in the possibility of an eternal metaphysical tranquility.
Wilson’s development as a painter took root in the ’90s. Although she continued to create her compositions initially in drawings, she found that transferring a drawing to canvas or wood panel and then painting the imagery allowed her to produce lustrous and more saturated colors, giving greater volume and physical presence to her forms.
In one of her earliest paintings, “Man Running from Himself,” the background details of her earlier works have been eliminated in favor of focusing entirely on the figures. In this instance, dark shadows seem to propel forward the movement of a man who is struggling to reconcile his dual identities, a situation that Wilson herself was facing having fled one country for another. In a later painting, “Mujer desesperada (Desperate woman),” Wilson tackled the issue of domestic violence. In the painting, Wilson depicts a bewildered woman who bears the weight of a burning house upon her head, a symbolic reference to the nightmare that she faces at home.
A Nahuatl term used in the monograph by the late Tejana writer and theorist Gloria E. Anzaldúa for the type of internal stress faced by the people in Wilson’s paintings is “nepantla,” which means “being between two spaces.” Nepantla is also the name of an artist residency program that Anzaldúa directed in California, where Wilson spent six weeks as a resident in 1993. During the residency, Wilson engaged in discussions with artists and writers about the concept of nepantla in all its manifestations, addressing such topics as immigration, cultural displacement, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
Through both art and community, Wilson had found a new sense of purpose by the end of the ’90s. More confident in her artistic abilities as well as in her thinking, and feeling part of a larger conversation, she turned to producing more overtly political paintings. Again choosing a subtle approach, the artist began using animal imagery as metaphoric surrogates for villains.
In “La junta de gobierno (The government junta),” for example, four ferocious bloodthirsty dogs with steel teeth represent the branches of the Chilean junta: the police, the air force, the military, and the navy. In “The Successful Family,” a feminist critique of typical middle-class patriarchy, Wilson depicts the older males as ducks, whereas the mother, daughter, and male child appear normal. Her point, of course, is that the mother has the power to shape the children’s futures and thus the younger male will not end up a chauvinist like his father and older brothers.
In “Greed 2,” one of the artist’s largest and most powerful examinations of the political climate, Wilson returned to the subject of Mexican immigration. In this large-scale painting, the blood-red color of water and sky refers to the helplessness, suffering, and frequent deaths of the men and women who, in attempting to cross the border, become powerless captives in the hands of border guards, who are represented with fish heads and shown dressed in fine suits.
In her latest paintings and drawings, Wilson has shifted to what she views as a more hopeful form of expression that she calls “alma y esperanza (soul and hope).” Informed by her interest in Buddhist philosophy, Wilson’s imagery now concerns the relationship between the individual and the universe, with an emphasis on our connections to nature and the cosmos. Shown stoic and at ease amidst natural elements such as water, sky, flowers, plants, and animals, Wilson’s immigrant children are now connected to the universe via depicted references to spiritual light, as if they have mystical powers. Considering their presence to be an “ofrenda” or gift, Wilson now envisions the children as ambassadors for a better future.
*Featured/top image: Works by Liliana Wilson from left: “Man Running from Himself,” 1991, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 48 in. and “Mujer desesperada (Desperate woman),” 1999, acrylic on panel, 25 x 19 in.