Refusing to be silenced: New exhibit shows power of art for human rights in Latin America

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Chilean women meet secretly to sew fabric depictions of atrocities committed by the military. An Indigenous artist in Peru fashions miniature recreations of gross human right violations. A Mexico City museum uses traditional "Day of the Dead" altars to draw attention to the murder of journalists.

A new exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) explores the power of art as a voice for those who refuse to stay silent when free speech is under attack. Freedom of Expression in Latin America uses compelling works of art, personal accounts and augmented reality technology to tell the stories of people whose art has exposed truth and motivated action.

The exhibit displays original arpilleras (vivid fabric pictures) of human rights violations during the notorious Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, and presents two beautifully detailed retablos (scenes created inside portable wooden boxes) showing abuses committed against Indigenous peoples of Peru, based on survivors' testimonies. 

It also presents digital artifacts and text through augmented reality – technology recently made famous by the "Pokemon Go" game – that superimposes computer‐generated images on top of a camera screen view of the real world. This feature tells the story of Carmen Gloria Quintana, who was doused with gasoline and set on fire by soldiers in Chile for protesting against the Pinochet regime as a teenager in the 1980s. Canadian diplomat Christian Labelle arranged for medical treatment in Montréal (where she now lives) and refuge for her family. 

The augmented reality story is delivered in gallery through iPads, by hovering over one of the arpilleras. It will also soon be available to experience anywhere by downloading a free mobile app called "CMHR: Stitching Our Struggles" to explore an image printed on a card (available in gallery) or available as a PDF (on the CMHR website). 

Transcripts of powerfully moving interviews conducted by a CMHR curator with Quintana and Labelle earlier this year can be found on the Museum's website.

On November 2, a public event will be held at the Museum with both Carmen Gloria Quintana and Christian Labelle, who will talk about their story and the importance of protecting freedom of speech as a defence against human rights violations. November 2 marks Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), a holiday celebrated across much of Latin America, when families gather to remember those who have died.

An element of the new exhibit recreates a Day of the Dead altar covered with flowers and colourful skulls, which was used in Mexico to publicly protest death threats against journalists who report on drug cartels and state corruption. Since 1992, 37 journalists have been murdered in Mexico because of their investigative work and 47 others have died under suspicious circumstances. The CMHR exhibit includes personal belongings of Rubén Espinosa, a journalist who was tortured and killed last year after criticizing the government in Veracruz.

Freedom of Expression in Latin America will be on display at the Museum until July 2017. Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of the office of Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression by the Organization of American States (OAS), which brings together all 35 independent countries of the Americas.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is the first museum in the world solely dedicated to the evolution, celebration and future of human rights. It is the first national museum in Canada to be built outside the National Capital Region. Using multimedia technology and other innovative approaches, the Museum creates inspiring encounters with human rights appropriate for all ages, in a visitor experience unlike any other.

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Maureen Fitzhenry