Nancy Spero | USA

Los Desaparecidos (The missing), 1992

Handprint on paper
159 / 50 cm

Courtesy of Christine König Gallery, Vienna

During Argentina’s “Dirty War” and Operation Condor, political dissidents were heavily drugged and then thrown alive out of airplanes far out over the Atlantic Ocean, leaving no trace of their passing.

Without any dead bodies, the government could easily deny that they had been killed. People murdered in this way (and in others) are today referred to as “the disappeared” (los desaparecidos), and this is where the modern usage of the term derives.

The phrase was recognized by Argentinean de facto President, General Videla, who said in a press conference during the military government which he commanded in Argentina: “They are neither dead nor alive, they disappeared”.

It is thought that in Argentina, between 1976 and 1983, up to 30,000 people (9,000 verified named cases, according to the official report by the CONADEP)[3] were subjected to forced disappearance.

Nancy Spero’s tough, exquisite figurative art addressed the realities of political violence. Spero herself, who experienced both being dismissed and celebrated, said simply of her work, “I am speaking of equality, and about a certain kind of power of movement in the world, and yet I am not offering any systematic solutions.”

Spero was a vital, energetic artist. She never lost her curiosity in the world, nor her sense of anger at its injustices. Curator Hans Ulrich Obrist Writes about Spero’s work: “The one thing that artists must possess above all other qualities is immense courage,” the filmmaker and anthropologist Jean Rouch once said to me.

Nancy Spero was a woman who possessed immense courage, both in her art and in her life. For more than half a century, this courage propelled a practice of enormous imagination that moved across painting, collage, printmaking, and installation, constructing what Spero once called a “peinture fיminine” that could address—and redress—both the struggles of women in patriarchal society and the horrors perennially wrought by American military might. Nevertheless, Spero’s art was ambiguous and never merely illustrative, and her treatment of these subjects came through a complex symbolic language incorporating an extraordinary polyphony of goddess-protagonists drawn from Greek, Egyptian and Indian.