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Exiles in Paradise

Essayist Anne Taylor Fleming considers the work of a California artist.

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    For artist Claudia Bernardi, at work here in her Berkeley, California, studio, the making of paintings is labor intensive–hours of putting pigment on paper, hours of rolling the sheets through a printing press, imprinting the colors deeper and deeper, and then scratching through the vibrant texture to delineate and re-delineate the outline of a figure, the fragment of a letter. It's a kind of reverse painting, if you will, a recovery, an exhumation.

    Claudia Bernardi knows about exhumations firsthand. She grew up in Argentina, and though she moved to California in the late 70's, she went back in the early 90's to help the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team dig up the bones of the so-called "disappeared," the 30,000 people who were tortured and murdered by the government of that country between 1976 and 1983.

    Their bodies and bones float through her pictures in an almost ethereal way: a leg bone, a scull, a breast. There's a kind of cheerful elegy about the paintings, a festive, unpreachy sorrow. How could this have happened, so much lost, so much cruelty, when there is so much beauty in the world, so many sweet memories, so many blue skies. Bernardi talks about the exhumations with an artist's eye, almost with wonder, and about how they influenced their art.


    I don't think anyone can be inside an exhumation and not undergo a transformation of one sort or the other. In my case, I think the transformation is very deep, and it has changed me in many ways because it is that aspect of touching death, so physical, it's something that culturally we are not expected to do.

    We are not expected to be so close to death. The tools in an exhumation are brushes and spoons and maybe something a little larger, like a dustpan, but the whole exhumation is based on unearthing and touching the least as possible until the whole skeleton has been identified. The tools then are very gentle. It's just brush and spoon and collect and remove and in the artwork, it's the same: smaller brushes, but spoons and collect and move away and collect–


    After Argentina, there were other exhumations–in El Salvador, notably the massacre site at El Mezote, where a thousand villagers were murdered in 1981, many of them children.


    It was incredible to find within tiny, tiny little T-shirts bones that hardly looked human; they looked very much like maybe the bones of a bird, or I had the thought at the time of the missing wing of an angel. There was something about the smallness and also something very tender about opening the T-shirt and finding the intact rib cage. When I think about what it meant, it's overwhelming, and it's very dark. Yet, at a time of working on each individual human remain my memory is that of deep tenderness and kindness.


    Listening to Bernardi and looking at her work, to realize the extraordinary histories that immigrants bring with them into California, we tend not to think of that. We go along with the mythology that this place is paradise, the land of opportunity, a bright, shiny newness, as for many it is, including our own parents and grandparents who came here in other waves of immigrants.

    We have a stubborn new beginningness to us, as if people checked their histories at the border in order to reinvent themselves anew on the other side. We loved that idea, the cleaning of the slate, as if it were possible, as if one could ever forget–any of it–homelands left, the dense sugary coffee, or the blue sky over the plaza, or the bones of a brother or sister exhumed from a mass grave. This is a state full of people from somewhere else, exiles in paradise with their unbearable memories. The luckiest or most gifted or most perseverant can, like Claudia Bernardi, turn those memories into art.

    For the past half dozen years she has helped others do that. Once a week at this Catholic workers shelter in East Oakland she teaches art to political refugees and families from Latin America. This is not meant to be therapy. It's not about healing–a word and a concept that Bernardi rejects.


    My perception of what I hear in this country about healing seems to indicate that it's time to turn the page and move on, and I am–I am not part of that concept. I can hardly understand what it means. I think culturally in my country we thrive perhaps on the opposite, from the resistance to forget. We thrive, we are determined to continue remembering, and I think for us the almost–in respect of the reason that have caused the pain, we want to look at it in the eye and make sure we will never forget.


    No clean slates; no smiley-faced golden state healing; the preservation of loss–that's what Claudia Bernardi intends with her own art, her soft spoken, brightly colored, bone-filled, strangely optimistic paintings. I'm Anne Taylor Fleming.

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