AMIA’s Memoria Ilustrada: Comics to Combat Forgetting

This past Monday saw the 17th anniversary of the 1994 bombing attack on the headquarters of Argentine Jewish Mutual Association, which claimed 85 lives and remains the country’s deadliest act of terrorism. Here’s a feature I wrote for Juanele, a reflection on an exhibition of comics AMIA assembled to mark 17 years of impunity:

At least since the Old Testament declared active memory an ethical obligation, remembering has been a political act — a means to preserve identity and to combat the injustice of a wrong ignored. The advent of modern technologies to register and transmit details of the past might appear to make first-hand memory less important. Yet even as new approaches deepen our collective base of information about prior events, they make our relationship to these events more passive and less immediate. In an age of data overload, it may be getting easier to record and harder to actively remember.

It’s a danger that the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA, or the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association) knows all too well. A little over 17 years ago, on July 18, 1994,  a car bomb destroyed the group’s Once headquarters, claiming 85 lives in what remains Argentina’s deadliest single act of terrorism. Coming just two years after a  similar attack on the Israeli Embassy in Retiro killed 29, the bombing further strained an already traumatized community. Subsequent police investigations have been marred by scandal, cover-ups, and gross incompetence. Néstor Kirchner called them a “national disgrace.” To this day, no one has been successfully prosecuted for the crime.

In the absence of judicial remedies, memory represents a crucial political tool. To combat complacency with a massive failure of justice and remind the broader Argentine population of its still-gaping wound, AMIA initiated the Memoria ilustrada (“Illustrated Memory”) series of art exhibitions in 2006. Every year since, AMIA has organized a group show around a changing theme related to the attack. This year’s production, on view in Centro Cultural Recoleta (CCR) through July 31, centers on graphic art. Called “Historietas para no olvidar” (roughly, “Comics to Combat Forgetting”), the show features 28 comics chosen from among the submissions of more than 200 graphic design students at the University of Buenos Aires.

Each of the chosen comics, which line the CCR’s main ground-floor hallway, explores a particular aspect of the attack and its aftermath. The shock of the event itself and the continuing pain stemming from the state’s failure to punish its perpetrators represent by far the most common themes. Because so many of the works address such similar subjects and evoke variations on the same emotions — anger, loss, isolation, and abandonment — it can be exhausting to view all 28 at once. Yet, perhaps owing to the inherent accessibility and digestibility of the comic form, many of the people present at last Thursday evening’s opening seemed committed to taking in as many of the works as possible.

The comics included in the show represent a range of different styles. Some are text-heavy, while others feature few words. Many are action-driven — unsurprising when the central act is itself so dramatic — but others are reflective, hardly moving. A number employ dark and depressing palettes; others are bright and colorful. Several stand out for their engrossing storylines and technical expertise, yet most read as the work of young artists still finding their voices and training their hands.

Several of the most interesting works focus on the disparate reactions of the Jewish community and the Argentine public at large. It’s a dimension of the attack that has yet to be fully explored, although divergent interpretations of the event have been in competition since the day of the bombing itself, when one radio station responded to unfolding events with a news update: While most of the victims were Jews, the station reported, some “were innocent.”

Some of the comics that broach this topic most effectively do so by explicitly comparing popular distress over Argentina’s early July elimination from the  1994 World Cup with its incommensurate response to an act of terrorism that left 85 dead just two weeks later. In the well-named “Tragedia mundial,” for instance, a young man turns away from the TV to answer a call from a friend distraught over the recent tragedy. “Yeah, it’s a disgrace, what happened at the AMIA,” the man agrees. “The AMIA?” his friend responds. “I still can’t believe we were eliminated from the World Cup!”

As I stepped out of Memorial ilustrada, still reflecting on “Tragedia mundial,” CCR presented me with an unexpected analytical aid hanging in an adjacent gallery —  Martin Buber para principantes, an illustrated exploration of the life and thought of the Jewish philosopher drawn by Adrián Malvo with text by Fernando Calvi. (Unfortunately, the series was only on view through July 17.) One of the leading liberal Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, Buber wrote about the nature of interpersonal relationships, and of the power of such bonds to promote understanding and acceptance of opposing perspectives, even in conflicts as seemingly intractable as Israel-Palestine. (He supported a bi-national state.) By recognizing the “other” as an equal subject — not just an object — in a relationship between “I” and “you,” Buber argued, individuals can build nonviolent communities of “alterity” in which opposite perceptions of reality can peacefully coexist. Building such solidarity, however, requires an active affirmation of the shared subjecthood of all individuals — something history has proven exceedingly difficult.

Buber, I realized, could help to illuminate some of the AMIA bombing’s continued pain. No doubt, the lack of justice nearly two decades out compounds the sensation of loss. But perhaps even more than this, it is the failure of solidarity that hurts. To many members of the Jewish community — target of the two deadliest terrorist attacks in Argentina’s history — it seems like the country never fully sought to understand their reality or to comprehend why the bombing and its aftermath might make them feel less than fully a part of the national community. Every year that passes without judicial remedy — and with a diminishing sense of national outrage over this gross failure of justice — only deepens this sense of isolation.

Active, shared memory may be the most effective means to channel this pain and frustration into the sort of productive “alterity” of Buber’s thinking. Whatever their technical or compositional merit, the comics that Memoria ilustrada has brought to the CCR remind their viewers that a major trauma has shaped the perspectives of hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens, and that 17 years out, it remains largely unaddressed. Active memory won’t undo the bombing’s damage or bring its perpetrators to justice, but it may help to diminish complacency in the face of injustice and build social solidarity. Biblical imperative or not, that’s a very good thing.

2 thoughts on “AMIA’s Memoria Ilustrada: Comics to Combat Forgetting

  1. Even more, our former president Carlos Menem was and is acussed of protecting the perpetrators when the bombing happened… and guess what! he is now being supported by Cristina Kirchner to be a national senator for his province once again!! its frustrating and it takes us away from basic principles every nation should have…

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