|Muralism in Revolutionary Nicaragua-The Henry Houser Collection (Knox College)|
Professor Henry Houser.
Photo taken in 1990 in Nicaragua.
Henry P. Houser (1924-2000) joined the Knox College Sociology Department in 1966. Towards the end of his career at Knox, after teaching several classes about small villages in Mexico, Professor Houser became interested in social change in Central America. Following his interest, Houser made several trips to Mexico, Cuba, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Nicaragua in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was in Nicaragua where he discovered an interest in murals and the relationship between art and revolution. On his several trips to Nicaragua Houser documented and researched over 100 murals painted all over the country. This digital collection--a portion of the Henry Houser Manuscript Collection in the Knox College Special Collections and Archives--includes representations of 90 murals as well as digitized correspondence about some of the murals.
Map of Nicaragua. Stars indicate locations for most of the murals in this collection.
(Click to enlarge.)
The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), founded in 1961 by Carlos Fonseca, rose in opposition to the Somoza regime, a family of dictators who ruled Nicaragua for three decades. The Sandinistas took their name from General Augusto Cesár Sandino (1895-1934), a Nicaraguan general who stood up with a small group of guerrilla soldiers against the United States' occupation of Nicaragua in 1934. The modern revolution reached a climax with the "Triumph" in 1979 when the Somoza dictatorship was ousted by opposition forces dominated by the Sandinistas. From 1979 until its electoral defeat in 1990, the FSLN party continued its revolution through reform, instituting various campaigns to reorganize and rebuild Nicaragua.
Henry Houser's research in Nicaragua focused on murals painted approximately between 1985 and 1993. During that time an international solidarity movement was present in support of the Sandinistas. Some murals produced during this time were done so with help of outside funding and with technical and artistic assistance by artists from Europe.
After the 1990 Sandinista loss in the Nicaraguan elections, the mayor of Managua, Arnoldo Alemán, started a campaign to paint over and destroy the murals, even though these murals were protected by various articles of the Nicaraguan constitution and Law 90. These statutes called for the protection of Nicaraguan culture, as well as for freedom of expression and preservation of "historic patrimony." Houser documented in photographs some of the painted-over murals and some of those images are included in this digital collection. (However, After Alemán's campaign was underway, a movement of artists and concerned groups began to raise funds to restore and protect these murals and were successful to some extent; new murals were painted as well.)
Many of the murals in this exhibit display portraits memorializing heroes and martyrs of the revolution. Memorializing these heroes and leaders created solidarity between revolutionary movements throughout Latin America. Liberation Theology was a major ideological influence behind revolutionary movements and the leaders within them. Liberation Theology is a political theology introduced in the 1950s and 1960s by Latin American clergy to promote an ideal whereby people need to be liberated from unjust social and economic situations. This movement supported, and was the foundation for, many activists and revolutionary groups aimed at overthrowing dictatorships and combatting injustices that victimized the poor. Archbishop Oscar Romero, a priest who spoke out against the dictatorship in El Salvador during the 1970s, is one martyr for the cause. He was assassinated in 1980 while saying mass. Martyrs like Romero were memorialized throughout all of Latin America in solidarity with this movement against injustice. Within Nicaragua there were many martyrs who died speaking out against violence--like the Barreda family, a Christian couple who did volunteer work at a coffee plantation. They were kidnapped and assassinated by Contra soldiers in 1983.
The Henry Houser Manuscript Collection contains photographs and slides of Houser's many trips to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Guatemala. Also included in the larger collection are his notes and drafts for his research on the murals, general information about the Nicaraguan Revolution, and his notes about the impact of religion on the revolutionary movement. The collection includes correspondence (in both English and Spanish) with artists and activists who participated in the muralism movement in Nicaragua.
Acknowledgements: Special thanks go to the children of Henry Houser--Nancy Houser Brazil, Barbie Houser Butler and Greg Houser--for donating the materials in the Henry Houser Manuscript Collection, and for the permission to display these images online. Professors Jon Wagner and Nancy Eberhardt at Knox College provided valuable assistance with information about Henry Houser.
Credits: Caitlin "Rosie" Worthen (Knox College class of 2011) described, interpreted and provided historical context for the Henry Houser Manuscript Collection, with guidance from Carley Robison, Curator of Manuscripts and Archives in the Knox College Special Collections and Archives. Rosie also scanned and described the images for the digital collection. Rosie writes about this collection: "This exhibit is a tribute to the work of Henry Houser, and is in honor of his legacy as a professor and his commitment to social justice. Some of these photos could be the only remaining visual record of these murals. His work is an invaluable resource for all who have an interest in this unique aspect of Nicaraguan history. I feel very fortunate to have been given this opportunity; for over two years I have enveloped myself in these murals and in the work of Henry Houser and I hope everyone will experience the same degree of awe when looking as these images as I did when working with the collection. Also, I wish to thank Professor Karen Kampwirth for being my advisor; her patience and expertise in helping me with this project for my Senior Capstone was invaluable."