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DINO ARANDA, NICARAGUAN-BORN AMERICAN ARTIST, REFLECTS ON HIS WORK WITH ERNESTO CARDENAL AND OTHER POETS

Art and poetry are inherently interconnected. They provide building blocks for each other. A poem may be a reaction to visual art, or the visual art may be built around a poem.

Dino Aranda’s first collaboration with a poet began with Michele Najlis for the second exhibition at Praxis Galeria in 1963, titled “Mural Poetry Exhibit,” in which each exhibiting artist chose a poem to illustrate. Michele Najlis was the only poet with the courage to denounce the Somoza regime openly. Najlis was one of a number of Nicaraguan women poets who emerged during the revolutionary period of the 1960s and 1970s, when the people of Nicaragua were suffering under the brutal kleptocracy of the Somoza regime. She is best known for her collection of poetry titled Cantos de Ifigenia, published in 1991.

Aranda’s most well-known work with poets was with Ernesto Cardenal. Cardenal, now deceased, was a leading literary voice in the 20th century, nominated twice for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He was a poet and a priest, an advocate of liberation theology, a sculptor, and an activist. He received a Masters in Letters from Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in 1948, and a master’s degree in North American Literature from Columbia University in New York City in 1948, where he became influenced by poetry of William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman, and in particular, Ezra Pound. 

In 1954, after returning to Nicaragua he joined the National Union for Popular Action (UNAP), a precursor to the Sandinistas. formed in opposition to Somoza. The April Rebellion, instigated by the UNAP, was unsuccessful and many members of the group were captured, imprisoned and tortured. Cardenal went into hiding and wrote his well-known poem, “Zero Hour,” about the assassination of Cesar Augusto Sandino, in which the death of a national hero gave birth to a nation. Later he wrote “El estrecho dudoso” (The Doubtful Strait) about Nicaragua’s post-colonial history in which U.S. imperialism and  United Fruit played a leading role. He wrote “Oraculo sobre Managua” (Oracle on Managua) about the Nicaraguan reality under Somoza, and he wrote “El Canto Nacional” (National Canto) about the Sandinista movement. 

However, Aranda encouraged him to look to Nicaragua’s indigenous past. The result was a book of beautiful poetry illustrated by paintings produced by Aranda titled Homage to the American Indian, translated by Monique and Carlos Altschul and published by John Hopkins Press in 1973. Cardenal’s poems take us back to a pristine time in which leaders were not polluted by a quest for power and money but were instead motivated to serve their people. He goes deep into the Mesoamerican past to a people ruled by the cycles of nature, worshipping gods who could control the sun, wind and rain. These ancient times are juxtaposed against the modern Western world of commerce and institutions alien to such an ancient people living in harmony with their environment. 

Aranda’s illustrations include the “Pyramid,” the “Ball Player,” “Non-Mayan Mayapan,” “Duality,” “Quetzalcoatl,” “Four Creator Gods and Crucifixion.”  They are a fusion of European modernism Aranda learned under the tutelage of Rodrigo Penalba at Managua’s National School of Fine Arts, and the product of extensive research Aranda conducted into his Mesoamerican roots. That Mesoamerican heritage was all around him and he strove to reach a synthesis between European modernism and his Mayan legacy. In the end, Aranda quotes Cardenal’s brief reaction to the acrylics on canvas – “well-executed.” 

1973 was a busy year for the poet and artist. That same year they had an important exhibition at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York. Curated by James Harithas, the exhibition consisted of Cardenal’s poetry blown up in a banner-sized mural, hung on the walls next to Aranda’s paintings. The poems include a fragment from Cardenal’s epic “Zero Hour,” and poems from Psalms of Struggle and Liberation, written in 1964 but published by Herder and Herder, New York in 1971. The Psalms represent Cardenal’s rewriting of the biblical Psalms of David to condemn modern-day evils. They express the tension between Cardenal’s revolutionary political thought and his religious faith.

Aranda’s contribution to the exhibition includes mixed media works titled “Santiago Volcano,” 21 x 29 in., 1971, “Nicaragua,” 30 x 21 in., 1972, “Naturaleza Muerta #36, 30 x 22 in., 1969, “Three Prisoners,” 21 x 29 in., 1972, “Managua,” 72 x 72 in., 1972, and “Tres Figuras,” 35 x 55 in., 1968, which in now in the permanent collection on display as part of Modern Art from the Collection in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. While political violence and death is the predominant theme, the elongated figures in prison and in coffins have a spiritual component, which according to Harithas, is to raise the people from oppression by communicating the truth about their reality.

The year before the exhibition Nicaragua suffered a devastating earthquake that killed between 5,000 to 10,000 people. The international aid given for the people had been misappropriated by the Somoza family. The exhibition was important in raising the awareness of the Nicaraguan reality of a North American audience.

Poets and artists have an opportunity to choose how they will communicate their message to the world. No matter what the decade, the message is never apolitical. Culture cannot be stripped from the social and political environment from which it arises. Cardenal borrowed from Pablo Neruda and Ezra Pound to bring history into poetry, and Aranda gave that history a visual expression. And while these are protest poems and paintings from a specific place and time, in Nicaragua when the Sandinista were fighting the Somoza regime, they are timeless, because they are a combined expression of suppressed people under a tyrannical dictatorship that is relevant and applicable to any authoritarian regime in the 21st century. The spirit the poems and paintings capture today’s political situation in Miramar, in Southern Cameroon, the plight of the Uyghurs in the Xinjan region of China, and other countries ruled by repressive regimes. In this way, these poems and paintings transcend a particular time and place by  capturing man’s inhumanity against man. 

In November 1976, Aranda’s work, “Non-Mayan Mayapan” acrylic and pencil on canvas, based on Cardenal’s poem, “Mayapan” in Homage to the American Indian, was exhibited by the National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution in a group show titled “The Art of Poetry.”  Aranda exhibited with such great American modern masters as Willem de Kooning, Jim Dine, and Robert Motherwell, among others.

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