Born in Chile, Raised in Contradictions

Artist Cristobal Cea explores memory, history, and monsters in his multimedia work

The artist Cristobal Cea remembers his father receiving death threats after the brutal Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet fell from power in 1989. Cristobal’s father, José Luis Cea Egaña, a prominent lawyer and professor, was working on Chile’s National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, where he coauthored the first report to document the disappearances and killings of thousands carried out by the Pinochet regime.

Cea was born in 1981, in the middle of the dictatorship, and lived with his family in Santiago. “It was a very dangerous period,” Cea recalls. “But at the same time, I have memories of childhood that were good. I was very little, and my parents and family shielded me from the things that were happening.”

His memories are filled with such contradictions: “Politics and pleasure, the presence of something ominous within the context of safety and care, a brutal right-wing dictatorship followed by a left-wing government that brought in McDonald’s. I remember when the transition happened in 1990, everybody wanted to go to the United States because there was a lot of stuff we didn’t have. We had only one or two brands of potato chips then, and when my sister got engaged, my father opened a can of Pringles like someone would open a bottle of Champagne.”

Cea, a professor of the practice at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, sees these contradictions in his personal story and that of his country as the foundation of his multimedia artwork, which mixes 3D animation, oil painting, archival images, and other mediums to focus on the relationship between memory and history.

An animated boy up to his shoulders in flood water.

A still from a video in the series “Seguidores del Diluvio (Followers of the Flood).” Photo: Courtesy of Cea

In a 3D-animated video from Cea’s series Seguidores del Diluvio (Followers of the Flood), a Chilean teenage boy wearing big, round glasses, a polo shirt tucked under a sweatshirt, and a moose hat lists the merchandise he and his family acquired on a post-Pinochet trip to Miami. The boy stands in rising water up to his shoulders while news footage of catastrophic flooding rolls in the background. His glasses accentuate his role as witness, a protagonist meant for viewers of the exhibit to relate to and trust as he guides them through the show.

The boy is also an avatar of the artist. “I modeled him after a photograph I had of myself in Miami in 1992. My parents bought the hat for me in Orlando. When I was working on this animation, I thought of him as a YouTuber from the past,” he says.

“The series has a lot to do with my recollections about the transition toward democracy in Chile and the contradictions that happened during that period,” Cea explains. At the same time, the series focuses on the climate crisis and “forces us to consider the global and cultural nature of these types of events, and—in a wider sense—to ask what constitutes a catastrophe.”

A Hawker Hunter fighter jet with a shroud on its nose.

The blind delivery of destruction is the target in a still from the 3D animation “Hawker Haunted.” Photo: Courtesy of Cea

Cea’s avatar also appears in his new show, No Monsters, No Paradise, on display at the Boston Center for the Arts from September 29 to December 9. In the video Ewaipanomas y Niño Canibal (Ewaipanomas and Cannibal Boy), the boy, still clad in moose hat and big glasses, contemplates an ewaipanomas—a headless creature with eyes in its shoulders and a mouth upon its torso.  Sir Walter Raleigh reported such monsters while exploring the northeast coast of South America. “When the explorers encountered things they didn’t understand—sloths, manatees, etc.—they said they’d run into such creatures. They published accounts of people with heads of dogs, mermaids, everything that was outside civilization. People were reading this like they read Facebook now.”

An effect of this “original fake news,” as Cea calls it, was a sub-humanization of the people of this region in the minds of 15th and 16th centuries Europeans, who would return to colonize the Americas.

Monsters take many forms in Cea’s work. In his 3D animation Hawker Haunted, a Hawker Hunter fighter aircraft flies over gathering clouds, its cabin covered by a large, shroud-like plastic bag. The video refers to the bombing of the Palacio de la Moneda on September 11, 1973, when the Chilean armed forces staged the coup d’état that ended President Salvador Allende’s government, ushering in Pinochet. At the same time, the video urges its viewer to consider how the image of blind delivery of destruction resonates well beyond any specific historical event.

“In crazy times, people see monsters everywhere, and I think we live in a one of those very crazy and irrational periods of history,” says Cea. Through his artwork, Cea hopes to cast light upon and dispel monstrous myths leading to “terrible things that happen, that still happen. I hope my work helps people better understand and consider the consequences of these cognitive dispositions.”

“I find that the most beautiful thing that you can do as an instructor is to stimulate thinking. And I find that one of the most dangerous things you can do, particularly as a professor, is to induce people to think what you want them to think,” says Cea, who teaches the techniques of 3D animation and how it can be engaged with other media, from sculpture to painting.

Prior to joining the faculty at Tufts, Cea received a Fulbright Scholarship for Graduate Studies in the United States, where he studied digital media at the Rhode Island School of Design, earning an MFA in 2013. He returned to Chile to teach at the University of Chile and the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, where he had earned his bachelor of fine arts in 2007.

Cea lives in Somerville with his wife Constanza Alarcón Tennen, a sculptor and multidisciplinary artist who also teaches at SMFA at Tufts. He and his wife frequently return to Chile to exhibit their work and to visit their families, including Cea’s father, now in his 80s, the last surviving member of the commission that bore witness to and revealed the atrocities of a terrible time in his country.

Rob Phelps is a freelance writer based in Plymouth

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