In the Silent Zone: An American Nuke in Mexico

As the Soviets dramatically stepped up their nuclear weapons programme in the 1960s, the US government showed a willingness to take calculated risks with its atomic arsenal in order to maintain arms race superiority over its Cold War adversary. With some of America’s nuclear test sites situated close to the northern and southern borders, concerns were raised in classified documents that missiles could drift into neighbouring countries or even as far as Western Europe, risking an international incident. However, the authorities decided to proceed with the tests, confident that in that scenario, the American public would support them if persuaded the programme was in the interests of national security.

When a Pershing missile crashed just south of the Mexican border on September 1967, the misfire was downplayed and soon forgotten. Then on 11 July 1970, a far more serious overflight occurred. Early that morning, the US Air Force launched a rocket from Green River Launch Complex in Utah, aiming for the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The weapon was what is known as a ‘salted bomb’, armed with a radioactive isotope that was designed to maximise the fallout of hazardous material. The rocket travelled hundreds of miles further than anticipated, eventually landing in the sparsely-populated Mapimi desert in Mexico. Although there are no known victims, the overflight resulted in a long and costly cleanup of contaminated soil, which is chronicled in detail on the Utah government website.


In a recently declassified memorandum, then National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, expressed gratitude for the patience of the Mexican government, noting a willingness “to grant clearances and assist in any search efforts”. Perhaps Mexico realised it was nothing personal, considering that by 1970 the United States had almost nuked itself on at least 11 occasions. The few inhabitants of the Mapimi region proved to be equally stoical, taking advantage of a road that was rapidly built into the desert to allow the US Air Force to deal with the fallout. Locals rechristened the decontaminated site the Mapimi Silent Zone, borrowing urban myths from the Bermuda Triangle to reimagine it as a tourist destination. The area still attracts visitors today with tales of strange magnetic forces and extraterrestrial activity.

One recent visitor was American artist Freya Powell. In March 2016, she travelled to the Mapimi Silent Zone to explore its strange history, responding to the theme of ‘silence’ to investigate the concealment of the clean-up operation and subsequent myth-making. The project was commissioned by the New York nonprofit Art in General, and her single-channel video, The Silence of the Unsaid, premiered there in 2017. The work intersperses panoramic views of the site, filmed using drone technology, with excerpts from interviews with locals. Through this juxtaposition, Powell deconstructs the language used to describe the area, teasing out the complex relationship between silence, history and accountability. You can watch an excerpt from the video on Powell’s website.

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Images: Freya Powell, The Silence of the Unsaid, 2017 (still and installation view). Courtesy the artist & Art in General. Photo: Charles Benton.

Weaving War in Afghanistan

The political instability that has blighted Afghanistan in recent decades was sparked in July 1973, when a coup d’état swept from power Zahir Shah, the last King of Afghanistan. Daoud Khan, the king’s cousin who staged the plot, established himself as the first President of Afghanistan – ruling over the new republic until he, in turn, was overthrown during the Saur Revolution of April 1978.

During his 40-year reign, Zahir Shah had managed to maintain neutrality in a war-torn world, establishing friendly relations with East and West during the first three decades of the Cold War. But as competing political factions tore the country apart, Afghanistan’s strategic location between Soviet and US spheres of influence made the country increasingly vulnerable. Following the establishment of a pro-Soviet government in the late 1970s, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan began to covertly train and arm Afghanistan’s Islamist rebels. Today, the world is all too aware of the catastrophic results of that fateful decision. Fearing the collapse of the pro-Soviet government, under attack from the mujahideen insurgents, the USSR invaded Afghanistan at the end of 1979, starting a brutal 10-year Cold War proxy war.

The ongoing turmoil has decimated many aspects of Afghan culture, including its once thriving handmade carpet industry. Prior to the Soviet invasion, this centuries-old artistic tradition supported a fifth of the population. With their livelihoods under threat, Afghanistan’s weavers began to incorporate strange symbols into their intricate geometric designs. In place of flowers and birds, there appeared guns and grenades, missiles, tanks, battleships and helicopters. Likened to the Bayeux Tapestry and as a form of modern history painting, these intriguing and disquieting objects have become known as ‘war rugs’.

The inspiration behind the war rugs and their exact origins remain a mystery. Some have linked this phenomenon to a series of map textiles on the theme of the Six-Day War, commissioned from Afghan weavers in 1971 by the Italian conceptual artist, Alighieri Boetti. The creation of war rugs from the early 1980s has alternatively been defended as a cathartic response, expressing anger and defiance at the Soviet invasion; while some have viewed the carpets from the outset as tourist items, cynically produced to sell to the invaders. Indeed, priced between several hundred to thousands of US dollars, depending on quality and complexity, the war rugs are typically too expensive for the domestic market. As a result, the designs of the rugs have become increasingly commercial over the decades, developing from ‘hidden’ references to the apparatus of war, to explicit military images alongside English-language text.

The designs have also changed in response to the shifting history of conflict in Afghanistan. As Cold War moved to War on Terror, depictions of Soviet Kalashnikov assault rifles gave way to images of American drones and F-16 fighter jets. After the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, carpet designers appeared to lift imagery from propaganda leaflets airdropped over the country by the Americans. Scenes of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, offered as justification for the invasion, have often been weaved in refugee camps and sold back to Westerners. Indeed, this subject matter has proved particularly popular with overseas buyers and foreign aid workers.

Made from knotted wool and vegetable dye, the war rugs typically take between six and nine months to produce. Most are made by rural or displaced women, who risk damaged eyesight and back pain for little compensation. Yet for carpet dealers, the war rugs have becoming a small but vital part of an industry that still faces huge challenges.

Parisian Artists in Defence of the Rosenbergs

The execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg at sundown on 19 June 1953 was one of the darkest moments in recent US history. The married couple were the only American civilians to be put to death for espionage-related activity during the Cold War, after they were convicted of passing top secret information to the Soviets. Their deaths left their two young sons orphaned.

It was claimed that the atomic weapon designs shared by Julius Rosenberg enabled the Soviets to acquire nuclear capabilities earlier than expected. The USSR staged its first nuclear test, RDS-1 (rechristened Joe-1 by the Americans), in August 1949. KGB files declassified after the country’s dissolution confirmed Julius’s involvement in the plot. But the death sentence for Ethel – who was found guilty of typing up notes that Julius passed to his handlers – remains a controversial decision.

For over two years, the pair had been languishing in jail. During this time, the case became a cause célèbre. Particularly in France, there was widespread sympathy for the Rosenbergs, with recognition that the alleged espionage would have taken place when the Soviet Union was an ally in the fight against Nazi Germany. In the aftermath of the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War, there were also many who felt that the development of Soviet atomic weapons was a necessary evil to deter the United States from launching further nuclear attacks.

Leger to Robert

Fernand Léger, ‘Liberté, Paix, Solidarité’, 1953. Serigraph on scarf with handwritten dedication to Robert Rosenberg.

Artists too rallied in defence of the couple. Among them was the renowned French Cubist, Fernand Léger – a member of the Communist Party – who designed a bold double portrait of the couple in his distinctive colourful style. The couple’s faces are shown overlapping, Ethel in frontal view and Julius in profile, alongside a peace dove – at the time also a common symbol of Communism. Two hands are shown with fingers entwined, a bracelet on one possibly a reference to a press photograph of the couple embracing in handcuffs during their trial. The images are framed by the words ‘Liberté, Paix, Solidarité’ (‘Liberty, Peace, Solidarity’).

Léger printed his design on silk scarves which he intended to sell to raise money for the Rosenberg’s defence. The couple were executed before he could put the plan into action – but one of the scarves now takes pride of place in the home of Robert Meeropol, the couple’s youngest son who was 6 years old when his parents died (his brother Michael was 10). Léger added the handwritten dedication to this scarf: ‘à Robert, orphelin’ (‘To Robert, orphan’).

Picasso Rosenbergs

Pablo Picasso, ‘À la mémoire de Julius et Ethel Rosenberg’, 1953. Lithograph with handwritten dedication to Michael and Robby Rosenberg.

Another double portrait print was designed by fellow Communist artist, Pablo Picasso. As with Léger’s scarves, it was intended to be sold to raise defence funds and Picasso would give a dedicated copy to the two boys. In the annual Salon d’Automne, which opened at Paris’s Grand Palais in November 1953, the strength of feeling against the Rosenberg’s execution was made clear. Numerous French artists joined Picasso and Léger in exhibiting artworks in tribute to the Rosenbergs and denouncing what they felt to be a grave miscarriage of justice. A press photo shows Jean Venitien’s large oil painted canvas Honour to the Rosenbergs, an unusual style for the impressionist artist who was better known for his paintings of Southern French landscapes.

alamy rosenbergs

Opening of Salon d’Automne at the Grand Palais, Paris on 11 November 1953, showing the painting ‘Honour to the Rosenbergs’ by Jean Venitien. (c) Keystone Pictures USA / Alamy Stock Photo.

The Salon also included André Fougeron’s monumental Socialist Realist painting Civilisation atlantique (Atlantic Civilisation), now held in London’s Tate Modern. A scathing critique of America’s influence in Europe, the caricature-style narrative shows widespread suffering caused by corruption, colonisation, consumerism and militarism. In his condemnation of French foreign policy in North Africa, Fougeron introduced visual tropes that he would build upon five years later in his canvas Massacre à Sakiet III (Massacre at Sakiet III), explored in an earlier Espionart post. Central to this modern history painting is the towering image of the electric chair, used to execute Ethel and Julius Rosenberg at the notorious Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York.

Atlantic Civilisation 1953 by André Fougeron 1913-1998

André Fougeron, ‘Civilisation atlantique’ (‘Atlantic Civilisation’), 1953. Oil paint on canvas. Courtesy Tate.

Over in the United States, artists such as Hugo Gellert and Arnold Mesches also expressed their support for the Rosenbergs as prisoners of conscience, who had paid the ultimate price for their beliefs.

rosenberg sons

The Rosenberg orphans, Robert and Michael, would later be adopted by songwriter Abel Meeropol, whose commitment to fighting injustice was shown in his famous anti-lynching song Strange Fruit, recorded by such greats as Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. The family continue to campaign to this day for justice for their parents and exoneration for Ethel, and to support the children of other activists in the United States, through the Rosenberg Fund for Children.

Prisoner Art from Guantánamo Bay

Muhammad Ansi, ‘Hands Holding Flowers through Bars’, 2016.

In recent weeks, a small art exhibition in New York has raised thorny questions about the link between art and propaganda, creative ownership, and the possibility of judging a work of art irrespective of its creator. Ode to the Sea opened in October 2017 in the gallery of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The exhibition features 36 paintings, drawings and sculptures created in Guantánamo Bay by eight of the inmates. Four of the men have now been released, while four remain incarcerated as suspected Islamist terrorists. All have been confined to the infamous US prison camp between 10 and 15 years. The artworks were sourced by curator Erin Thompson, a professor of art crime, from American lawyers representing the prisoners.

According to guards, art in Guantánamo Bay dates from the early days of the camp, when inmates often scratched floral designs on Styrofoam cups. During the Obama presidency, an art programme was introduced to provide “intellectual stimulation for the detainees”, allowing them “to express their creativity”. Pencils, pens and paintbrushes were prohibited and the men wore leg shackles during classes. Most of the works produced during these early years have since been confiscated during raids and hunger strikes. But in time, some prisoners were rewarded for good behaviour by being granted art materials and allowed to draw and paint in their cells.

Recalling tales from the notorious prison on Alcatraz, the theme of the sea occurs again and again in the art of the Guantánamo inmates. As Thompson explains, they are haunted by the sound and smell of the sea, but it is hidden from their view.  Only for four days in 2014, as a hurricane approached the island, were the prisoners permitted to stare mesmerised onto the ocean. These savoured days inspired a wave of maritime art, as they attempted to recapture the brief sense of freedom. You can listen to an interview with Erin Thompson on the BBC News website.

Djamel Ameziane, ‘Ship Sailing in a Stormy Sea’, 2010.

Djamel Ameziane, a detainee at Guantánamo from 2002 to 2013, also used the metaphor of the sea to describe his imprisonment, depicting his experiences over the years “as a boat out at sea, battered by successive storms during its trip towards an unknown destination, benefiting only from very short periods of respite between two storms.”

Other works on show focus on the drudgery of life in prison, where time seems to stand still. Despite Guantánamo’s association with torture and wrongful detention, the artworks paint a very different picture of life at the camp, one defined by silence, solitude and monotony. In still lifes and landscapes, the prisoners also paint snatched memories of their homelands and former lives, pining for the quiet comforts of tea, sunshine and open spaces. While the artists originated from Yemen, Kuwait, Algeria and Pakistan, the art is surprisingly universal in its design, with the choice of colours and figurative style often recalling European expressionism. Many of the paintings and drawings show an impressive talent for perspective and texture, while Moath al-Alwi’s intricate models of ships, made from discarded items found around the prison, display proficient craftsmanship.

Moath al-Alwi, ‘GIANT’, 2015.

Despite the obvious intrigue of the works on show, some have questioned whether such art should be put on public display, arguing that it is an insult to the victims of terrorism and portrays the detainees in a sympathetic light. Thompson’s defense has been that the setting for the exhibition is key. Scholars at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice study terrorism and the legal and ethical implications of detention. Thompson argues that the exhibition is not commenting on the guilt or innocence of the artists, but rather that “these works are invaluable windows into the souls of the men who made them”, questioning the effect of indefinite detention on both prisoners and their keepers. Moath al-Alwi, a Yemeni national still detained in the facility, explained to his lawyer that “when I start an artwork, I forget I am in prison. When I start an artwork, I forget myself. Despite being in prison, I try as much as I can to get my soul out of prison. I live a different life when I am making art”.

Abdualmalik Abud, ‘Yemen’, 2015.

The exhibition and subsequent media coverage appears to have taken the US Department of Defense by surprise. As so often, state-controlled propaganda depends on the total dehumanisation of the enemy, even while a lack of understanding might make its own citizens more vulnerable. The practice of allowing Guantánamo’s prisoners to hand over their artwork to lawyers – as gifts or for safekeeping – has now been halted. If any of the remaining 41 detainees are released, they have been told their art will be incinerated, destroying an irreplaceable record of life within an institution that has been at the centre of debate about America’s post-9/11 identity. A Pentagon spokesman recently confirmed to the New York Times that “items produced by detainees at Guantánamo Bay remain the property of the US government”. In response, Erin Thompson notes: “The idea of trying to dispirit someone by destroying what they’ve made, even if the subject is, on its surface, innocuous, is very common in warfare”.

Ameziane Tea

Djamel Ameziane, Tea on a Checkered Cloth, 2010.

If you are in New York and want to make up your own mind, Ode to the Sea continues at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice until 26 January 2018. The exhibition catalogue is also available to read online.

Saga of the Lucky Dragon and Ben Shahn’s Anti-Nuclear Art

Emboldened by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, the United States was keen to bolster its nuclear arsenal as it entered into an arms race with the Soviet Union. The remote reefs of Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, which had come under American occupation during the war, were identified as a suitable test site, and the 167 Bikinians were forced to relocate to other parts of the Marshall Islands. Between 1946 and 1958, 23 nuclear devices were detonated at Bikini Atoll, leaving the region contaminated and uninhabitable.

On 1 March 1954, the United States conducted an atmospheric test of a new hydrogen bomb, with the code name ‘Castle Bravo’. The most powerful nuclear device ever detonated by the United States, it produced a radioactive yield 3 times higher than scientists had predicted. Combined with strong winds, the nuclear fallout reached far across the Marshall Islands, causing radiation sickness among the inhabitants and leading to high levels of cancer and birth defects for years to come.

While the world had long turned a blind eye to the suffering of the Pacific islanders, the Castle Bravo incident caused international outrage due to the misfortune suffered by the Japanese crew of Lucky Dragon No.5 (Daigo Fukuryū Maru). Although this tuna fishing boat should have been at a safe distance from the explosion, 80 miles from Bikini Atoll and outside the danger zone set by American officials, the unexpected potency of the bomb led the fishermen to be deluged by radioactive ash, which they unwittingly cleaned from the ship’s deck with their bare hands. In the days that followed, the 23 crew members fell victim to acute radiation syndrome. Their recovery was hindered by the US government’s refusal to reveal the composition of the fallout, for reasons of national security, and, in a double tragedy, all were inadvertently infected with hepatitis C during treatment. However, amazingly, all but one would survive the experience.

The death of Lucky Dragon’s radio operator, Aikichi Kuboyama, fuelled the burgeoning anti-nuclear movement both in Japan and across the world. The fisherman’s final words, “I pray that I am the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb”, touched a nerve at a time when America’s nuclear stockpile was proliferating rapidly. The country’s armoury of nuclear weapons would rise from 299 in 1950, to a high of over 31,000 devices in 1965 (the Soviet Union would reach a high of almost 40,000 nuclear weapons in 1980). American artist Ben Shahn was one of those alarmed by this acceleration and horrified to hear about the devastation caused in his country’s pursuit of military supremacy, and the incident at Bikini Atoll would continue to haunt his creative output for years to come.

In 1957, Shahn accepted a commission to illustrate a series of articles about the contamination of Lucky Dragon No.5, that were published in Harper’s Magazine in early 1958. The following year he travelled to Southeast Asia and the experience reinforced his enthusiasm for Chinese and Japanese art. Upon his return in 1960, Shahn began a series of paintings on the same theme, highlighting the injustice wrought on the burned and poisoned Japanese fishermen and powerfully advocating an end to nuclear testing. In the Lucky Dragon paintings, Shahn’s signature style is enhanced by design elements drawn from Japanese artistic traditions, while the heavy palette and scenes of lamentation provide a confrontational record of the nuclear anxiety that gripped people around the world.

Together with the writer Richard Hudson, Shahn later brought together some of his Lucky Dragon illustrations and paintings in the book Kuboyama and the Saga of the Lucky Dragon, published in 1965. While Shahn’s leftist principles and socially-directed art were viewed with suspicion by many in the United States, this series of work brought him great acclaim in Japan and across Southeast Asia. Part of Shahn and Hudson’s book is available to view online.

All images by Ben Shahn and tempera on wood. We Did Not Know What Happened to Us, c.1960, Smithsonian American Art MuseumThe Lucky Dragon, 1960, Private Collection; A Score of White Pigeons, 1960, Moderna Museet.

Art and Diplomacy in Franco’s Spain

The Pact of Madrid, signed on 26 September 1953, brought the United States into a controversial alliance with Spain’s fascist government, ruled over by General Francisco Franco. Since the end of World War II, and the defeat of its Axis collaborators, Spain had been largely isolated from the international community and formally excluded in a UN resolution of 1946. But the deepening Cold War presented a glimmer of hope for Spain’s diplomatic future.

With the Soviet Union strengthening its influence over the Eastern Bloc, and the Marshall Plan barely containing the rise of Communism in failing European states, the United States began to see Francoist Spain as the lesser of two evils. In return for America giving Spain billions of dollars in military aid between 1954 and 1989, the United States was allowed to use Spanish territory to operate air and naval bases, a valuable deterrent to the USSR and a strategic preparation for the possible outbreak of World War III. The pact helped to ease international tensions and Spain was welcomed back into the United Nations in 1955.

The pact also transformed the fate of art in Spain. As recently shown in the exhibition Campo Cerrado: Spanish Art 1939–1953, at Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofía, during Spain’s years of post-WW2 isolation, artists had grappled with how to conceive of their nation. After Picasso’s masterpiece of 1937, Guernica, had famously exposed the ruthlessness of Franco’s regime, and many artists had died or been exiled as a result of the Spanish Civil War, those who remained found themselves living in an artistic vacuum. Campo Cerrado explored how some artists submitted to Francoism, benefiting from the resurgence of academic art and propaganda, while others fell victim to repression and censorship. However, unlike other 20th-century European dictatorships – including Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union – which attempted to stamp out modern art, a variety of styles were allowed to develop in Spain, so long as the artists refrained from criticising the regime.

Franco’s tolerance of modern art presented a great opportunity for cultural diplomacy, when Spain entered into its anticommunist alliance with the United States, at the time seen as the centre of the modern art world. Keen to brush off its image as a poor and backward dictatorship, Spain put modern art at the forefront of its efforts to present the country internationally as sophisticated and progressive. In attempting to mirror America’s successful strategy of associating abstract art with the concept of freedom, the Spanish government was even willing to shamelessly appropriate the work of anti-Franco artists, such as Picasso and Joan Miró, to extend the international success of its diplomatic mission.

Not long after the US-Spain pact was signed, two exhibitions of modern US art were assembled by curators at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and presented in Spain: Modern Art in the United States in Barcelona in 1956; and The New American Painting in Madrid in 1958. In return, exhibitions of Spanish art were shown at MoMA and the Tate Gallery in London. In the midst of this cultural exchange, in December 1959, Eisenhower travelled to Madrid to meet Franco, marking the first official visit to Spain by a US president.

New Spanish Painting and Sculpture – which ran from 20 July to 28 September 1960 at MoMA and travelled to venues across the US over the next two years – was billed as “the first survey of avant-garde Spanish art to tour the United States”. And thanks to MoMA’s newly-digitised collection of exhibition documents and photos it is now open to visitors once more. Meanwhile, further stories of art in Cold War Spain can be seen in the Museo Reina Sofía’s new display of works from its permanent collection, Is the War Over? Art in a Divided World (1945–1968). You can also read more about Franco’s use of cultural diplomacy in Germán Páez’s essay on academia.edu.

Images: Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937. Oil on canvas, 349 cm × 776 cm. Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain; Installation view of New Spanish Painting and Sculpture, 20 July – 28 September 1960 at MoMA. Courtesy Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.

Warning of the Cold War Horse

The life-size effigy of the horse stands alone in a windswept field in Jefferson County, Colorado. But this is no pettable pony. The Cold War Horse is a warning that something sinister has occurred on this remote plateau, about 15 miles north-west of Denver. Cast in fiberglass, steel and resin, the sculpture depicts the horse cloaked in a bright red hazmat suit, with a grey respirator strapped over its nose and mouth.

The Cold War Horse is wise to be dressed so strangely. Between 1952 and 1992, this area, known as Rocky Flats, was the site of a top secret factory where 70,000 highly toxic plutonium “triggers” were produced. These triggers were then dispatched to the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas, where they were assembled into hydrogen bombs, to be used in the event that the Cold War suddenly became blazing hot.

Throughout its forty-year history, the Rocky Flats Plant witnessed a series of dangerous incidents, including a plutonium fire in 1957 and numerous leaks of radioactive waste into the surrounding soil and rivers. As a result of these incidents, a 4,600-acre buffer zone was imposed around the plant in 1972 and extended a couple of years later by another 4,500 acres. In the early 1980s, revelations about the activities at the plant and its environmental effects led to public outrage. In 1983, 17,000 people travelled to Rocky Flats to join hands around the 17-mile perimeter fence as part of a peace protest. Finally in 1987, the plant was raided by the FBI and its managers were fined what at the time amounted to the largest fine in history for an environmental crime. Although officially cleaned up in the early 2000s, the site is still heavily contaminated and uninhabited by humans, and has since been designated the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

The Cold War Horse was made by sculptor Jeff Gipe, who grew up near to Rocky Flats and whose father worked at the plant for over 20 years and now suffers from serious health problems as a result. The statue was dedicated in September 2015, ten years after the cleanup of the site was declared complete. But this is no memorial. The Cold War Horse is intended as a renegade artwork, to symbolise the locals affected by the scandal who have yet to be recompensated, and a protest against plans to construct a large housing development near the contaminated land.

However, the story doesn’t end there. Just a week after the Cold War Horse was installed, it was knocked to the ground and attacked with sledge hammers by unidentified assailants. The horse is now under repair and Gipe has set up the coldwarhorse.com website for people who would like to donate towards its reinstallation.

Image: Jeff Gipe, Cold War Horse, 2015. Image courtesy Jeff Werkheiser