Saturday, June 14, 2008


By Emily Stephens

"In the eyes of the speechless animal, there is wisdom that only the truly wise can understand." – from a Native American legend

Meet Natividad (that’s Spanish for “birth”). He used to be one of the countless mange-covered, sickly, emaciated street dogs in Nicaragua rummaging through human waste in order to stay alive. Last October, Natividad was found by Costa Rican “artist” Guillermo Vargas Habacuc in an alleyway of Managua, and then displayed in Vargas’ "Exposición N° 1" in the Códice Gallery. Natividad was not given food or water during the duration of the show. Behind him, the Spanish words 'Eres Lo Que Lees' or ‘you are what you read’ was written on the wall in dog biscuits. The Sandinista anthem played backwards, and 175 pieces of cocaine burned in a massive incense burner nearby. Most disturbing are the pictures of the patrons who visited the show—uncaringly looking away from heart-wreching Natividad and consumed by other artwork. No one knows who took the photographs, nor the photographer’s intentions.

The director of the Códice Gallery insists the dog was fed regularly and only tied up for three hours on one day before it escaped. Hmmm. Vargas wouldn’t say whether the dog survived the ordeal, but he pointed out no one tried to free the dog, give it food, or call the police. The “artist” hoped to cast light on people's hypocrisy because “no one cares about a dog that starves to death in the street.” Vargas was inspired by the death of Natividad Canda, a Nicaraguan addict killed by two Rottweilers in Cartago Province, Costa Rica, while being filmed by the news media in the presence of police, firefighters, and security guards. After Vargas was recognized for his work and asked to participate in the 2008 Bienal Centroamericana in Honduras, an online petition started, which currently boasts over 2.5 million signatures from around the globe.

Here’s where the facts get hazy. Internet postings claim Natividad was tied up in the gallery until he died a few days later. Vargas plans on murdering another street dog in the 2008 Bienal Centroamericana art festival. Vargas has signed the petition to ban him from the Honduras festival in mockery of it. Oh, and the people heading the Bienal Centroamericana are ignoring the worldwide petition and fully supporting Vargas’s art choices. Are these things true? I was able to track down a letter from the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) to Snopes (who was trying to debunk the whirlwind of speculation surrounding this story.)

WSPA is aware of the situation and also that misconstrued allegations appear in many articles. “It involved one dog, and this dog was not replaced by another after it had died.” A story about a dying street dog didn’t exactly spur on the local press, so very little coverage is available. “It was never made clear whether the dog actually died, how long it was there, and why nobody did anything if it was suffering.”

Unfortunately, there are no animal cruelty laws in Nicaragua, so Vargas’s mistreatment of Natividad was not breaking the law. “As far as we are aware, he is not planning on doing this exact same thing again, but the controversy now lies in the fact that he has been chosen to represent Costa Rica at the Central American Biennial, set to take place in Honduras this year, with an exhibit apparently not involving a dog this time. The WSPA Costa Rica office…contacted the Ministry of Art and Culture, to urge them to consider disallowing Vargas from representing Costa Rica at the Central American Biennial. The response was that since Vargas was participating at the Biennial with a different exhibit, they could not ban him from attending. We will, however, continue to monitor the situation in case further action can be taken at any time.”

My opinion?

Art is to create, not to destroy.

Natividad is a statement. A grotesque, violent statement to the world about so many things. The desperate condition of dogs in third world countries. The hypocrisy of our outrage when we don’t even take care of our own homeless domesticated animals. The irony of valuing the life of a dog over the poverty of a people. I do not support this “art” in any way, shape, or form, but like the rest of the world, it has me thinking. We are an interconnected society for better and for worse. How does the way I live my life, the values I uphold, and the hypocrisies I hide, impact the rest of this world? Yes, researching this story made me cry. Sure, I could sit back, shake my head at society, be outwardly and inwardly appalled—or I can do something. I can make a difference.

To be honest, I am overwhelmed by the good causes out there, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t participate. Dying willow trees need money, featherless parrots need charity, overly large grasshoppers require aid--give to this, give to that. My head starts to spin and I develop a form of learned powerlessness where I don’t do anything but promise that when the right thing comes along I will act.

I have lived too many years inactively. I can and will help now, no matter how small. I can’t save everybody, but I can make a difference. I can feel better about this world. Here’s one suggestion how:

1. Begin with your signature. Awaken parts of the world that have no animal cruelty rights :

2. Check out Casa Lupita, a grass roots non-profit group recognized for their efforts in saving and improving the lives of Nicaraguan street dogs like Natividad:

3. This video was made by “Frenchie,” a teenager who volunteered at Casa Lupita:

4. To help animals worldwide consider:

5. Finally, go hug a dog…or cat…or chinchilla. I know I will.

P.S. It’s interesting to note that this type of “art” has spread into the human world. Gregor Schneider, a German artist, is planning to display a person dying as part of an exhibition.


Linda MacDonald Glenn said...

This just makes me furious and despair about man's inhumanity towards sentient beings -- it a violation of human dignity to act with such cruelty, comparable to abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib; it is a violation of our (human) moral obligation of stewardship towards the living beings on this planet; it is a violation of basic tenants of every spiritual or humanistic or religious belief system that I am aware of -- I cannot fathom how curators allowed this and how the public walked around this 'exhibit' without thinking twice or protesting or feeling some sense of outrage and empathy.

I am grateful that we live in country where such an action would be considered criminal; and it is a sad reminder that other places in the world have yet realize that in an interconnected world, such behavior affects us all.

I agree Em -- we should all stand up and say "NO! This is unacceptable and intolerable!"

knscott said...

This is terrible, but thank you for posting it. I had signed the petition when I first read about it and was shocked that it had happened.

What troubles me is the end point you added about Gregor Schneider. As someone who watched her mother gradually die over many, many months in person, and who has also see Bodies: The Exhibition, there is a difference in the appreciation of life after and during death. His idea of watching someone in their last days is unimaginative, you can go to a hospice center and do this. It is not someplace that most people visit unless they have to, and even then it doesn't always make for an enjoyable experience. I suppose I'll have to wait until he finds a patron to fully understand, but, most importantly, to see if others find this particular art interesting enough to pay a fee to watch. What will that say...