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Bueno Aires survivor inspires her students

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Visiting Mills art professor, Claudia Bernardi, said she uses her art as a healing process on a personal and community level. An internationally recognized artist and human rights activist, Bernardi teaches the special topic course, "The Scar of Time: Communal Remembrance and Transformation though Art."

Bernardi, a native of Argentina, is a painter, printmaker and installation artist. She found art a catharsis after witnessing numerous human tragedies due to the Argentinean government's military regime in the 1970s.

"I think my art is born from memory, born from pain. In art that damage becomes restored beautifully," Bernardi said.

From 1966 through 1976 and again from 1976 to 1983, Argentina lived under a military regime. 30,000 desaparesidos or "disappeared" cases have been documented from this time period, according to the book The Politics of Latin America: The Power Game, by Harry E. Vanden and Gary Prevost. Victims were incarcerated in clandestine concentration camps, tortured, murdered and some exiled.

For years people lived in fear of becoming a desaparesido, or losing a loved one. The last military regime is known as the "Dirty War." Bernardi left Argentina for the U.S. in 1976.

Bernardi returned and joined the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (AFAT) after its creation in 1984 under the new government in Argentina. She worked with her sister, Patricia, who was a founding member. The Team has carried out exhumations of mass graves all over the world and has reported their findings to the United Nations.

Working with AFAT gave Bernardi a perspective she needed to move on and to find a positive outlay to all of the pain she witnessed. "That transit was very important for me, it legitimized the catastrophe and I was able to understand what happened to my generation," Bernardi said.

She begun by taking testimonies from families, archiving interviews and creating maps of all the exhumations performed. This experience would later motivate her to open an art school in El Salvador – one of the areas affected by military dictatorship and desaparecidos.

The School of Art and Open Studio of Perquin, El Salvador opened in 2005 with a Potrero Fund Grant. The School's focus is community-based projects that reach children and adults. Bernardi collaborated with Valeria Galliso, who was once her student, to make the school a reality.

Galliso and Bernardi were shocked to find that the community was interested in the arts. "It was pure joy, I had never had so much joy for such a long period of time in my life," Bernardi said.

Now she is in the process of learning how and why the school works, so she may help establish schools elsewhere. "I would feel thankful if what happened in Perquin could happened in Rwanda," Bernardi said. "I also want to write a book about this, the role of art in the post-war time."

"Bernardi has exposed her students the deepest of human suffering, while instilling hope through them with the hope that change is possible," said studio art and economics major Jackie Antig, a junior.

Bernardi has been featured in over 40 solo art exhibitions worldwide and was recognizes as an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts by the College of Wooster in Ohio. She received a MFA from the National Institute of Fine Art in Buenos Aires and her second MFA and MA from the University of California, Berkeley.

"Claudia Bernardi has the most amazing presence and compassion. She is a true intellectual. Her extensive work in human rights – from exhuming bodies in El Mozote, El Salvador to selling all of her art work in order to create an art school in Perquin, El Salvador – is just an example of her dedication to human rights and her role in the art world," said junior Daisy Gonzales who is in Bernardi's class. Gonzales feels honored to be in a class where she is inspired to believe in a better world.