Treasures from the Vault: Claudia Bernardi

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints and Drawings

Claudia Bernardi’s experience growing up in Argentina influences the way she melds her interests in art, education, and anthropology.  During the period from 1976 to 1983, known as “The Dirty War,” the military junta kidnapped and disappeared about 30,000 citizens whose actions were deemed subversive.  In 1979, she fled Argentina.

By 1977 Bernardi already held an M.F.A. in Painting and Education from the National Institute of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires.  At age 24, she came to the United States and received her M.A. and M.F.A. in Painting and Printmaking from the University of California at Berkeley.  The artist is Professor of Community Arts at California College of the Arts.  

Bernardi’s sister was a founding member of the non-governmental Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, formed in 1984.  They conducted investigations on human rights violations against civilian populations.  In 1992, Bernardi joined her sister in El Mozote, Morazán in El Salvador.  She has worked with the group for 30 years in Argentina, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Ethiopia. The United Nations Commission of the Truth nominated them for the investigation at El Mozote, the site of one of many massacres during a twelve year civil war.  On December 11, 1981, Salvadorean soldiers murdered 1,000 civilians, many of whom were children under the age of 12; only one woman survived.  

The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team approached exhumation of a mass grave like an archaeological site by using the same scientific methods for examination and documentation.  Part of Bernardi’s role was to gather testimonies from families of the disappeared and to draw archaeological maps with measured locations of human remains, ballistic evidence, and other related objects.  Within three months of work, the group gathered sufficient evidence to confirm the allegation of mass murder.  Bernardi felt transformed by this heart-wrenching work and by the strength and resilience of the people. 

Against a map are figures walking.
Claudia Bernardi, Argentinian, b. 1955. Palabras de Arena (Words of Sand). Etching and aquatint, 2013. Museum purchase, 2014.313.6. Photo courtesy of Lauren Wolfer.

Bernardi’s art is informed by her forensic work, but does not dwell on violence and gruesome details.  Her color in the museum’s Palabras de Arena (Words of Sand) is radiant and immediately lures you closer.  She builds up her colors layer by layer, applying fifteen inks in yellow, red, and blue on five etched copper plates.  The intense, yellow-orange color field is reminiscent of an old hand-drawn map with a mountain range, meandering lines for rivers, and symbols for churches.  In large script are the first letters of what is likely Mexico.  Superimposed are dresses, shoes, and female figures, some fragmented, silhouetted, and skeletal. 

In 2005, Bernardi returned to El Salvador where she created a school of art, known as Walls of Hope, in Perquin, not far from El Mozote.  The artist explains, “Art is a very gentle almost surgical tool that, through its beauty, cuts sharp in a place that hurts.  But because it is also beautiful it allows us to see beyond the hurt.” (1)

Bernardi has facilitated community-based murals numerous at sites of war and violence.  In 2013, the International Committee for the Red Cross invited Bernardi to create a mural project with youths impacted by violence in Ciudad Juárez, one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico. She has traveled to Argentina, Guatemala, Northern Ireland, and Serbia to work with adult and child participants who were victimized, but whom leave the project with a sense of unity and empowerment. 

In her positions as artist, teacher, and forensic anthropologist, Bernardi painstakingly works layer by layer to give visual form and to uncover history heretofore little known.  “My art goes beyond political criticism,” the artist explains, “It is a way of retaining communal memories of the survivors.”(2)

(1) “Claudia Bernardi: Art for Political Change,”, accessed June 19, 2019,

(2) Cynthia Franklin and Laura E. Lyons, “Bodies of Evidence and the Intricate Machine of Untruth,” Biography 27, no. 1 (Winter 2004): v-xxii,

Want to see more prints and drawings? Visit Sachi in the Print & Drawing Study Center Tuesday-Friday 11am-3pm or by appointment.

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