Venezuela’s public murals depict ongoing relations between “the people” and Chávez.
In the days following Donald Trump’s inauguration, a number of Latin American commentators rushed to establish parallels between the new president and Latin American political leaders in the US media. One commentary went as far as defining “[p]opulism, authoritarianism, personalism, machismo, racialism, and caudillismo,” now applicable to Trump’s presidency, “as ills almost inherent to Latin American political culture.” Politically, the region has frequently served as an instance of what Trouillot called the “savage” slot: an Other in the symbolic self-construction of the West onto which it has projected whatever it wishes to dismiss about itself (1991). It is not surprising, then, that when the US narrative of exceptional democracy is perceived to collapse, the gaze turns south for answers. Hence Trump’s rendering as the first “caudillo yanqui” or “America’s Hugo Chávez.” But, does such comparison hold water?
We should be alert to what we mean when we talk about “populism” and to the crucial distinctions between so-called populist regimes. Populism is form, not content; it is a structuration of political life that cuts across radical ideological differences (Laclau 2005). It promises, for instance, a newly produced sense of immediacy between “the people” and the political leader. But, while this connection is produced in part by means of Trump’s early morning tweets, in Chávez’s case such intimacy is brought about, among other means, by the countless unofficial public murals that depict the former leader—murals that contain such creative excess that Venezuelan visual artist Gregory Escobar has baptized them “mutant.”
Refracting the Spotlight
An easily overlooked achievement of Chávez’s presidency (1999–2013) was his reclaiming a political space for forgotten social groups, granting them centrality in the national imagination. Such restoration was largely mediated visually, materially and discursively, from Chávez’s TV show Aló Presidente—where he’d give away houses to poor families, read excerpts from C. L. R. James’ The Black Jacobins (1938), vilify capitalism, sing, or dance to revolutionary hip hop lyrics—to a new currency, which displays the portraits of Negro Primero and Indio Guaicaipuro, a maroon and an indigenous hero of the War of Independence and archetypes of contemporary afro and indigenous communities (the lowest echelons of Venezuelan race/class hierarchy). Although Chávez’s presidency polarized Venezuela, his self-styled political movement was sustained by ongoing relations with the excluded groups he made visible, and who continue to keep him “alive” after his death.
Murals became one way of preserving this connection. Escobar has compiled many of these graphic representations in his social media project Murales Mutantes en Revolución (Mutant Murals in Revolution). Launched in 2013, the project is dedicated to capturing “the beautiful, sometimes deformed and funny street expressions of Chávez, Bolívar, and other characters of our imaginary.” His collaborators are among the 4,000 facebook, tumblr, and instagram followers who take pictures of murals on the Venezuelan streets and send them to Escobar, who then adds his own political and aesthetic commentary. His witty interpretations are not meant to criticize the murals themselves—as some have accused—but rather to use humor to reflect on people’s forms of engagement with the Chavista state.
From ideological replicas to mutant love (and laughter)
As Escobar pointed out to us, the image of Chávez is a persistent feature of the murals. At first glance, this seems to be indicative of a process of normalization of sorts. Alexei Yurchak (2005) has dissected the discourse of visual propaganda of the late Soviet state by examining, among other things, the standardization of the figure of Lenin into a limited number of visual representations, which bore official names: “Our Il’ich,” “Lenin with children,” “Lenin the leader,” and so on. To what extent the Soviet state—mediated, perhaps, by its Cuban counterpart—served as an inspiration for the murals we do not know, but resonances between both leaders’ bodies and their visual representations are common. Recall that Chávez’s body was on the point of being embalmed—an idea that was eventually discarded—while Lenin’s embalmed body lies on display in a mausoleum in Red Square. And like Lenin, whose visual and discursive representations were increasingly separated from his person after death—portraying him as young and strong, and recontextualizing his quotes—depictions of Chávez quickly drifted away from his appearance as a sick man in his 50s, by rendering him vigorous and robust, even as a hologram youthfully walking the streets of Caracas.
Whereas Soviet artists reproduced standardized forms of Lenin’s image down to the minutest detail, the Venezuelan murals are peculiar, mutant transformations. As Escobar asserted, “I have always wanted to highlight what is not immediately evident in the murals. That is, to show creative expressions when perhaps they weren’t planned as such in the first place. And if some murals are highly creative, all the more reason to post them.” While many of the Chávez murals are inspired by official photographs or portraits, their excess and originality—inspired by fiction, cosmology, and history—lies in the artists’ personal perspective. These ubiquitous public depictions go beyond mass-produced visual replicas of a key ideological concept, towards highly diverse representations and reconceptions of the leader—those intended by the artist and those introduced by Escobar.
One of the murals recreates da Vinci’s Last Supper, with socialist leaders replacing the apostles on either side of Jesus: Marulanda (the founder of the FARC), Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Mao, Lenin, Marx, Simón Bolívar, Chávez, Simón Rodríguez (Bolívar’s mentor), and Guaicaipuro (as identified by Escobar’s caption); as well as Alexis Gonzalez and Fabricio Ojeda. On the table, a yellow Bible sits before Jesus, the Little Red Book before Mao, and, before Chávez, what came to be known as his Little Blue Book: the Venezuelan Chavista Constitution (together, the three books compose the colors of the Venezuelan flag). Chávez often carried this blue book in one of his front pockets, along with a metal crucifix.
Another mural depicts a bust of Chávez, wearing his usual red beret, with a halo, a green face and, in big letters, the phrase “I’m still with you all.” Escobar’s caption adds, “It was going to be a great mural, no doubt. I personally like it. But, green? WHY? GREEN? A slightly bloated Chávez whose skin color is GREEN and that SAYS “I’m still with you all!?” The green of the decomposed, the zombie, the rotten…! Like Pete Rose, you’re a guy of great talent who made a wrong decision. XD” To which someone responds, “…but instead of seeing him rotten, I see a Chávez Hulk, stronger than ever.” Yet another commentator adds, “Yes, yes, you’re right, but shut up. It’s our twisted but coherent way of celebrating those who should still be alive.”
The creative possibilities expressed in the murals open a space for political satire, which Escobar humorously exploits. And his satirical commentary opens yet another space for competing political interpretations, and even for longings on the part of the Venezuelan people. The viewpoints reflected in the murals and the sardonic or sincere meanings attached to them comprise funny, colorful, and surprising ways of making legible the relation between the indeterminate publics that constitute “the people” and Chávez, dead and alive, transcendent and still intimately close.
As Laclau (2005) states, populism consists, in part, of the construction of unified political identities—“the people”—out of heterogeneity. Who constitutes “the people” cannot be theorized in advance, but once we see the discursive means by which it is set apart, it is possible to grasp the crucial specificities of each populist regime. The popular sentiments about Chávez that inhabit the mutant murals must be seen in light of Venezuela’s postcolonial history and the magic afforded by the abundance of oil (Coronil 1997). Before Chávez, such magic was partly condensed around the figure of the Liberator Simón Bolívar, images of whom were already ubiquitous in Venezuelan public space (Taussig 1997). Bolívar, perhaps the most important hero in many of South America’s Independence Wars, was not only a symbol of the power of the nation; his representations have been endowed with such power (by means of the ideological work of the state), which is then disseminated across figurations of figurations—pictures of paintings, poems, statues—and which is grasped, in turn, by means of folk nationalist-religious practices, such as in the María Lionza devotion.
Chávez mobilized the Liberator’s power for his movement—as others did before and after him (Samet 2013)—along with his own charisma and eclectic socialist project. A crucial factor that helped to propel him into the presidency and that enables him to linger today among the living, is the power he mastered to be at once transcendent—in all the vastness of the fantastically wealthy petro-state—and a down-to-earth, intimately human leader who was felt to be at one with his people. This dialectic produced a reciprocally reinforcing power, between Chávez’s people and the people’s Chávez, simultaneously keeping each other present in the national imagination.
Agnes Mondragón is a PhD student in sociocultural anthropology at the University of Chicago. Her research interests include the Mexican state at the turn of the 21st century, religious practices, historical/national imaginations, mass mediation, secrecy and spectacle.
Steven Schwartz is also a PhD student in sociocultural anthropology at the University of Chicago. His research interests include resource extraction, indigeneity, and illicit flows across the Venezuela-Colombia borderlands. Together they have an ongoing project on the anthropology of Chavismo.
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