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The power of art

Venezuelans use a big canvas for their political sentiments

CARACAS -- To arrive in this capital city, snaking up and over high ridges, is to enter an architect's model, buildings and highways and people stacked along the east-west valley set back from the Caribbean Sea.


At first, the ranchos, the low swaths of sprawling shacks, define the place. Within these warrens, set upon steep hills, tucked down narrow alleyways, live the poorest of the poor, some 2 million people who, pushed out and up, or pulled in from the provinces, neighboring Colombia, or Peru, cling to the capital.

Farther into the model, along the valley floor, planned modernity rises and surrounds in the form of aggressive skyscrapers, of buildings of glass or concrete exemplified by the low fortress of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Caracas Sofia Imber, considered among the best in Latin America and set at the heart of the city near the soft edges of the botanical garden.

Here in the center, organized art dominates the museum, nearby in the National Art Gallery, and across the leafy garden at the Central University of Venezuela campus, designed by Carlos Raul Villanueva in the 1950s, and still home to abstraction.

To roam amid all this, along the wide boulevards and calm side streets, is to wander in a gallery. Above, the ranchos lean like canvases, works set aside, not selected to be shown more prominently. Below, the street art, often murals and sculpture, engages. No work is more striking than Pedro Leon Zapata's towering tile mural, a historical tribute to Venezuela's greatest personalities and its anonymous citizens, set on an oft-clogged stretch of Caracas's central highway.

Now, add politics. Add the near-daily speeches, in which President Hugo Chavez promotes his projects -- teaching adults to read, sending Cuban doctors to tend the sick in the ranchos, among others -- as a way to shake up power among Venezuela's classes. Add Chavez's attacks on the "oligarchs," redefined by the president to include not just the traditionally rich and powerful, but anyone not among the poor.

Add the opposition, the street-corner campaign to collect signatures to recall Chavez, the throngs of protesters who clamor for his ouster, the editorials claiming Chavez is breaking the country's economy, running the place into the ground.

And the artists join in.

Bertolt Brecht, the playwright, once said, "Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it."

Some against Chavez sewed a long quilt of Venezuelan flags, an attempt to reclaim the national symbol from the Chavistas, as supporters of the leader still fond of his red military beret call themselves. After a crackdown by Chavez during prolonged strikes last year, artists hung gas masks on statues in city parks.

The Chavistas answer, as they did on the bridge near the presidential palace, where demonstrations turned bloody in April 2002. Today, a model oil derrick, painted in Venezuela's yellow, blue, and red, rises on the bridge. A nearby mural invokes Jesus, the revolutionary Che Guevara, and Simon Bolivar, the 19th-century liberator of much of South America whose legacy is claimed by both sides of the current political struggle.

"Don't allow yourself to be tricked," the mural reads. "With Chavez, you get the Bolivarian truth."

Imagine an artist in another place, say Boston, being so involved in social struggle that, were that artist to paint a mural along Storrow Drive, for example, then later stand alongside the mural, motorists would slow, honk, and cheer his name; a hero, the artist, of culture and ideas.

Or consider a quieter place, this in Caracas, hard to find, tucked away, and as such seen by few. Those who do come are students, mostly, who turn from a residential street on the south edge of the city, then walk the long concrete corridor to a small classroom where poets and photographers talk. Some of these students step into the next room, a gallery, with white light, unfinished cement floor, and plaster walls, where photographs hang.

In one image, a protester leans back and wails as police sprint across a bridge. In another, young faces, calm but strong, are painted in yellow, blue, and red. Next to the most provocative photos rest pencil marks, notes made by organizers of a public exhibit who had deemed the images too real to show at this time, in this city's clean Metro stations.

Yet it is the Metro riders themselves, sometimes the lower and upper classes, but mostly the middle, people shuttling from jobs in central Caracas to the wealthier eastern neighborhoods, who turned out in April 2002 to crowd the main highway in protest. It is the Metro riders themselves who are pictured in the photos.

Pablo Picasso, the painter, once said, "All art is subversive."So Nelson Garrido, a photographer and teacher, mounted this protest exhibition of 71 photos taken by six young photographers, work that will not appear in the Metro alongside photos of, among other things, birds.

"Art is not meant to solve problems, but to create problems," Garrido said. "Art that doesn't affect power has no meaning."

In the classroom next to his small gallery, Garrido, calm and casual, in black jeans and a plaid oxford shirt, pointed to a work of his own. In this large photograph, a staged scene, models writh in a boat meant to mimic that of "The Ship of Fools" by Hieronymus Bosch, the 15th-century Dutch painter. In Garrido's image, people turn on one another, killing.

"When I did this everybody said, 'It's too much,' " Garrido recalled recently, as his classroom slowly filled with students for an evening course.

Then 19 people died in the April 2002 street protests.

"As always," Garrido said, "reality overcame fiction."

For his part, Chavez, a former military colonel elected on a wave of multiclass hope in 1998, took a bold step in 2001 when he fired Sofia Imber, the longtime leader of the city's prominent contemporary art museum. The message was clear: Chavez, a leftist further casting himself as champion of the poor, the masses, would not tolerate the stature of the cultural elite. His purge, which affected some three dozen government institutions -- museums, orchestras, and theater groups, among them -- carried on. In a speech at the time, quoted in The New York Times, Chavez said his government aspired to "a culture that is at the service of the human revolution, of creation, of the liberation of the Venezuelan people."

George Orwell, the writer, once said, "All art is propaganda."

Outside the Athenian of Caracas, a cultural performance center set along the Avenida Mexico, in the heart of a neighborhood known as a Chavez stronghold, a sculpture of concrete has been treated as a canvas, painted. The sculpture, an ascending, off-center pyramid created in the 1990s, made a vague statement. "It was," one local artist conceded, "so abstract that people didn't know it was art."

Now, though, there is no mistaking the message of those who painted it. Swaths of yellow, blue, and red, highlighted by seven white stars, represent the Venezuelan flag. "Welcome to the house of the people of the world and of Bolivar," reads the mural, signed by the "Brigada Muralista Ali Primera," a group named in honor of a popular leftist folksinger who championed the poor.

Others countered, if in less dramatic fashion: Black script tagged down the side of the mural reads "Referendum Now," an urge to join the recall petition that may, in coming months, bring Chavez before Venezuelan voters.

Graffiti anchors the art of support and protest, rising high on apartment buildings, lurking low on highway overpasses. And it knows no political frontier. "Out Gringos!" reads one tag. Another: "We are all Iraq."

Even exhibits seemingly free from politics begin to shoulder its burden.

"Haiku," a recent temporary exhibit of photographs at the contemporary art museum, which houses works by Picasso, Marc Chagall, and Venezuela's leading artists, among others, offered seven large photographs. Each photograph held two images, one divided by the other: a cathedral ceiling, for example, divided by river water rushing over rocks; a school of fish split by a photo of desert sand formations. A viewer of this exhibit is left to wonder: By exhibiting in a museum controlled by the Chavez government, was the artist choosing sides?

Consider the case of Zapata, the muralist and at 74 among Venezuela's most accomplished artists. Zapata has been consumed with the artistic battle to unseat Chavez. He has said this is not a time to be a mere painter, and so spends his days toiling on his biting, ironic cartoons, which often criticize Chavez in the pages of El Nacional newspaper.

Chavez supporters responded by attacking Zapata the painter. Beneath his signature on the high tile mural alongside the highway appeared the word "Traitor."

On a Saturday afternoon in November, Zapata stepped from a small hatchback, its trunk loaded with two of his historical portraits, each of which would fetch thousands of dollars in a private sale. He walked the shoulder of a busy on-ramp and stopped beneath the mural, the graffiti since removed.

Above Zapata rose images of Bolivar, the liberator, Teresa de la Parra, a writer, and Armando Reveron, a painter, icons of Venezuela's strengths. Also, painted in bright, sturdy shapes, anonymous faces drove cars, buses, trucks.

Saul Bellow, the writer, once said, "Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos."

As Zapata stood in the afternoon light, passing motorists on the highway recognized the man who created this powerful "Homage to the Drivers of Venezuela." Horns pierced the air. Cars slowed. Shouts came from teenagers, waves from old women.

"Hey, Zapata!" they called.

All was positive, nothing critical.

Did these people, these drivers of Venezuela, most apparently among the lower or middle classes, idling past in battered Fords, adore the name Zapata, the celebrity of the artist? Or did they cherish his ideas, the battle he is fighting with his art?

Zapata smiled, raised an arm high and waved. Car after car slowed, honked, cheered.

"Hey, Zapata!"

Tom Haines can be reached at

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