Caracas Journal – Artists Embellish Walls With Political Visions – NYTimes.com

April 11, 2010

Artists Embellish Walls With Political Visions

CARACAS, Venezuela — Of all the murals and graffiti that adorn this anarchic city’s trash-strewn center, one creation by the street artist Carlos Zerpa fills him with special pride: a stenciled reinterpretation of Caravaggio’s “David with the Head of Goliath,” in which a warrior grasps the severed head of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Mr. Zerpa, 26, a slightly built painter sporting a few days of stubble, shrugged at the possibility that American visitors to Caracas — or Mrs. Clinton for that matter — might find the mural offensive. “It’s a metaphor for an empire that is being defeated,” he said nonchalantly in an interview. “My critics can take it or leave it, but I remain loyal to my ideas.”
So does the government, which supports Mr. Zerpa’s creations and the work of many other street artists, and is increasingly making them a central element of its promotion of a state ideology. Government-financed brigades of graffiti artists and muralists are blanketing this city’s walls with politicized images, ranging from crude, graffiti-tagged slogans to bold, colorful works of graphic art.
The more overtly political images tend to glamorize President Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution, and his demonization of Washington is a favorite subject.
One stencil painting near the Plaza Bolívar in the old center depicts a smiling President Obama in a Santa Claus outfit distributing missiles labeled with the words Afghanistan and Iraq. Another painting lambastes the government of Colombia, Washington’s top ally in the region, by showing a knife thrust into a map of Colombia by a cherubic right-wing Colombian politician.
Some of these images were painted near billboards advertising American products like Heinz ketchup or Pepsi (the United States remains Venezuela’s top trading partner). The billboards themselves stand above traffic-snarled streets that go almost completely dark at night because of electricity shortages.
Once darkness falls, soaring numbers of murders and kidnappings make many districts a no man’s land. Not even once-esteemed public works of art are safe, with aerosol-equipped taggers carrying out a visual assault on sculptures by renowned artists like Gego and Jesús Soto.
Street artists here, who largely differentiate themselves from the city’s hordes of graffiti taggers, say the slow-burning chaos that increasingly characterizes Caracas makes it an ideal place for them to ply their trade.
“There’s a great deal of freedom here to do what we want,” said Yaneth Rivas, 27, a member of the same street-art brigade as Mr. Zerpa, called the Communications Liberation Army. Her work, mainly posters placed at bus stops, is more nuanced than Mr. Zerpa’s. She explores, for instance, the polarization of Venezuelan society in one image showing two policemen from different districts of Caracas pointing guns at each other.
Their groups, together with other street-art brigades, were created over the past year or so by the Ministry of Communes. Some groups remain part of the ministry, like Guerrilla Communications, which offers graffiti and stencil workshops around the city.
Others, like Communications Liberation Army, operate somewhat autonomously but still get material like spray paint from the government.
“These groups share the objective of reclaiming public space and turning it into a kind of street periodical that can be constantly renewed and painted over to get their message out,” said Sujatha Fernandes, a sociologist at Queens College in New York who has written a book on urban social movements in Venezuela.
Not everyone putting up images on walls here draws support from the government. Saúl Guerrero, a stencil painter who ranks among the city’s most prolific street artists, has painted dozens of melancholic portraits of people around the eastern districts of Caracas, signing them with the nom-de-plume “Ergo.”
Mr. Guerrero, 29, an anthropologist and aid worker who spends part of the year in Africa, opted to forego sharp political statements for simple portraits, often of young Africans or of worn-out faces that reflect a life of destitution. He painted dozens of them on walls and telephone boxes in Chacao, a relatively prosperous municipality here.
“I wanted to get away from the European-looking faces that dominate advertising in Venezuela in an attempt to trigger people into thinking about the reality of the place we live,” Mr. Guerrero said.
But his work, which does not toe the party line, has provoked a backlash among some supporters of Mr. Chávez.
After his full name appeared in a Caracas culture magazine, some progovernment graffiti taggers identified Mr. Guerrero as Jewish (mistakenly, it turned out) and began directing anti-Semitic slurs against him in online forums.
Some scribbled swastikas on his street paintings, reviving concerns of anti-Semitism here. Last year, after a Sephardic synagogue was desecrated by vandals, senior officials insinuated that Jews were responsible. Officials later arrested 11 people, including seven police officers, in connection with the episode.
Mr. Guerrero said the defilement of his work was unfortunate, especially since it stemmed from polarization that he was hoping to assuage. But he also said he expected others to paint over work he viewed as ephemeral.
“I would have preferred for someone to have colored parts of my work, making it 300 times better, but that doesn’t always happen,” he said.
Other street artists here said that they also expected their work to disappear into the chaos of Caracas.
Ms. Rivas, for instance, reacted almost with indifference when she learned that someone had recently pasted campaign posters on top of a multicolored poster at a bus stop that had taken her weeks to design and commented on the ideological tug-of-war on Venezuelan television.
“We’re not looking for immortality with our work,” she said. “Our gallery is the street, and that means we have to hope our images spur passers-by to think a little before they disappear.”

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