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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 9/29/19

Cultural Production in Revolutionary Venezuela: A Conversation with Kael Abello

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Kael Abello (Venezuelanalysis)
Kael Abello (Venezuelanalysis)
(Image by venezuelanalysis)
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A key member of the 'Comando Creativo' artists' collective reflects on how to make relevant art during a revolution.

Though it is not well known to the world, Venezuela experienced a period of revolutionary cultural experimenting that has much in common with the glorious period of Soviet constructivism. One of its key figures is Kael Abello, a member of the Comando Creativo artist collective which since 2008 has created some of the most emblematic images of the Bolivarian Revolution. In this interview, we talk to him about the challenges of visual communication during Venezuela's revolutionary process. Abello is also a member of Utopix, a collaborative initiative that recently got underway in Caracas.

Before the Bolivarian Revolution, Venezuelan culture was known mainly for its beauty pageants and (to a lesser degree) for its op and kinetic art. When Chavez arrived on the scene, it might seem that the main aesthetic idea became simply redness, which is the color of the Bolivarian movement. In truth, however, aesthetic production in the Bolivarian Process is complex, having gone through different periods and witnessed varied approaches. Can you summarize the main changes in aesthetic production in the revolutionary camp during the last twenty years?

The Bolivarian Revolution proposed to completely sever with [the old politics of] Puntofijismo and the Fourth Republic [1959"1999]. Of course, that effort at making a rupture [with the old way of doing things] had effects in the sphere of cultural production. However, we should make some clarifications beforehand. First, some of these cultural expressions were not new: many fed off of existing traditions, currents that were there long before but had been marginalized because they didn't fit with the old official narrative of the "Venezuela of progress," based on exporting beauty pageants and building large concrete structures.

Another important clarification is that the forms in which this new culture presented itself weren't uniform, just as the composition of forces within Chavismo wasn't (and isn't) homogeneous. Finally, we should also point to the fact that not everything was rupture. In the cultural production of the Bolivarian Revolution, many of the conventions of twentieth-century representation remained intact with the red hue sometimes thrown in to indicate "Revolution" but without problematizing meanings or canons! However, I do believe that in the last twenty years, Venezuelan cultural production has developed some clearly-defined features in an attempt to break with what existed previously.

Going from the general to the particular, there are two features that are of great interest to me. The first is the construction of a new popular subject, and the second is the return to the Bolivarian epic. The Bolivarian Revolution announces that the "pueblo" is now the protagonist and maker of its own destiny. That affirmation forced us [as artists] to begin a search for a representation of this new subject. It was a subject that had no prior representations; before the pueblo figured as the "encapuchado" [hooded figure] or as a figure who lived in the shadows, in the urban misery belts or in the campo, and there wasn't any imagery where this subject might appear as the protagonist of a new national narrative.

Additionally, the pueblo subject is, necessarily, a collective subject, so that forced us, as producers, to search for ways of representing collective undertakings. Hence, the multitude appears in almost all forms of representation of the Bolivarian Revolution. On the one hand, we have the "marea roja" [red tide], the march which represents the spontaneous but collective force of this new popular actor called on to do the revolution. On the other hand, we have the communal assembly, which also became a way of representing the collective exercise of direct power.

Regarding the reopening of the Bolivarian epic, it is true that the independence struggle has always had a central place in Venezuela's patriotic narrative. However, the Bolivarian Revolution proposes a fundamental shift that narrates this story in the present tense or talks about the independence struggle as an unfinished process. It also locates in that popular, collective subject the responsibility of giving continuity to the independence struggle which is, again, part of the present.

In other words, the great shift that took place in the sphere of cultural production was to begin narrating our history in the first person and in the present tense. First, we see how the pantheon of elite patriotic leaders [that dominated the old narrative] was replaced by the anonymous masses that fought for independence: shoeless, shirtless plainsmen, who are humble people just like the ones called upon to do the revolution today.

The second change, which is the shift to telling the story in the present tense, can be seen in the new way of showing [Simon] Bolivar. He is no longer depicted solemnly posing in front of a portrait artist, but is rather a Bolivar that is in motion, galloping and with his sword drawn. (Or sometimes what we see is just the horse of the national heraldry, which is no longer turning around but is galloping.) The same thing is seen in the use today of the national anthem, which is no longer sung with chilly pomp and protocol, but which now expresses a collective vocation.

I think we should also highlight the profound reconfiguration of these symbols (which was done without their losing their meaning). To give you an example, codes from the military sphere were mixed with symbols of the popular world from Yoruba and barrio evangelical symbolism to local histories and traditions and, of course, all the range of images employed in the past by revolutions and anti"capitalist movements.

I think there is still a lot to discover, and we are not fully conscious of the richness of the new forms of representation that emerged during the Bolivarian Revolution. Perhaps it is a bit like the production of posters in the [Spanish] Civil War. At the time, they may have looked like a mere reflection of Russian propaganda, and only later were we able to appreciate the complexity of a very rich phenomenon whose footprint is still present in antifascist representations today. It was work that marked a milestone in antifascist graphics.

Five interpretations of Simon Bolivar by Comando Creativo. (Comando Creativo)
Five interpretations of Simon Bolivar by Comando Creativo. (Comando Creativo)
(Image by venezuelanalysis)
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How do you locate the work of Comando Creativo and the more recent Utopix project in this history of Venezuela's cultural production?

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