This Week’s Guest Post is brought to us by John Kotula. John is an artist and writer from Peace Dale, Rhode Island who lives and works in Managua, Nicaragua. He will be contributing more posts on culture and politics to NicaNotes in the near future. John hopes to organize trips for US artists to visit Nicaragua and collaborate with Nicaraguan artists to create, restore, and repaint murals.)
Murals: A Powerful Cultural Manifestion
By John Kotula
In the face of all the deplorable actions by the US government against Nicaragua, there have always been people who stood up in solidarity, who voted and protested and said, “Not in my name.” Today, in these difficult times, it is important to honor this history and to look to it for inspiration and motivation to continue the struggle. When the Sandinista revolution triumphed and overthrew the dictator Somoza, many people came from the US to Nicaragua, for short term or long term stays, to work in support of the ideals of solidarity, equality, community, and self-determination that the Sandinistas stood for. One particularly powerful form of this work was cultural. Art and revolution have always marched shoulder to shoulder in Latin America.
“For us, la cultura es la Revolución y la Revolución es la cultura. (Culture is the revolution and the revolution is culture.) There is no separation between our cultural progression and the Revolución, since the transformation that Nicaragua is undertaking is also a cultural transformation.” Ernesto Cardinal, 1983. Art and Revolution in Latin America 1910 -1990, David Craven (RIP).
“Muralismo” emerged as one of the dominant intersections of art and culture in Nicaragua in the 1980s.
“Muralism in the eighties in Nicaragua came to have a force never seen in the history of the country. The number of works carried out is counted in hundreds,in multiple techniques, and in locations throughout the nation.” El muralismo en Nicaragua en la década de los ańos ochenta.
Many of these large-scale, public paintings were done by international teams of artists who joined Nicaraguans to cover walls with scenes of everyday life, depiction of historical events, tributes to heroes and martyrs, explorations of the precolonial and mythical past, and visions of the better future to come. The content, style and quality of the work varied greatly, but taken as a whole it constituted an artistic movement that is recognized and appreciated world-wide. There are at least two excellent resource books on muralism in Nicaragua, The Murals of Revolutionary Nicaragua, by David Kunzle, and Art and Revolution in Latin America 1910 -1990, by David Craven.
On a side street in León, just off the Central Park and in view of the magnificent cathedral, there is a concentration of political art that illustrates the power of the cultural work that was done in the eighties.
On one side of the street, there is a huge, ambitious mural called Our Land is Made of Courage and Glory. It was painted in 1989 and 1990 by a team of artists representing the Hamburg, Germany – León, Nicaragua sister city project. Both Germans (Sönke Nissen and Klaus Klinger) and Nicaraguans (Rafael Flores, Balthasar Gutiérrez, Jorge Tovar and Carlos Pineda) participated. It is an intellectually challenging and conceptual work of art. It illustrates the whole history of Nicaragua from pre-colonial times to the present by depicting cast off objects lying in the desert. Much of the mural is empty space; history as a vast, arid wasteland. Unless you have an encyclopedic knowledge of Nicaraguan history, you would need a guide book to understand everything that the artists are up to. The mural reads sequentially from left to right. At the far right hand side, thousands of years into the story, living people make their first appearance: two children, flying a kite, run out of the desert and into an idealized landscape of volcanoes and lakes representing better times to come. The commitment, talent, and plain hard work that has gone into this project is undeniable and the collaboration between Hamburg and León is a great example of international solidarity.
Opposite Our Land is Made of Courage and Glory, is a mural project of a completely different type. It is called Two Sandinos and is a visceral, grab you by the lapels, get in your face work of art. In about a tenth of the space, it packs twice the visual and political punch as the one on the other side of the street. Two mirror image panels flank the doorway of the former León fire station. In each panel there is a silhouette of Sandino, instantly recognizable to any Nicaraguan. The figures are painted against a vividly striped background and shadowed in a way that makes them look like relief sculpture. They are patterned in eye catching colors with national symbols. In the panel on the left Sandino’s foot rests on a little dog with Somoza’s face. The pooch either has its tail between its legs or has a pitifully small penis. In the one on the right, the dictator Somoza has been replaced under Sandino’s boot by an equally subjugated canine Uncle Sam. While dictators and imperialists may have more power in the world than these images suggest, Two Sandinos is a powerful illustration of the relative moral standing of movements that seek to empower the poor and those that seek to exploit them. This is satire of the highest order.
The mural was painted in 1984 by Mike Alewitz who, he says, “had travelled to Leon with the group Arts for a New Nicaragua. We were composed mostly of musicians, but also had visual artists that painted a number of murals around the country. Other muralists included David Fichter, Susan Greene, Joel Katz, Rikki Asher, and Natasha Meyers.” (Mike Alewitz on Facebook.) While much of the mural art of that period has deteriorated badly, Two Sandinos is alive and well. Anytime it falls into disrepair, it is lovingly restored by the community, most recently in February of this year. (Restoration attributed to Lukraff and collaborators. Bruce Alvarez, McKenzie Vega.) It looks brand new. Not long ago, Mike Alewitz received a message that said, ““Remember these? They are still there, my friend. Loved and treasured by the locals. The place is no longer a Fire Station, it’s totally remodeled, but they conserved the murals. The Sandinistas treasure them in Leon.” (Mike Alewitz on Facebook.) There are few political, public artworks that have survived and remained relevant for more than thirty years.
For those of us who care about Nicaragua, these can be discouraging times. The isolationist, anti-immigrant, and “America First” rhetoric that is on the rise in the US is hard to take. The international muralismo movement of the 80s offers inspiration that our work can have lasting impact. Let’s follow the example of the muralismo movement and accept the challenge to bring the same kind of creativity and dedication to our efforts.
- US Ambassador Laura Dogu, when asked by reporters about the status of the NICA Act, a bill introduced in the US House last session that would cut off international loans to Nicaragua. Dogu responded that each year thousands of bills are filed in Congress but most of them are not acted on. She said there are people in Congress, presumably Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen who introduced the bill, who would like it to move forward. Dogu said, “The President (Donald Trump) does not have a point of view; at this moment we are waiting.” (Informe Pastran, Mar. 20)
- The US Embassy’s recognition of the 56 years of work by Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) founder and president, Vilma Nuñez, generated a minor brouhaha when President Daniel Ortega and Vice-President Rosario Murillo complained in a letter to the embassy that it was a “hostile act.” Nuñez was formerly a Sandinista who has become a harsh critic of the Ortega government. US Ambassador Laura Dagu assured reporters that the recognition of Nuñez on International Women’s Day was a tribute to her life work, not a criticism of the government. She said that “all is fine in relations between the US and Nicaragua at this time.” (Informe Pastran, Mar. 20)
- Although Costa Rica scored at the top for Latin America in the United Nations’ World Happiness Report 2017, Nicaragua, which is at 43rd out of 155 countries included in the report, has actually seen the greatest growth in score since 2005, with each year showing the country getting happier. Norway came in as the happiest country in the world. (Informe Pastran, Mar. 20)
- The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Country Representative, Socorro Gross, said the Nicaragua government is taking important steps to implement a modern telemedicine and virtual healthcare services. “This is a revolutionary technology that ensures specialized medical services in isolated rural areas of the country, helping to save lives and provide emergency care to those who need it the most,” the PAHO Representative said. (Nicaragua News, Mar. 17)
- There have been good reports on renewable energy released by several sources recently. A joint report published last month by the World Bank and the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All Initiative (SE4ALL), stated that Nicaragua is the regional leader in energy policies and renewable energy use in Central America. The report added that Nicaragua has made significant progress in development of renewable energy projects, expansion of electricity coverage and the implementation of energy efficiency programs. The Nicaragua Sustainable Electrification and Renewable Energy Program (PNESER) has contributed to greater renewable energy use and electricity coverage nationwide during the last few years, the report said. This was followed by a World Watch Institute report stating that over the last few years Nicaragua has been implementing a successful Strategic Plan for Greater Renewable Energy Use. The report added that a significant growth of public-private investments in the sector has increased the share of renewable energy entering the national electricity grid, going from 25% in 2006 to 53% in 2016. During this period electricity coverage in Nicaragua went from 50% to 90% nationwide,” the World Watch report said. Also last week, Polaris Energy of Canada announced that the San Jacinto-Tizate geothermal plant in Nicaragua produced 10 MW more energy in 2016 than 2015. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) ranked Nicaragua second place in Latin America behind El Salvador for use of geothermal energy. (Nicaragua News, Mar. 17, 16, 15, 14)
- A joint study prepared by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and the United Nations Gender Equality and Women Empowerment Agency (UN Women) stated that Nicaragua is in first place worldwide with respect to women’s participation in public offices. The report noted that Nicaragua, France and Bulgaria share first place worldwide with 52.9% of female holding positions in government institutions. “These three countries have a strong political commitment at the highest level to promote the implementation of gender based policies,” the report said. (Nicaragua News, Mar. 16)
- The Nicaragua Central Bank (BCN) reported that remittances to the country surpassed US$1.2 billion last year, 5.9% above the amount recorded in 2015. The main sources of these remittances were the United States with US$690 million; Costa Rica US$270 million; Spain US$113 million; and Panama US$77.6 million. (Nicaragua News, Mar. 16)
- The President of FICOHSA Bank-Nicaragua, Marcos López, announced the approval of US$10 million to support development of small and medium size businesses in the country. “The purpose of this fund is to strengthen capabilities and ensure access to resources to increase production and promote exports in the small and medium business sector,” he said. (Nicaragua News, Mar. 14)