By John Kotula
One of the many accomplishments of Gioconda Belli, former revolutionary, novelist, poet, memoirist, was to capture in a single phrase – “the country under my skin” – what Nicaragua means to so many people. Nicaragua can really become a part of you and be in you even if you are far away and seldom return. This is one aspect of Mike Alewitz’ story.
Mike made three trips to Nicaragua during the eighties. The triumph of the revolution and the declaration that political revolution and cultural revolution were one and the same, inspired artists internationally. Many came to Nicaragua to contribute their talents to the Sandinista plan to create not only a new nation, but a new culture. Mike was already active in labour organizing and had important graphic skills from his work as a sign painter. On his second two trips he joined other international and Nicaraguan artists in creating murals in various parts of the country. In 1983, as part of Arts for a New Nicaragua he was the creative force behind “The Two Sandinos” in León.
I first got interested in Mike after seeing this mural. Unlike many murals from the eighties, this marvelous painting is still present and vibrant. It has been repainted on several occasions, indicating the value it has in the community. A longer discussion of The Two Sandinos can be found here. He returned in 1989 under the auspices of the official Nicaraguan artists union and did important work in Esteli and Managua. In Managua, he painted a moving tribute to Ben Linder.
He also did a playful, sensuous, gorgeously executed mural for the Children’s Hospital.
Certainly, Mike left in Nicaragua important contributions to a reborn visual culture in support of revolutionary values. What did Nicaragua leave in Mike? “The total integration of his work into the revolutionary process had a profound effect on his thinking. As he worked and traveled with the Arts for a New Nicaragua musicians and muralists…, he began to ask himself if a movement of artists to aid emerging struggles could be established back in the United States.” (Insurgent Images – The Agriprop Murals of Mike Alewitz, by Paul Buhle and Mike Alewitz, 2002)
Now it is almost thirty years later and for all those intervening years Mike has produced art that is an exquisite combination of agitation and propaganda. He has practiced his visual radicalism mainly to give support to the aspirations of oppressed people and the economically marginalized. Much of his work has dealt with the labor movement and the struggle to give workers a voice in Capitalist America. Mike is recently retired from his position as Associate Professor of Art at Central Connecticut State University, where he taught Mural Painting and Street Art. Since his departure the program is defunct.He lives in a large ramshackle house in New London, Connecticut that he has painted bright red with pink trim. Mike has dubbed his home, studio, and museum Red Square.
You got to wonder what his neighbors feel about all of this, but probably they are relieved, since the house was abandoned and deteriorating before he moved in and started fixing it up. After a year of corresponding with Mike Alewitz and following him on social media, I visited him at Red Square onOctober 5th.
Mike refers to himself as, “the most censored artist in America.” There is every reason to believe this is more truth than hyperbole. It is also not particularly surprising. His work is beautiful and engaging, but it pulls no punches in terms of content and visual style. It gets right in your face and tells you what it wants you to hear whether you like it or not. Mike can tell you many stories of his work being painted over, torn down, or refused for exhibition. A prime example occurred in 2014 when The Puffin Foundation, a left leaning private foundation that funds art projects, commissioned a mural called “The City at the Crossroads of History” to be hung in a gallery on social activism they were underwriting at the Museum of the City of of New York. The museum refused to display the finished mural and The Puffin Foundation said it was the museum’s decision to make. It is interesting to read the statements made by the two institutions in the middle of the controversy because they are models of linguistic acrobatics utilized to say nothing.
The Puffin Foundation: “The Puffin Foundation is a proud supporter of artistic freedom. One of the many artworks we have funded is the mural The City at the Crossroads of History by Mike Alewitz… Each year, the Foundation awards hundreds of grants to artists across the country, many of whom have difficulty finding funding due to the content of their work. We’re proud to support them. It is our wish that all these projects see the light of day. We sincerely hope that Mr. Alewitz is able to secure an appropriate exhibition space for his work.” The Museum of the City Of New York: “As a history museum rather than an art museum, the Museum of the City of New York regularly selects to exhibit works based on their ability to illuminate specific histories. In this case, the Museum of the City of New York made the determination that the mural by Mike Alewitz did not meet the curatorial standards or purposes of the museum, and exercised its prerogative and indeed its professional responsibility.” The four panels that make up the mural are in Red Square. Having seen it, I can tell you that the statements above are pure double talk. It is a stunning piece of work, both as art and as history. You can judge for yourself by looking at it in detail here.
Mike’s artwork is pedagogical. He wants you to learn something from it. One of the most striking images I saw in his museum was an agitated black cat emblazoned with the message, “First disobey, then write on the walls.”
This painting has been on my computer desk top for three months now. I’m still thinking about it and learning from it. As an American, now more than ever, there is an obligation for civil disobedience. As an artist, this quote from Diego River makes sense to me, “Today, mural painting must help in man’s struggle to become a human being, and for that purpose it must live wherever it can… no place is bad for it, so long as it is there permitted to fulfill its primary function of nutrition and enlightenment.” Mike’s image educates me; pushes me toward political action through art.
Of course, it is impossible to know where the road not taken leads. The exact contribution of Mike’s time in Nicaragua to his subsequent passion for producing political art is hard to judge, but here is a quote from Gioconda Belli “There is nothing quixotic or romantic in wanting to change the world. It is possible. It is the age-old vocation of all humanity. I can’t think of a better life than one dedicated to passion, to dreams, to the stubbornness that defies chaos and disillusionment.” Every young man should be presented with this lesson and Nicaragua is a good place for it to happen.
- The Organization of American States (OAS) Electoral Mission recommended some changes which the Nicaraguan government has said it will implement, but overall stated that the municipal elections were carried out in a safe, peaceful and orderly manner. The head of the OAS mission, Dr. Wilfredo Penco said, “Significant progress and limitations inherent of any process were identified without affecting in any way the popular will of the people and their right to vote.” The other primary observer mission was organized by the National Council of Universities (CNU). Its president, Telemaco Talavera, said, “This electoral process ratifies Nicaragua’s commitment to peace, security and democracy,” Talavera said. President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo both pledged to work together with the OAS to implement the recommendations. “This is a sovereign decision that reaffirms our commitment to democracy and the improvement of our electoral system,” Murillo said. The US State Department recognized the results of the elections. (Nicaragua News, Nov. 8, 9, 10; El Nuevo Diario, Nov. 9)
- Hector Lacayo, president of the Nicaragua Housing Chamber (CADUR), announced that mortgage loans totaled US$700 million so far this year. “This represents a new record that confirms the strong growth in the construction sector and purchase of new homes. In recent years, mortgage loans have significantly increased, rising from US$ 250 million to US$700 million yearly,” Lacayo said. (Nicaragua News, Nov. 8)
- Vice President Murillo announced that a US$45 million water and sanitation system will be built in the Southern Caribbean Autonomous Region (RACS). “Funding for the project came from the Nicaragua government, the South Korean Government and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (BCIE). More than 69,400 inhabitants on the Caribbean Coast will benefit from this investment,” Murillo said. (Nicaragua News, Nov. 7)