The Billboard Art of Revolutionary Grenada

The dreams of the Grenada Revolution were crushed in October 1983 by a quick succession of dramatic coups, starting with a power struggle between competing factions of the People’s Revolutionary Government. Maurice Bishop, the popular leader of the 1979 socialist revolution and subsequent Prime Minister, was first placed under house arrest, after a takeover by his deputy, Bernard Coard. But Coard only ruled for three days, before he himself was deposed by the army led by General Hudson Austin, who executed Bishop and other leading politicians. A week after Bishop’s murder, the United States unleashed Operation Urgent Fury to remove Austin’s military junta. The decision by US President Reagan to invade Grenada was unpopular with many of his allies at the time and remains controversial.

Espionart has previously told how a comic book produced by the CIA was airdropped over the Caribbean island during the invasion, portraying the US army as liberators. Others continue to claim that Operation Urgent Fury was instead a calculated move to strengthen US influence in the region after several neighbouring countries had fallen into the Soviet sphere. In just three days, an American victory heralded the establishment of a conservative government with a strong alliance to the US, marking the end of Grenada’s revolutionary years.

The new government began to wipe out the memory and artistic traces of the ‘Revo’, as the 1979 revolution to end the authoritarian rule of Eric Gairy was known locally. In the summer before the overthrow of Bishop’s government, American university professor Betty LaDuke visited Grenada to assess the impact of the revolution. Her enthusiastic paper, Women, Art, and Culture in the New Grenada (available through JSTOR), paints a picture of an island full of hope, promise and creativity. LaDuke describes “strikingly beautiful” wall graffiti, murals and posters dotted around both town and countryside: “Throughout the country the manifestation of Grenadian solidarity with Prime Minister Maurice Bishop’s government is visible in the spontaneous paintings on brick and rock walls and sides of houses.”

 Also evident were brightly-coloured billboards, the results of a state-funded artistic project. In a speech of late 1980, Bishop had declared that “Education is a Must!” At the same time, the Center for Popular Education (CPE) was launched, sending over a thousand volunteer tutors to mainland Grenada and the Grenadine Islands to teach the largely-illiterate adult population to read. To support this literacy movement, the government sponsored artist Gordon Hamilton to lead a team of designers and painters in producing billboards, encouraging the population to pursue the collective goal of self-betterment.

Many billboards bore popular revolutionary slogans such as “Forward ever, backward never!”, as well as motivational statements expressing the new government’s egalitarian spirit: “Never Too Old to Learn”, “Education is Production Too”, “Every Worker a Learner”, “Women, Committed to Economic Construction”, and more. The CPE billboards were constructed from galvanised sheeting and decorated with oil-based house paint, with up to thirty a year placed in strategic positions among rural communities.

Grenada’s CPE billboards mirrored the contemporaneous revolutionary murals of neighbouring Nicaragua – which would likewise be later destroyed in a wave of political iconoclasm – as well as the murals and posters produced in support of radical political movements, from the Soviet Union and Cuba to Ethiopia and the United States.

 Despite this, Hamilton did not consider the billboards to be artworks, and they were neither signed nor photographed to document for posterity. Today, only a handful of amateur photographs exist to record this vibrant moment of public art in Grenada, before the billboards were painted over or reclaimed as housing materials. However, as part of the 2011 exhibition Grenada 1979–1983, Revolution: An Art Perspective, held in the Grenadian capital of St George’s, Hamilton recreated in watercolour one of his revolutionary billboards, this time proudly displayed as a work of art.

The 2011 exhibition was unpopular with many Grenadians, who were keen to avoid stirring up bad memories. As local artist and the exhibition’s curator, Suelin Low Chew Tung, recalls in her essay Painting the Grenada Revolution (also available through JSTOR), “images of the revolution years were deliberately erased from the landscape … Three decades later, as far as local visual art records are concerned, it is as if the Grenada Revolution never happened.”

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North Korean Murals, from Namibia to Syria

Espionart previously explored a string of patriotic sculptures built in Africa by Mansudae Overseas Projects, the international division of the North Korean state-run Mansudae Art Studio. This propaganda-for-hire is part of an alliance between North Korea and several African nations that dates from the 1960s, when the secretive Asian regime provided material assistance in their struggles for independence against European colonial powers. Mansudae’s projects have proved controversial, as shown by the riots that accompanied the inauguration in 2010 of the African Renaissance Monument, in Dakar, Senegal. Locals were infuriated by the extravagance of the statue – the tallest in Africa – as well as the sensual design and the Senegalese government’s gift to North Korea of a large portion of state land.

Heroes’ Acre sculpture, Windhoek, Namibia

Another controversial sculpture was erected in 2002 in the Namibian capital of Windhoek, as part of a commission for Mansudae Overseas Projects to construct the 732-acre Heroes’ Acre war memorial. The design of the monument and the outsourcing of a multi-million dollar project to North Korea once again enraged locals. Despite that, Mansudae has received further commissions from the Namibian government – including one of the latest of a number of international war memorials and museums built by North Korean artists.

The Namibian War of Independence – also known as the South African Border War – broke out in August 1966. With support from the Soviet Union, China and several sympathetic African nations, the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia fought for independence from South Africa until the end of the Cold War. Namibia (formerly known as South West Africa) finally became a republic in 1990, and on its 24th anniversary, in 2014, the Independence Memorial Museum was opened in Windhoek.

Section of panoramic mural, Independence Memorial Museum, Windhoek, Namibia

At the centre of Namibia’s Independence Memorial Museum is a life-size panoramic mural, a visual strategy that tends to dominate Mansudae’s memorial designs. Rather than showing any evidence of a local artistic tradition, the mural is painted as an updated form of Socialist Realism, the artistic style developed in the USSR in the 1930s and that flourished in communist countries throughout the twentieth century. Despite the museum’s focus on independence, the ongoing appeal of Socialist Realism as a form of political propaganda is shown by the Namibian government’s decision to send state money to artists in another country, to produce work in a generic, Westernised style, rather than to give much-needed opportunities to local artists.

Similar designs have been seen more recently in the Angkor Panorama Museum, opened in Siem Reap, Cambodia in 2016. Entirely produced by Mansudae Overseas Projects, down to its staffing by North Korean nationals, the museum again contains at its centre a 360-degree mural, which purportedly took 63 artists in Pyongyang almost 2 years to complete. Thus, despite their unsubtle and anachronistic style, North Korea’s memorial murals and museum developments continue to prove lucrative – while demonstrating how Socialist Realist art remains alive and well, and much-loved as a form of propaganda for authoritarian regimes.

Section of panoramic mural, October War Panorama, Damascus, Syria

Mansudae’s museum projects date to the late 1980s, when North Korean architects were sent to Cairo to develop the 6th of October War Panorama, commemorating the Egyptian and Syrian alliance against Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. North Korea had also contributed militarily to the conflict, sending pilots and fighters jets to engage the Israeli Air Force.

Painting of Hafez al-Assad and Kim Il Sung, October War Panorama, Damascus, Syria

The Assad regime subsequently commissioned Mansudae Overseas Projects in the late 1990s, to build a second museum presenting an alternative version of the conflict to the usual narrative of an Israeli victory.  The October War Panorama in Damascus features a number of grandiose Socialist Realist paintings depicting the history of Syria, soldiers engaged in battle, and the Syrian President, Hafez al-Assad, glorified in the classic style of a dictator, flanked by jubilant citizens. The Syrian museum also displays a large painting of Hafez al-Assad alongside North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung – further evidence of the close relationship between the two regimes.

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Nicaragua’s Revolutionary Murals

The present day turmoil in Central America, that leads so many to risk death or incarceration while attempting to cross the US border, has its origins in the Cold War. The civil wars and revolutions that reached their peak during the 1970s are collectively known as the Central American Crisis. This unrest in turn had its origins in the so-called Banana Wars of the early twentieth century, when the United States sent armed forces to occupy countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, in order to maintain control over plantations and to dominate regional trade.

Espionart earlier looked at Glorious Victory, a mural by Mexican artist Diego Rivera that expressed his outrage at a CIA-led coup in Guatemala that deposed the democratically-elected president, in support of the interests of the nefarious American United Fruit Company. The great Mexican mural movement, of which Rivera was leader, later inspired Nicaraguan artists to work together on creating numerous public paintings that responded to the long years of conflict in that country.

The Nicaraguan Revolution began as a series of uprisings against the ruthless dictatorship of the US-backed Somoza family, which ruled for over 42 years until it was swept from power on 17 July 1979 by the Sandinista rebels. In turn, the socialist Sandinistas were challenged by the Contras, right-wing militias trained and funded by the United States. Over the next two decades, both sides systematically terrorised and murdered civilians, with indigenous communities in particular decimated as they were – and continue to be – scapegoated as outsiders in their own countries.

Mural by the Felicia Santizo Brigade of Panama, 1980. Photo: David Schwartz.

After the Sandinista victory in 1979, murals began to spring up across Nicaragua. The first pro-Sandinista murals were in fact painted in Panama, a southern neighbour that provided both support and refuge to the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) during its years of insurrection. Brothers Virgilio and Ignacio Ortega formed the Felicia Santizo Brigade of Panama in the 1970s, painting starkly confrontational social realist murals near army bases and police stations. Soon after the coup, members of the brigade relocated to Nicaragua at the invitation of the FSLN, as the new government recognised the potential for consolidating its power through painting.

As the movement gained pace, international mural artists travelled to Nicaragua, resulting in the creation of over 300 murals during the decade that followed the Sandinista takeover. While the Felicia Santizo Brigade of Panama tended to depict Sandinista revolutionaries, the mural movement grew to include romantic or domestic scenes of an idealised post-revolutionary future, celebrating Nicaragua’s cultural heritage and supporting the FSLN drive towards mass literacy, universal health care, and gender equality.

Alejandro Canales, ‘Homage to Women’, 1980, Managua. Photo: David Schwartz.

While in power, the Sandinistas passed laws to protect the murals. But after they were voted out of office in 1990, the new pro-US right-wing government oversaw the destruction of many of the paintings, despite the efforts of local communities to preserve and restore them. Others took it upon themselves to document the murals, providing a lasting record for these lost artworks. During the 1980s, Albright College professor, David Schwartz, took full-colour images of many of the murals, some of which have been made available online. At the height of the destruction, UCLA art history professor David Kunzle also travelled to Nicaragua and succeeded in recording about 80 percentage of the original works. His book, The Murals of Revolutionary Nicaragua, 1979–1992, was published in 1995 and is partly available to view at Google Books.

But the Sandinista murals would prove to be as resilient as the political movement they celebrated. In the 2006 Nicaraguan general election, the FSLN and its leader, Daniel Ortega, once again claimed the presidency, heralding the start of a new mural movement across the country.

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The Secret Art of Pinochet’s Chile

Having been forced to call free presidential elections on 14 December 1989, Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet was finally removed from power, bringing to an end 16 years of military rule. Pinochet had taken the presidency in 1973 following a US-backed coup d’état, which deposed the elected socialist government of Salvador Allende and established a junta in its place.

The restoration of democracy in Chile also enabled the artistic collective Brigada Ramona Parra (BRP) to come out of hiding. The group had been founded by young communist artists in 1968 and for five years had covered Santiago’s streets with colourful murals campaigning for radical social change.

Following the 1973 coup BRP activists were arrested and their murals were painted over by the military government. Although not defeated, the artists were driven underground, continuing to paint secretly in defiance of Pinochet’s regime. The danger of being caught meant large murals were impossible, so the artists instead created a tag: a letter R within a circle with a star next to it. The R stood for resistance, the circle for unity, and the star as a symbol of the BRP.

Since their liberation, the BRP artists have once again brightened the streets of Chile with murals championing contemporary causes including indigenous rights and educational reform.

This wonderful story is told more extensively in Gideon Long’s report on the BBC News website: The Chilean Muralists Who Defied Pinochet.

Image: BRP mural honouring Jecar Nehgme, a left-wing activist shot dead by Pinochet’s forces in 1989 and one of the last victims of the junta.

War and Peace in San Francisco

In a momentous event in world history, from 4 to 11 February 1945 US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin convened in Crimea’s Livadia Palace to decide the future of post-war Germany. As a result of the controversial Yalta Conference, the country was divided into four zones of occupation, with each assigned to the management of one of the four wartime Allies: the USA, the USSR, Great Britain and France. Within months conflict between the occupying forces of the divided Germany would ignite the Cold War.

Watching the escalation of tensions with concern, Russian-born American artist Anton Refregier decided to include a permanent reminder of the wartime alliance as the triumphant centrepiece of his 27-part mural in the Rincon Annex Post Office in San Francisco.

The mural had been commissioned by the Section of Fine Arts of the Treasury Department as one of the last projects of the New Deal art programmes. By the time Refregier’s mural was unveiled to the public in 1949, Cold War hostilities between the United States and the Soviet Union made the contents of the work highly contentious. The prominent position Refregier afforded to the Soviet symbols of the hammer and sickle led to accusations of communist subversion and the mural became the subject of a prolonged debate, with many groups calling for its removal. In the end the defense of freedom of expression proved victorious, and Refregier’s depiction of the history of California remains open to public view in which is now the Rincon Center office and apartment complex.

Image: Anton Refregier, War and Peace, 1948. Mural, Rincon Annex Post Office, San Francisco. The Jon B. Lovelace Collection of California Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

What & Where: Gerhard Richter’s Hidden Mural

What: Gerhard Richter, The Joy of Life, 1956
Where: Deutsches Hygiene Museum, Dresden, Germany (not on display)

Richter mural of the German Hygiene Museum, Dresden, 1956An early mural by one of the world’s most famous artists takes pride of place in the foyer of a major German museum – but you can’t see it. In 1956 the 24-year-old Gerhard Richter created The Joy of Life whilst an art student at the Dresden Academy of Arts. As an example of the official Soviet artistic style of socialist realism, in which Richter was forced to work, the ten-metre-long mural is an inevitable paean to the wonders of socialism, depicting exuberant workers dancing against a backdrop of factories and tractors. After his defection to the west, and his subsequent criticism of the art produced in his native East Germany, the mural was painted over by the authorities in 1979.

Since the Berlin Wall came down, there have been repeated calls for the mural to once again see the light of day. However, Richter has dismissed the work as ‘a waste of money’ and ‘not worth preserving’. No doubt the artist is troubled by the prospect of adding to his public oeuvre a work in which he takes no pride, produced under a system in which he had no faith. Until such time as the mural may be revealed, one can only speculative on its relative flaws and merits from this meagre black and white photograph.

You can read more about The Joy of Life in an article published in The Art Newspaper: Cold War cover-up to continue.

Iran’s Cold War Murals

On 4 November 1979 Iranian students stormed the Embassy of the United States in Tehran, beginning the Iran Hostage Crisis. The event, which was recently dramatised to Oscar-winning effect in Argo, triggered a rupture in Iran-US relations that continues to dominate global politics.

Iran mural

After the end of the crisis on 20 January 1981 the now-abandoned embassy was found to be covered in anti-American murals. In the decades following the Islamic Revolution mural art has been a notable feature of the Iranian urban environment, mirroring the popularity of politicised muralism in post-revolutionary Mexico and Depression-era America. Beginning as a spontaneous expression of revolutionary zeal, the production of murals was increasingly institutionalised in the 1980s, commissioned by the new Iranian government as basic but effective propaganda. Public murals in Iran’s major cities often associated the country’s enemies, in particular the United States, with the iconography of death, while glorifying Iranians who had died fighting for the revolutionary cause.

Iran mural interior

With the rise of television and the internet as more immediate propaganda tools, Iranian state-sponsored murals began to dwindle. But the formation in 2001 of a new governmental department in Tehran specially tasked with managing mural paintings and graphics shows that there is still a place for the mural in Iranian public life.

You can find out more in this fascinating essay by Bahamin Azadi: Painted Politics: The Mural in Modern Iran. And see more examples of Iranian murals in this Huffington Post gallery.

Images: Murals painted on the exterior and interior walls of the former US embassy in Tehran, Iran.