Recovering the Sandinista Murals

— Dianne Feeley

The Murals of Revolutionary Nicaragua 1979-1992
by David Kunzle, with a forward by Miguel D'Escoto
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995,
64 color photographs, over 200 black-and-white photos/graphics.
203 pages, $65 cloth; $29.95 paper.

THE NICARAGUAN REVOLUTION of 1979 was a cultural flowering as well as a political, social and economic sea change. Consequently The Murals of Revolutionary Nicaragua is a readers' delight -- not only are there exquisite reproductions of the major murals painted between 1979-92, but they are placed in context. Whether painted by professional artists or not, whether the product of people working collectively or -- less frequently -- done by a sole individual, the murals reflect the social and political movement.

David Kunzle's long introduction recounts the problem the Sandinista revolution increasingly faced in the 1980s: Washington -- with its money fueling the contra war -- forced the revolution ultimately to defend itself by pouring everything into the war effort. Yet as late as 1988, Nicaragua spent $57 per person on health care. (Under the Chamorro government the figure has fallen to $17.)

Dominant Themes

Shortly after the July insurrection that brought down the Somoza regime, the Sandinistas organized a literacy campaign. That campaign provided one of the popular themes of the muralists. The campaign reduced illiteracy from 52% to 12%. It therefore dramatically symbolized the capacity of the country to take control of its destiny, to mobilize its citizenry, to overcome the legacy of the past. It also demonstrated the capacity of women, who were the majority of the teachers. They were active participants in this social change, not simply a backdrop in someone else's drama. And although there are many murals throughout the country that celebrate people's new literacy, the earliest, and most famous, were two murals entitled "Homage to Woman." Painted in 1980 by Alejandro Canales (with four collaborators) in Luis Alfonso Velasquez Park, they have a dream-like quality, as women converse, read, rest, watch children play.

The dawn of the new society reveals itself in the murals as a very child-centered world. Some of the murals are for children, such as the animal fantasies U.S. muralist Mike Alewitz painted at the Managua Children's Hospital in 1989.  In fact, children's presence in so many of the murals forces one to concur with Kunzle's comment, "The insistence, again and again, on children, in school or (more often) at play, illustrates the axiom, proclaimed by the public art of Allende's Chile, that in an egalitarian society children are the only privileged sector." (28)

Another central theme of the Nicaraguan murals was the insurrection itself. Yet these murals, Kunzle notes, veer away from portraying the people as martyrs enduring the National Guard's torture and killing, as one might expect a culture steeped in Catholicism to accentuate. Instead of suffering and martyrdom, the murals overwhelmingly focus on resistance in the face of incredible odds. Often the insurrection is a crowd of people pitting themselves against the unseen, but vastly superior, enemy. Even the mural portraying Luis Alfonso Valasquez, a child courier for the FSLN and martyr, has him fearlessly confronting a three-headed armed beast (Somoza's thugs) while musicians -- representing culture and life in the face of destruction -- are at his side.

Of course, there are many murals depicting Sandinista heroes, both of the 1979 revolution and predecessors like Augusto Sandino and Rigoberto Lopez Perez. This means dead heroes. The one exception is that when the founders of the FSLN are portrayed, Tomas Borge, the only survivor, is included. But probably the two most widely drawn heroes are Augusto Sandino and Carlos Fonseca. In contrast to the overwhelmingly dominant male heroes are two 1992 murals by Grupo Artistico Contraste, "The Visitation or Under the Volcano." Each sets a biblical scene in the foreground and then introduces portraits of women whose work has contributed to the new Nicaragua.

Interestingly, none of the murals envision a highly industrialized society. Rather, Nicaragua would seem to be a more productive and scientific agricultural society, with harvesting and reforestation a part of life's processes. It is a better, healthier society not a consumer society.

The Nicaraguan murals of 1979-1992 were executed in a number of styles and through various collaborative processes. Although solidarity activists may be more familiar with Nicaraguan primitive painting, it is only one of the many styles the muralists employed. Some murals were painted to commemorate a particular event and half were initiated by international guests--from Latin America, from the United States, from Europe. Of the international muralists, the largest single group were from the United States. As Kunzle remarks, "The Nicaraguan mural movement is part of a global renaissance of art on public walls." (55)

Within two months of the insurrection, the Panamanian Felicia Santizo Brigade, which had been inspired by Chilean muralists, traveled to Nicaragua. They brought their art materials and a proposal. Failing to find the head of the Artists' Union, they arranged to spend the night at a popular militia headquarters. There they explained their project to the head of the post, he accepted, and they begin painting that same evening.

The Felicia Santizo Brigade found that with the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama their revolutionary murals were systematically destroyed. Similarly Arnoldo Aleman, elected mayor of Managua in the 1990 (and now president elect of Nicaragua) used his power to destroy some of the most beloved murals. He was cowardly, however, attempting to blame workmen for failing to understand his precise order.

The Felicia Santizo Brigade's mural at the Sandino Airport was the first to be destroyed. Next was "The Supreme Dream of Bolivar," which anyone who walked in Managua between 1980 and 1990 saw. It was painted on the wall along the Avenida Bolivar by the Chilean artist Victor Canifru, with the help of Alejandra Acuna Moya and children passing by, for the 200th anniversary of Bolivar's birth.

The following day "Homage to Woman" and "The Meeting," large murals in Luis Velasquez Park, were whitewashed. Kunzle recounts the attempts to stop their destruction and to hold Aleman accountable. He makes the point that the world media wasn't interested in the story. After all, who really cared if the mayor was violating Nicaragua's Constitution?

Obliterating the artifacts of the revolution is an important task for those who want to rewrite history. David Kunzle's book, The Murals of Revolutionary Nicaragua 1979-1992, is thus more than a catalog -- it's a weapon in the struggle to keep the promise of revolution alive.

ATC 67, March-April 1997

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