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Santiago’s screaming streets

Gregory Isaacs Bellavista Mural

By Mike Hawthorne

Chile’s comic ists have a history of satire and dissent going back at least forty years to the Latin American Dirty Wars of the late 1960s and 1970s. Today, amid the deep economic divide and social polarisation that is the legacy of decades of the “Chicago Boys” economic policies, Chile’s comics and muralists have turned the very streets of Santiago into a gallery of dissent.

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Half the people in the immensely long and varied country of Chile live in the sprawling capital city Santiago, in a hollow under the Andes, under a cloud of smog. Towering office blocks, mainly housing banks, mushroom along the avenues of the affluent Las Condes district, heading towards the massive curtain of mountains in the east. The car culture has a suburban US flavour, revolving around traffic jams, parking spaces, petrol stations and shopping malls. The old bungalows and sprinkled lawns are being demolished in favour of tall towers that block out the sunlight.

The Las Condes residents are aware that they live in an ificial bubble of privilege, behind electric gates, looked after by domestic servants. The grass verges are unnaturally green, graffiti is quickly painted out, and all the shops and cinemas are a short drive away in the land-cruiser. There is little need to descend into the streets of the bustling centre, let alone the mean barrios populares, some of which are no-go areas for the carabiñeros police force. Television reports showing violent demonstrations in the centre flicker across the plasma screens of Las Condes like news from another planet.

Bakunin BRP

Bakunin BRP

I visited Santiago during the hot month of February 2012. The streets of Las Condes were half empty, the schools on holiday and many families at the beach. Accompanied by the comic-book illustrator Juan Vasquez, I went to see the Roberto Matta (1911-2002) exhibition in the cultural centre under the Moneda Presidential Palace – the very spot bombed by the air force in
1973.

Vasquez had been a graphic design student under the dictatorship. An army officer ran the college and his main preoccupation was to make the students sing the national anthem every day. In 1986, Vasquez began to publish underground comics. Frowned upon by the military authorities, magazines like Trauko and Acido were surreptitiously passed from hand to hand among Santiago’s youth. In neighbouring Argentina, soldiers had actually murdered world-famous comics illustrator Hector Oesterheld (1919-1977) while in Chile, the Catholic church succeeded in getting Trauko banned. Nowadays, old issues are regarded as relics from the days of struggle against Pinochet. Vasquez has published collections of his illustrations from the period, heavily influenced by France’s Jean Giraud, aka Moebius (1938-2012). Vazquez’s El Canto Del Delirio ironically juxtaposes the verses of Chile’s national anthem with images of brutality and cynical quotes from characters like Richard Nixon and the fascist priest Raúl Hasbún. The army officer in charge of Vasquez’s design course – the one who forced the students to sing the national anthem – provoked a reaction he had not intended.

Young muralist on the Alameda

Young muralist on the Alameda

The Matta show filled three cavernous spaces with cosmic visions on a grand scale. It was like seeing Moebius’ vertiginous science-fiction cities blown up into blurry extravaganzas, the size of tennis courts. Some of the 1960s, anti-US-military canvases captured the spirit of Paris ’68. In 1970, when Allende’s left-wing coalition was triumphant, Matta visited Santiago from France. He assembled a group of fellow-communists to paint an optimistic mural, structured like a comic strip, on a wall in the poor district of La Granja. Matta and the muralists of the Brigada Ramona Parra produced a colourful sequence that was obliterated under several layers of paint in 1973.

Bellavista Gate Painting

Bellavista Gate Painting

Now, it is being painstakingly restored. In Chile, they are still reclaiming both the space and time that was lost during the “black pages” of their recent history.

Across the main road from the Moneda Palace, Vasquez and I walked towards the façade of the University of Chile. The walls were covered in graffiti and murals left over from last winter’s student demonstrations. The front of the building was a compendium of bold, defiant images, in a variety of styles. Some portraits of individual students showed self-deprecating humour. Slogans and pictures were scattered along the sidewalks for miles, in all directions.

In 2006, Vazquez published comics supporting the children’s protests against low educational standards under the Bachelet government, known as “The Revolution of the Penguins”, because of their school uniforms. He pointed out the series of big comic-strip pages, criticising police brutality, pasted to the University walls.

“These were produced by a group of illustrators I work with,” he said, “We are called A Mano Alzada [Freehand]. We hope to do a lot more next year.”

If, as seems probable, Pinera’s centre-right coalition continues to insist on private education run for profit, as opposed to a decent, free, state system, the stones, water cannons and tear gas canisters are set to fill the air again with the coming autumn. Further layers of paint, paper and aerosol will be added to the open-air expressionist exhibition in the streets. The contrast with the clean walls and glass office towers of Las Condes could not be greater.

Anarchist mural, Alameda, Santiago

Anarchist mural, Alameda, Santiago

A short walk from the centre, the bohemian quer of Bellavista lies across the glorified storm drain that is the river Mapocho. Here, the low-rise shops, clubs and bars are also decorated with garish murals. Experimental and imaginative styles proclaim the district’s rebellious character. They provide a funky backdrop to a good night out, covering entire blocks. With a dynamic, action-packed wall behind you, taking you through different themes and moods, you inhabit your own comic strip as you walk along.

Students' mural, Alameda, Santiago

Students’ mural, Alameda, Santiago

Bellavista is a designated playground for youngsters and students to let their hair down, a safety valve, surrounded by loud music and loud imagery. From this immersive environment, it is only a hop across the bridge into the wide avenues where the demonstrations take place.

The concrete banks of the Mapocho used to feature massive political murals, like Picasso’s Guernica with a Native American flavour, during Allende’s government. Under Pinochet, dead bodies floated past the blank, paintedover surfaces. Now, a hotchpotch of slogans has reappeared. In the stony riverbed itself, another ist was exhibiting his provocative photomontages.

Wall posters, Alameda, Santiago

Wall posters, Alameda, Santiago

Marcelo Gamonal had first taken to the streets in 2006. On Good Friday of that year, he chose the Pio Nono bridge to display a series of posed photos showing a notorious, gay, drug-dealing poet descending from a cross to cavort with a dog and a bare-breasted model wearing a nun’s wimple. Ultra-catholic vigilantes beat up Gamonal and threw the pictures into the river. The gay drug-dealer vanished. His dead body was found, forgotten in a morgue, two years later. This did not prevent Gamonal from hanging large banners, showing screaming, bloodstained women, from the University rooftops during the 2011 demonstrations, above the comics of Vasquez’s group. He began to see the public urban spaces as an open gallery for his pictures and performances. In the spirit of the saying, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” his assaults on Catholic dogma added another nuance to the chorus of protest.

I introduced Gamonal to Vasquez one afternoon near the Plaza de la Republica. Vasquez had good news. The French-based director Alejandro Jodorowsky had hired him to produce a graphic version of his seminal 1970 film El Topo. Meanwhile, Gamonal no longer extended open invitations to his shows. They were ‘by invitation only’, to avoid further trouble from right-wing thugs. At night, he prowled the centre sticking up his works on any available surface. He wore a Monty Python T-shirt I’d sent from London. With the release of the film The Iron Lady, he added my 1989image of Thatcher and Pinochet to the street scene. This was a visual party anybody could join.

Gamonal Infecto, February 2011, Mapocho

Gamonal Infecto, February 2011, Mapocho

Now that the southern nights are closing in again, I am sure we can expect greater bursts of creativity on the walls of downtown Santiago. It is, of course, only the illusion of a revolution. The rich streets will remain untouched, but the message is up there, in the city centre, for all to see. It is more than hip-hop-style ‘tagging’. It goes far beyond vandalism and the marking of urban territory. The scope is broader, and the roots deeper, than the repetitive conformity of aerosol gangland graffiti. These theatrical backdrops to the ritual drama of confrontations with the riot police are the visible fault-line of a fractured society. You can’t appreciate them on television, or even in a magazine. You have to run your hands over the blistered surfaces, with the noise of the streets in your ears, and realise that you are a p of it all.

Vasquez El Canto Del Delirio

Vasquez
El Canto Del Delirio

This is a huge gallery with no entry fees, no catalogues, no price tags and no free glasses of wine. It is pure communication of thoughts and feelings; the essence of . I don’t think I would miss Santiago’s ubiquitous advertising hoardings if they all vanished overnight, but the environment would become distinctly less human if the soldiers returned with their buckets of white
paint to make the murals disappear again.

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