Che as revolutionary and icon
Review Corinna Lotz;
photos Lizzy Clarke
One of the best-known images in history, the charismatic photograph of Ernesto Che Guevara, taken by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda on March 5, 1960 is at the centre of a new show at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
Guevara co-led the Cuban revolution with Fidel Castro in 1959. Eventually he left to carry on the struggle in the jungles of Bolivia, where he was captured and executed by army forces working to the orders of the United States government.
Che Guevara’s enduring appeal was recently demonstrated by the success of Brazilian director Walter Salles film, The Motorcycle Diaries.
“The image of Che has mysterious ways of moving,” Jonathan Green says of Che Guevara: Revolutionary and Icon, a collection of images showing how Che’s image has enchanted mass consciousness over the last 45 years.
Green is director of the UCR/California Museum of Photography at the University of California, Riverside where the exhibition began its world tour. In London for the opening, he savoured the paradox of a multitude of Ches appearing on the walls of the V&A.
“There is a great irony in the way that the anti-imperialist images of Che are surrounded here by raped objects from world cultures and societies,” he said.
“This is a guerrilla show. Embedded in the pop iconography is the essential meaning of the image, which is about rebellion and anti-establishment struggle,” he said. “So it comes in as a Trojan horse and radiates out in different ways.”
Is Che just being absorbed by capitalist marketing or is it an indication of the corporations using his image in a desperate drive to sell ever more goods to a young market? Green says: “People say that Che is turning over in his grave, now that Nike has used the image. But you can read it both ways. Maybe when someone looks down at the logo on their t-shirt, they will ask ‘who was that guy’?
“Korda’s image has worked its way into languages around the world. It has become an alpha-numeric symbol, a hieroglyph, an instant symbol. It mysteriously reappears whenever there’s a conflict. There isn’t anything else in history that serves in this way.”
Royalty has long appeared on coins and banknotes as a symbol of power, Green explained. But this was the first time in history that there was a different kind of symbol that has achieved such a mass currency – a symbol for opposition to imperialism.
The opening of the show was immersed in controversy as curator Trisha Ziff denounced the V&A’s barring of her friend Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams from the opening party.
“The image takes on populism and political meaning – one can’t function without the other. The furore in the press about my personal guest list is symbolic of that,” Ziff says.
“In the end you cannot take the meaning out of this image.” She describes Korda’s photograph, taken at a mass funeral in Havana, as the classic “guerrillero heroico”- the heroic guerrilla fighter.
“You cannot dissociate it from radical ideas and change. A museum may be frightened of that and not wish to support it, but in the end it can’t control it. This image will continue to have that resonance, despite multiple t-shirts, g-strings, bras and badges. In the end there are people in the world who actually see it as a symbol of change, of idealism, and they’ll wear it for those reasons.
“The history of the image is fascinating in itself as it appears and reappears at watershed moments in Cuban history, beginning with Che’s murder on October 8, 1967 in Bolivia." The image became popular in Europe during the 1960s, thanks largely to the efforts of left-wing Italian publisher, Gian Giacomo Feltrinelli.
As upheavals swept through Prague and Paris and the civil rights movement arose in Ireland, the image began to take on a new resonance, in relation to youth movements and political change. “From Europe it shifted again to Latin America – Nicaragua and El Salvador and resistance to US imperialism in the 1980s,” says Ziff.
“Che begins to take on a different iconography as a saint in Latin America,” Ziff explained. “We have a section in the show which shows how the Protestant church used the image with its bus stop posters, to make the church more hip.
“Angelina Jolie, Diego Maradonna, Mike Tyson and a whole array of football stars have it tattooed on their bodies – four players at Real Madrid alone.
She describes today’s use of the Che image as “postmodernity - the epoch in which the content has been extracted from the image” - where it is removed from its original meaning.
“The to-ing and fro-ing of the image resonates with meaning and ideas. We cannot get away from the context of Che Guevara, whether we like him or hate him, whether we called him a revolutionary or a butcher. The fact that he lived and died for the ideas in which he believed. That penetrates constantly in the image.”
Che Guevara is at the V&A until August 28. Tickets £5/£4.
Che Guevara: Revolutionary and Icon edited by Trisha Ziff, published by V&A Publications accompanies the exhibition £19.99.