Two years ago I spent my birthday in Nicaragua. I was traveling with a delegation organized by Peaceworks, meeting with local groups and learning about the country and its struggles. As the eight of us bounded along the dusty roads in the back of a white pickup truck, one could periodically spot these odd abstract murals along walls and fences. They were vertical, horizontal, and diagonal stripes in pastel colors. It turns out the stripes had been painted over Sandinista slogans and murals under orders from right-wing President Arnoldo Aléman. See Nicaraguan Murals 1930-2000 on the Stanford site for a hint of what was lost.
The painted stripes reminded me of Sol LeWitt and Sean Scully. A fizzy gallery world rhetoric of geometry instead of engagement with the world at large. And that’s just the way the CIA likes it. From the Monthly Review:
“[The] CIA and its allies in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) poured vast sums of money into promoting Abstract Expressionist painting and painters... What the CIA saw in Abstract Expressionism was an ‘anti-Communist ideology, the ideology of freedom, of free enterprise. Non-figurative and politically silent it was the very antithesis of socialist realism’. They viewed Abstract Expressionism as the true expression of the national will. To bypass right-wing criticism, the CIA turned to the private sector (namely MOMA and its co-founder, Nelson Rockefeller, who referred to Abstract Expressionism as ‘free enterprise painting.’)”
Needless to say, the CIA also poured of money, weapons, and comics into toppling the Sandinistas.
We rode through the streets paved with hexagonal ‘Somoza bricks’ crumbling from the wear and tear. The Somoza government had laid the bricks, having purchased them from factories he also owned.
These stark blue billboards were everywhere. “Obras No Palabras” painted in the same yellow italic sans serif and listing some local government financed project. “Works not Words,” a kind of anti-propaganda propaganda promoting the good will of the State and attempting to short-circuit debate.
And indeed, Aléman’s works have spoken loudly. This past September, Nicaragua’s Attorney General charged Aléman and 13 members of his family and former administration “with money laundering, fraud and other crimes.”
I bet he never saw that coming from his own former vice-president.
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