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Praising Che

Nearly 35 years ago, Ernesto "Che" Guevara -- radical Marxist revolutionary, trained medical doctor and severe asthmatic -- was captured and killed in Bolivia by Bolivian military forces. Guevara had gone there to spread the political revolution he had successfully fomented in Cuba during the 1950s side by side with...
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Nearly 35 years ago, Ernesto "Che" Guevara -- radical Marxist revolutionary, trained medical doctor and severe asthmatic -- was captured and killed in Bolivia by Bolivian military forces. Guevara had gone there to spread the political revolution he had successfully fomented in Cuba during the 1950s side by side with Fidel Castro, a young, then-idealistic lawyer turned political firebrand.

In the intervening years, Guevara (fondly referred to by both friend and foe alike as simply "Che") has attained genuine sainthood, not only among his political compañeros, but also with the Cuban man on the street, for whom institutionalized religion was banned long ago by the Castro regime. "Che is like a saint in Afro-Cuban religion," says Cuban artist José Ángel Toirac, who uses this cultural phenomenon as a springboard for creating a body of work titled "Mediaciones," now on display at Lisa Sette Gallery.

"We don't say it publicly, but during the night, people practice [Afro-Cuban religion]. You can even see photos of Che on home altars, like other saints," he adds in his careful, richly accented English. "You ask for help [from him] in solving some problem, generally a problem with health, because Che was a medical doctor."

Toirac, a native Cuban who lives and works in Havana, must have said a few prayers himself to San Che for a little miraculous intervention recently. The artist, who personally carried all the art now appearing at the Scottsdale gallery, was kept dangling as to whether he would even be permitted to enter the United States for this show. The Cuban government was awaiting an official announcement from the American government about foreign entry into the U.S., a concern engendered by the September 11 terrorist attacks. At the last moment, Toirac, his wife Meira and his art were allowed to fly to Arizona for the exhibition.

On one level, Toirac's irony-laden installation, composed of eight separate elements placed so as to be viewed in a circle around the gallery, dissects the issue of mythologizing and ex post facto sanctification of historical figures. On a much broader level, it deals with the tragic and continuous repetition of human folly born of man's built-in hubris and, in some cases, patent predestination to a violent death.

"Mediaciones," which means "mediations" or "interventions," visually reads like a secular version of the Stations of the Cross, with the artist substituting well-known media images of Che Guevara for familiar renderings of Jesus Christ, the archetypal revolutionary ideologue. Subtle New Testament references to Christ, his passion, death and resurrection thread through the pieces in the exhibition. But, as the artist points out, this very predictable cycle of life, death and rebirth is not exclusively a Christian concept, but is as old as civilization itself, reaching back to ancient Greek times.

"I'm talking about Che Guevara in this work," explains Toirac, who was born in Guantanamo in 1966 and received a university education in Havana. "But at the same time, I'm talking about our culture, our humanity, because the first question that arose in civilization was about the relation between life and death and the meaning of the tragic condition." Classic Greek tragedy always seemed to include a prophetic utterance, the unswerving fulfillment of that prophecy and a larger-than-life hero who in some way falls victim to his own human weaknesses, according to the artist, who has simultaneously structured his imagery to follow this classic pattern. "Not always the end of the tragedy is death," Toirac continues, "but always a prophecy will come true."

In "Mediaciones," the viewer first encounters an oil painting in black and white, taken from a famous photograph of Fidel Castro publicly reading a farewell letter from Che written to the Cuban leader before Guevara's departure to Bolivia. Pinned beneath the image are copies of the letter, in which it becomes clear that Che essentially knows he will die during guerrilla warfare in Bolivia. "The exhibition starts at this point, because it is the moment at which the tragic prophecy is made public," the artist notes.

The installation continues with a wall of 13 simple quotes from other goodbye letters to Che's parents and children, which appear to be blow-ups of text typewritten on an old manual machine. However, the artist has meticulously hand-lettered the quotes in red wine, an obvious Biblical reference to the Last Supper during which Christ is said to have transformed wine into his own blood and predicted his own demise in the presence of his 13 apostles, including his ultimate betrayer, Judas.

These excerpts, which the artist compares to prophecies found in Greek drama and the Bible, are left abruptly behind for two black-and-white oil portraits of Guevara, again purloined from famous media shots, which signify fulfillment of Che's personal prophecies of death. The first is of the badly battered guerrilla leader after he was finally captured in the Bolivian jungle. The second is a close-up of Che's face frozen in death, part of a memorable photograph spread around the world by news wire. The shot had been taken by professional photographer Freddy Alborta while Guevara's body was laid out on a laundry sink in the small town of Vallegrande. In the photo, Che's corpse is surrounded by military personnel, including a high-ranking officer who gingerly pokes at Che's chest as if dispassionately discussing some contagious disease process with a medical school class. The original photo has long been likened by both art critics, including John Berger, and more recently several of Che's biographers, to Rembrandt's very famous painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholae Tulp, as well as to Mantegna's masterpiece of foreshortening, The Dead Christ.

Hanging to the right of these portrait paintings are two additional smudgy oils of photos Che used on a Uruguayan passport, in which he is convincingly disguised as a balding, bespectacled, clean-shaven, middle-aged businessman. Guevara had used the passport to surreptitiously come back to Cuba after he had left for Bolivia ("After you've burned your ship," says Toirac, "how can you return?"). Between the two portrait diptychs appears a large oil painting of the graffiti-marred laundry sink, Che's metaphorical tomb, upon which the dead revolutionary was put on public display. It was the last place he would ever be seen before his body was dumped into a mass grave.

Carrying through with his major allusion, Che's "shroud" is gracefully draped on the gallery's last unfilled wall. Like the Shroud of Turin, once reputed to be the cloth in which Christ was wrapped and buried and upon which his imprint appears, Toirac's version is a sheet on which he projected Che's full-body death photo, then painted the projected form using red wine.

Like stories and parables in the Bible, the media images and letters used by José Toirac in his work are the only tangible records the artist and his generation in Cuba have left to construct a chronicle about their favorite political martyr and folk saint. "My generation didn't live this part of history," explains Toirac. "We know about Che's history because we grew up with this history. Che is very close to us, but he came from history -- and what is history but some text and some pictures?"

In the end, José Ángel Toirac's work compels us to critically analyze the very nature of history itself. Myth mingled with fact interpreted subjectively on all sides, history is far from an objective compilation of cut-and-dried data. Easily manipulated, revised and reformulated with time and circumstances, it invariably filters out all the defects, arrogance and stupidity of figures and events, leaving us finally with flawless holy men and eminently just causes.

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