Olivia Arigho Stiles: The Bolivian National Revolution of 1952: Art, Ideology and the Rise of the Social Artists

Aquí, en este caos, siembro la colecta de mi existencia’. (Arturo Borda)

‘Here, in this chaos, I sow the collection of my existence.’

According to The Guinness Book of World Records, Bolivia has had more revolutions than any other country. As with much of Latin America, Bolivia’s recent history is speckled with uprisings, coups and the emergence of new and fiercely dynamic social movements. With its piercingly bright, sunny days, bitterly cold nights and dizzying altitudes – La Paz is around 4000 metres above sea level – Bolivia is also a country of rugged natural extremes. Bolivia is today populated by over 9.2 million people, out of which a majority of over 65% claim an indigenous Indian heritage; yet it is also a nation in which the distinction between art’s popular and elite spheres has not traditionally been rigidly delineated. Murals and messages proclaiming support for the country’s first indigenous Socialist President, Evo Morales, are a ubiquitous sight on the walls and buildings in La Paz, and art has long been associated with politically revolutionary tendencies. It is in the period immediately surrounding the 1952 National Revolution that art played its most decisive role as a vehicle for radical political change in Bolivia. Broadly speaking, the relationship between art and capitalism has been extensively examined in recent years, and the idea that art occupies a lofty, transcendental position distinct from the capitalist means of production has been roundly challenged. This article is not intended to form an exhaustive account of art’s role in the Bolivian National Revolution, but simply to provide a brief reflection on a point in Bolivian history when art sought to radically challenge the corporate hegemony in which, globally, it is now largely complicit.

As a country which has lurched from one repressive military dictatorship to another, Bolivia is well accustomed to political upheaval. Even so, the 1952 National Revolution is one of the most politically resonant revolutionary upsurges Bolivia has witnessed in the twentieth century. Although in many ways an incomplete revolution, and one fraught with numerous ideological contradictions, the 1952 revolution is most striking for the way in which it invoked the power of entirely new social forces operating in the Bolivian politico-economic milieu. Spearheaded by the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR), the revolution represented a fierce and near-spontaneous reaction against the military’s annulment of the presidential elections of 1951, in which the MNR candidate had won by a landslide. Armed workers, led by the militant miners union, joined with dissident national police and MNRistas in a three-day insurrection, primarily in urban areas, ousting the military junta from La Paz. Commanding broad public support, the revolutionaries’ victory ensured that under President Victor Paz Estenssoro, the MNR introduced universal adult suffrage, carried out a sweeping land reform, promoted rural education, and nationalised the country’s largest tin mines.

The MNR in 1952 was a populist movement based on the support of the radical middle classes and revolutionary workers, united in a commitment to the destruction of the old politico-economic order. It had emerged alongside the Partido de la Izquierda Revolucionario (PIR) and the older Trotskyist Partido Obrero Revolucionario (POR) as one of the three main parties of the left, opposing the traditional parties known as the Concordancia, or the Democratic Alliance. All three believed in the nationalisation of the tin mines, although the POR and PIR went further than MNR is their espousal of Indian rights. The rise of these revolutionary tendencies was fuelled by Bolivia’s extreme inequality in land ownership: prior to 1952, just 6% of the population owned 92% of the land. As the revolution progressed, peasants in rural areas seized land and organised themselves into sindicatos. Their mobilisation and activism led to the Agrarian Reform Law of 1953, which abolished forced labour and established a programme of land expropriation and distribution of rural property from the traditional landowning class to the Indian campesinos.

Whilst the revolution was carried forward largely on the back of the Trotskyist tin miners and these politicised campesinos, it was also propelled by the sustained efforts of Bolivia’s numerous political artists. Social activism came to be crystallised in artistic endeavour. One of the most famous of these artists in Latin America is Arturo Borda. Although he died just a year after the ’52 Revolution, the self-taught artist’s works were instrumental in fostering an artistic climate of political radicalism. Borda was an anarchist, and also a strident proponent of indigenous rights. His paintings and poetry are deeply symbolic and allegorical. They are dark, tortured and portray an intense perception of the world’s abounding chaos. Their sinister motifs, particularly evident in Arriba Los Corazones, offer a vision of the horrific strangeness of humanity’s experience.

Of course, political art had propagated in Bolivia well before the 1952 Revolution. In 1934, Aymara printmaker Alejandro Mario Yllanes painted a series of tempera murals on the schoolhouse walls of Warisata, a rural commune on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. They were painted as a celebration of the everyday labour of the Indian people, although many were never completed. Some murals depicted Aymara farmers, ferrymen and tanners while others portrayed images from Andean folk history and mythology.

After the MNR government secured victory in 1952, political art began to be institutionalised by the revolutionary government. It set aside financial resources for increased cultural activity and was especially supportive of a burgeoning muralist movement led by social artists such as Walter Solón Romero, Miguel Alandia Pantoja, Lorgio Vaca and Gil Imana Pantoja. This was very much similar to the post-revolutionary development of mural painting which arose from the Mexican Revolution in the 1930s. The Bolivian artists’ murals glorified in the concept of ‘the workers’, emphasising their importance to the economy and to society by rendering them on a large scale. Their works gave recognition to the plurality of indigenous communities in Bolivian society, which had been marginalised from artistic efforts and rendered insignificant by pre-existing political and cultural institutions. For example, in 1956, a series of five murals were painted on the building of the state company YPFB with El Petroleo Boliviana (Bolivian oil) as their subject. In 1953 Alandia Pantoja finished a History of the Mine, which, at around fifteen feet high, portrayed the struggles of the miners before the 1952 revolution and offered a critique of the mining oligarchy. The mural was destroyed in a coup by the right wing dictator Luis García Meza in 1980.

These works were ultimately intended to foster and sustain national unity and pride as part of a militant revolutionary ideology. Murals also represent a highly significant link between art’s position in the public and private sphere, quite literally occupying a position outside the corporate art world. They establish a popular right to the political messages and aestheticism mural art embodies.

In words which vividly capture the revolutionary spirit underpinning this political art, in 1974 Walter Solon Romero stated, ‘No podemos colocar plácidamente nuestra tela en el caballete y pintar ausentes y ciegos a la represión callejera, una naturaleza muerta o un bucólico paisaje. Vivimos una época de solidaridad, de cooperación y de compromiso con las aspiraciones del pueblo y si el Arte es una suprema forma de liberación, no debemos especular mentalmente más de lo que podemos crear en bien de una causa noble, mejorando nuestro oficio y nuestros medios de expresión, con la humildad de un artesano integrado por su trabajo útil a la sociedad’

We cannot placidly lay our canvas on our easel and paint, absent and blind to the repression on the street, a dead nature or a bucolic landscape. We live in a time of solidarity, cooperation and commitment to the ambition of the people, and if Art is a supreme form of liberation, we shall not speculate in our minds but about that which we can create to support a noble cause, making our trade and our means of expression better, with the humility of an artisan who has found his place because his work is useful to society.

Art in the public sphere thereby became one of the primary ways the Bolivian people were exposed to, sought to comprehend, and perpetuated the revolutionary currents that had driven them in 1952. This art also formed part of a longer-term trend which aimed to reclaim the autonomy and dignity of the indigenous communities and induce a breakdown of the social stratification and economic inequalities that accompanied Bolivia’s brutal military regimes. As the Trotskyist miners mobilised around them, Bolivia’s artists and muralists joined the struggle to end cultural repression, fight for the right to take collective ownership over the means of production, and create an anti-hegemonic historical-political narrative to reclaim indigenous rights.

Olivia Arigho-Stiles is a History finalist at Somerville College, Oxford and a member of the Oxford Left Review’s editorial board.

2 comments

  1. I live in Seattle and was born to an American father and Bolivian mother. My grandfather was General Humberto Torres Ortiz. Can you tell me more about him please, if you know anything? I’d love to hear an unbiased view on his political stance. I have only heard stories from my mom and Bolivian family. As an artist and progressive American, I can only imagine we would have been on opposite sides, politically. Thank you. Alice in Seattle

  2. Pingback: Art and Revolution in Bolivia | Culture flaws

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