Monday, March 7, 2011

John Fitzpatrick and Che Guevara: Mao Zedong and Barack Obama

One day in 1962 a teenage boy called John Fitzpatrick was working in a pub in the little windswept town of Kilkee in the west of Ireland when in walked none other than the Agentinian revolutionary and hero of the Cuban revolution, Che Guevara. The famous anti-imperialist (who was partly of Irish descent) had been on a flight from Havana to Moscow.  His plane had stopped to refuel at Shannon airport, on the western seaboard of Ireland, but nasty weather blew in from the Atlantic (as it often does) and had delayed his departure. Hence Che's unexpected appearance that fateful day in the hotel bar in Kilkee.

For both John Fitzpatrick as well as for Che Guevara their brief encounter would have unexpected consequences. Five years later Che was dead, killed by reactionary forces in Bolivia. Fitzpatrick was by this time a young, politically engaged artist. When he heard of the bloody death of his hero he decided to somehow immortalise the great revolutionary, and prevent capitalists from erasing Che from history. In 1968 Fitzpatrick created his famous poster, based on a photo of Che Guevara taken in 1960 by Alberto Korda. By not charging any copyright fee he hoped that the capitalist world would be flooded by the image of the communist martyr. His success went beyond his dreams.  Che's image is today one of the ten most recognised portraits in the world, ranking alongside the likes of The Mona Lisa.

For years I have remarked on the irony inherent in the popularity of this iconographic image of Che Guevera. It seemed to me to be a contradiction that leftist rebellious youth buy posters and T-shirts of their communist hero and thereby put money in the pockets of the capitalists who own the rights to the image. It seemed just a little paradoxical. Little did I know, it is the result of a plan by one Irishman.

Last month Irish TV news carried the story that John Fitzpatrick has announced he is taking legal steps to claim and enforce the copyright and, in September, he will travel to Cuba for the opening of a new Che Guevara Culture Centre and he hopes to present the Guevara family and Cuba with the rights to the image. In this way, sales of the image will finance Cuban communism.

Of course Che's image is not the only political portrait that decorates many a T-shirt.  Last week a friend of mine sported a T-shirt with Mao's face.  A colleague remarked that he felt it to be inappropriate for my friend to wear the portrait of one of the world's greatest mass murderers.  Never mind that the country where these mass murders are said to have taken place has totally commoditized Mao's image.  Mao can be found on mugs and watches, T-shirts and posters and many Chinese taxi drivers these days have a medal of Mao hanging in their cars.  He has become a lucky charm, a bit like the holy medals of the Virgin Mary that hang from the mirrors in many Irish taxis.  One man's mass murderer is another man's saint.

Mao is often associated with the red sun
And what about all those who donned a T-shirt of Barack Obama not so long ago, when it seemed to some that change was about to happen.  For some he represented a new style of politics, almost a saviour. For others he was a continuation of the 1960s struggle for racial equality, the heir of Martin Luther King Jr.. For a few he always represented the likes of Goldman Sachs, the economic status quo and politics as usual. (The latter probably didn't wear his T-shirt or hang up his poster).

His first Presidential decree was to call for the closing of Guantanamo Bay, but it still remains open, with 172 prisoners.  Some of them have been there for nearly nine years and have never been charged with any crime.  In Afghanistan Obama increased the number of American troops and continues to prosecute a war there which, according to many experts, is unwinnable.  Meanwhile, off the front page, the number of Afghani dead continues to pile up. Last week the American crews of two helicopter gunships killed nine boys as they were collecting firewood. General Petraeus apologised and President Obama expressed his "Deep Regret" for the error. That brings the total number of civilians killed by NATO troops in Afghanistan (that we know of) this month to 80. If you missed this news, it's probably because you were busy watching the revolutions in North Africa unfold, which is of course what you are expected to be watching.  Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan continues, but is not being televised.  If you come from a NATO country, it is being paid for by your taxes. Perhaps there are those who still look on Barack Obama as some sort of saviour.  But to wear a T-shirt with Obama's image might have gotten you into trouble in Kabul last week, as demonstrators howled in outrage at the latest massacre. Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying that Obama is like Mao, or Che. It's just one man's saint is another man's mass murderer.

Please click on this link if you want to read my post on the War in Afganistan and the European Enlightenment

If you want to hear John Fitzpatrick tell his own story, then watch this interview:

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