IT is difficult for an artist to portray historical figures in their true human perspective as everyone feels they know them already. So what we get are stereotyped images that are mere lifeless symbols. But a recent exhibition in New Delhi of the works of the Colombian-born artist Gabriel Atencio Ruiz, who studied art at Escuela Cristobal Rojas in Venezuela and has a degree in architecture from Colombia, came as a breath of fresh air in representing a well-known South American hero, Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan general who fought for and won the freedom of Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia from Spain between 1819 and 1825 and died in 1830 of tuberculosis at the age of 46.
Simon Bolivar lived in a period of history when great events such as the French Revolution of 1789 took place and a number of countries created liberators of their people from European monarchies and colonial powers. South America saw the liberation of Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina. In the Caribbean, the islands of Haiti and later Cuba were liberated in this period. In time, the revolutionary French Republic was itself overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte, who then established an empire.
But the days of empires were coming to an end. The Napoleonic dispensation did not last beyond 1815, except in Sweden where Napoleon’s general, Count Bernadotte, became the king. Bolivar did not live long but the rule he established has persisted to this day. Not only has he a country named after him; his motherland too is styled today as a “Bolivarian republic”, 231 years after his death. Perhaps, it is a sign of our times that empires are crumbling while national liberation movements show a remarkable resilience.
How do we portray a leader of such a process of popular self-expression? Clearly, it cannot be done like a theatrical imperial presentation with the leader as larger than man.
Ruiz has not only chosen to portray Bolivar as a human being with many sides to his personality but highlighted the context in which he operated as one of the people. These paintings are well researched through documentary evidence and social perception.
In a simple work of him swimming with black children, we are reminded that his parents died in his childhood and he was brought up with the children of black slaves. It is obvious that such direct contact with those who were not even citizens must have awakened in him a sense of how unjust life in the Spanish colonies was. The artist has succeeded in giving us this feeling of injustice in a work that simply shows children enjoying a bath. In another work, he shows the general escaping through the window of a woman’s boudoir without his clothes on when he was warned that his life was in danger. Here, the hero is not larger than life. He is part of its flow.
From here, it is not difficult to relate to the images the artist has created of a peasant woman, a basket weaver, a fisherman repairing his boat, children at the seaside and even a scene of the post-mortem of an empire with the heart of America in his hands with the familiarity that the modern hero has with people. We can see this sort of treatment in the works of artists of the school of socialist realism. This style has been reviled much by those who support the view that heroes should be larger than life and above the people. Such portrayals are both unreal and uninspiring. It is good that this artist has steered clear of this trap and shown us how a full-blooded human being can also be heroic.
This does not mean that he ignores the political canvas of which Bolivar was a part. This is evident from his portrait titled “Great Marshal of Ayacucho” or the picture showing Bolivar receiving the British Legion, which reflects the global competition between empires while all empires try to keep liberation movements well in hand under the imperial system on the ground. These pictures remind us that the man jumping down from the window or admiring the work of the Spanish court painter Velasquez, while sharing all human sensibilities and even weaknesses, still was able to overcome these in pursuit of the project of liberating South America from its colonial masters. What gives his work its authenticity is the depth of the research he has done to give us scenes that are not theatrical but real. As such he brings Bolivar to us in flesh and blood.
Representation of heroes
Indeed, this exhibition gives us a good idea of how heroes are used as symbols to put forward changes that people may not otherwise accept easily. Moreover, the representation of heroes has changed over time. In the period of the changeover from matriarchy to patriarchy, they were epic heroes who became divine or semi-divine as in the Iliad and the Ramayana. In the feudal period, they were supermen with support from divine forces. Under capitalism, they were men who amassed worldly goods and defeated their opponents as in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged .
Today, when the recognition of people as the makers of their own history is much more acceptable, we find that heroes are embedded in not only the environment but also in the people around them. This Ruiz has done with considerable success in this exhibition on Simon Bolivar.