I was in college when this particular anecdote happened. There was this girl who was wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt and was sporting a sort of punk look. When I asked her if she was a Commie, she looked pretty offended. When I told her that she was wearing a T-shirt featuring the most famous Communist revolutionary ever, she just shrugged and replied, “Really? I thought he was a rock star or something?” Her reply shocked the hell out of me then. How can you sport a Che Guevara T-shirt without even knowing who he is? Why Che of all the people? Today when I look back at that moment, I realize the tragedy that has befallen Che. He has become the tool in the hands of the very forces that he fought all his life.
The Che Guevara image that we see so much around nowadays is the most prolific photo image in history. Go to a college and you will surely find some youngster sporting a Che T-shirt. But ask him who exactly was Che and there are one in a ten possibilities that you’ll get a correct answer. Che has become a symbol of rebellion for most youngsters, something like a cool addition to the overall image of an average punk youngster.
Born as Ernesto Guevara, Che was the most famous Communist revolutionary from the post-World War II era. Trained to be a doctor, he traveled through Latin America and joined Fidel Castro’s guerrilla troop of revolutionaries to oust the Batista regime and establish a Communist regime in Cuba under the aegis of Castro. Che stayed on in Cuba for sometime as one of the important members of Castro’s government, but the zeal to see a world revolution was too much in him to make him lead a normal political life in Cuba. Che’s later journeys took him to countries such a Congo in Africa and Bolivia in Latin America where he was eventually assassinated by CIA operatives. Till Che was alive, he was mostly regarded as a communist guerilla fighter who moved about instigating people to rise in revolt against the existing systems. But Che’s rise to a powerful symbol of dissent was the handiwork of artistic minds rather than revolutionary minds.
The iconic photo of Che which we are all familiar with was taken by celebrated Cuban photographer Alberto Korda. It was taken at a political rally where Che was standing on the podium. I find it rather funny that Che had to get popular through the medium of an image considering the fact that Che hated to be photographed. Perhaps it was because Che himself worked as a photographer during his student days in Mexico and no serious photographer likes to be photographed in any circumstances. The photo didn’t become a sensation as soon as it was taken. It stayed for some time with Korda who had then christened it as “Guerrillero Heroico.” Years later after Che’s death, it was eventually taken by a Spanish communist publisher named Feltrinelli who had it published in one of his publications. Korda had also not attached any copyright issues with the image and so it became possible to reproduce it in large quantities without any hindrance.
The photo made its first grand appearance during the Students’ Protests in Paris in 1968. The photo literally exploded on the scene with students holding it out on their placards. It became a new symbol of protest and defiance. It gave out a whole new meaning to the idea of resistance. And soon this image was everywhere. During the Vietnam War protests, the Black Movement in America… it became everybody’s favorite expression of defiance. The 60s and 70s were turbulent times if we take into account the rise of counter culture and other protest movements. Posters were a very popular mode of expressing protests. And how could Che remain far behind in this regard? The work to transform Che’s photo into a graphic protest poster fell to the fate of artist Jim Fitzpatrick who made it into radical piece of artwork synonymous with the very idea of protest. So consequently the background became blood red and all the hues and patches on the face were removed and the shadows in the image were enhanced and what we got as a result is, as they say, history. The posters surpassed all other protest posters of that era and went on to become one of the most potent images in the psyche of humankind in the 20th century. It would not be wrong to claim that apart from Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” the Che Guevara image is the other most recognized image in history. The image also appeared in various other forms of artwork but the basic structure of Fitzpatrick’s artwork was never altered. For some time it seemed that the revolution that Che had always talked about was nearing in sight as everyone was talking of Che and his ideologies and the image became an everyday affair in almost all parts of the world. But this is just one side of the story because soon Che and the image became victims of the vey forces that they strove to fight against.
When an idea germinates, it takes the form of an expression. Here the expression became the image of Che. And consequently the image assumed the form of an artwork that spread to all corners of the world though in varied forms. It was here that the capitalist forces realized the potent power that this image had come to assume. Commercialization got the better of the original message of this image and it got gagged somewhere under the weight of it. So Che then began to appear everywhere. From T-shirts, badges, shoes, accessories, cigarette packets, lingerie and what not! Che was everywhere and literally everybody wanted a piece of him. The image found its way into the oddest of places. And the problem was that most of the people who now got hold of the Che image hardly knew anything about him or his ideologies. It is surprising that many people still confuse Che with Bob Marley because of his long locks and virile rock star looks.
So the new Che Guevara image was everywhere courtesy capitalism. The image now became symbolized with the new punk or pop culture instead of any sign of protest against the established order. It is still a symbol of defiance but the meaning seems to have changed since its inception in the 60s. People wear Che Guevara T-shirts and accessories to look cool and associate him with something rebellious. But sadly most youngsters of today have forgotten what Che really stood for. And he has just become a powerful symbol of commercialization with a misplaced message.
This is the tragedy of Che. Even after death, though Che has been immortalized in our popular culture but he has but remained as a tool of capitalism. I often wonder what Che would have said if he had seen all this today. So even though I see many youngsters sporting Che Guevara T-shirts I really have no reason to feel happy about. Atleast not for Che.