The Importance of Being Ernesto

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By Joe Rayment

On March 5, 1960, the French arms freighter “La Coubre” exploded while being unloaded in Havana Harbour, Cuba. One hundred and thirty-six people died. The Cubans suspected terrorism. Fidel Castro spoke at the memorial the following day. As Fidel was speaking, Che Guevara stepped on to the stage and scanned the crowd. Alberto Gutiérrez, better known as Korda, pointed his camera at the man: the crunch of a shutter, the birth of an icon. Che turned around and left.

Ernesto “Che” Guevara was a doctor from Argentina. In 1956, he befriended the then-exiled Fidel Castro in Mexico and eventually returned to Castro’s homeland to wage a guerrilla war against the Batista regime. Che was a key figure in Castro’s 1959 victory.

Korda’s photo of Che became known as Guerrillero Heróico. It’s the single dominant representation of Che and one of the greatest icons of the 20th century. After the memorial, Korda cropped the background out of the photo. He described the look in Che’s eyes as “angry and grieved,” but stripped of context and the surrounding scenery, they look defiant, determined and hopeful. After Che’s death, the image grew legs of its own. It has been bought, sold, used and changed so many times that what it means today only scarcely resembles what it once did.

When Korda submitted his work to the Cuban newspaper Revolucion, the editors accepted photos of Castro and the French writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, but rejected the one of Che. Korda thought it was a striking image. He stuck it to the wall of his Havana studio, where it sat for years, collecting nicotine stains.

Che served as the President of Cuba’s National Bank and later as the Minister of Industry, where he performed poorly. In 1965 he left the comforts of Cuba to spread the revolution abroad. His whereabouts are left to speculation. Over the next two-and-a-half years, his death was reported several times in the Congo and the Dominican Republic, but never proven. In 1967, a man showed up at Korda’s door. He didn’t introduce himself, he just presented a letter from a high-ranking Cuban official asking Korda to help this man find a good picture of Che. “This is my best Che picture,” he said pointing to the portrait on the wall. The man agreed. When he returned the following day Korda gave him two fresh prints, free of charge, for a friend of the revolution.

As it turned out that man was the left-wing Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, most famous for smuggling the “Doctor Zhivago” manuscript out of the Soviet Union. Feltrinelli had been in Bolivia negotiating the release of the French philosopher Regis Debray, who had been captured as part of a guerrilla force. Debray told Feltrinelli that Che Guevara was the leader of the guerrilla forces in Bolivia, and that the Bolivian forces were closing in. Foreseeing Che’s assassination, Feltrenelli saw an opportunity. He took Korda’s photo back to Italy and started printing posters.

On October 9, 1967, Che’s corpse flew over the Bolivian Jungle, strapped to the right skid of a helicopter. “Shoot, coward,” Che told his executioner, “you are only going to kill a man.” The Bolivian army captured Che the day before with the help of CIA agent Felix Rodriguez. In his autobiography, Rodriguez describes a conversation with Che: “Commander,” Rodriguez said, “Our ideals are different. But I admire you. You used to be a minister of state in Cuba. Now look at you – you are like this because you believe in your ideals.” Che was shot not long after, and his body was flown to Vellegrande, the capital of Bolivia. The Bolivian army exhibited the body for several days to prove that they had indeed killed Che Guevara. They opened his eyes to increase the resemblance to his living self and presented him to the media. The Christ imagery wasn’t lost on anyone, and here the Romans had cameras.

General Ovando, commander-in-chief of the Bolivian army, wanted to cut off and preserve Che’s head for identification purposes. He was eventually settled to cutting off Che’s hands and taking fingerprints. After a bizarre series of events, the preserved hands were smuggled back into Cuba. Castro was going to put them on public display until the Guevara family protested. The body of Che stayed in Bolivia, in an unmarked mass-grave and was not found until 1997.

Photos of triumphant military officials crowding around Che’s corpse hit the media. At the same time, posters of Guerrillero Heróico started spreading: copyright Feltrinelli. According to Korda, Feltrinelli sold between one and two million posters using his image. Korda didn’t make a cent. Nor could he have if he wanted to: Castro refused to observe international copyright laws, dismissing the protection of intellectual property as imperialist bullshit.

With the photos of Che’s corpse seared into his mind, Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick started producing Che posters. “It was my way of saying, ‘Fuck them. They’re not going to forget Che Guevara. They’re not just going to chop him up and dump him there.” Fitzpatrick produced a drawing for the Irish magazine Scene a few months before Che’s death. He based it on Korda’s photo, which had somehow made its way into a German magazine called Stern, small and unaccredited. Scene rejected it. It was too radical.

After Che died, Fitzpatrick started making posters and pamphlets. “I felt this image had to come out, or he would not be commemorated otherwise, he would go where heroes go, which is usually into anonymity,” he said in an interview with Aleksandra Mir, a conceptual artist out of New York.

Fitzpatrick sent the image to the satirical magazine Private Eye and they sent it to art critic Peter Meyer. Meyer liked the image so much he invited Fitzpatrick to take part in an exhibition called “Viva Che!” He produced two new pieces for the show, also based on Guerrillero Heróico. One was a large, elaborate oil painting. Almost as an afterthought, he made a silkscreen print. Red background, Che’s face, simplified through the process, in black. He coloured in the star on Che’s cap with a yellow magic marker. Both pieces, along with everything else he submitted, disappeared while the exhibition was touring through Eastern Europe. All that remains of them are copies.

Almost immediately after the exhibition Fitzpatrick started seeing his red and black rendition of Guerrillero Heróico multiply around him. “I was kind of annoyed at first. I kept thinking, ‘that’s my effin’ image.’ You know what I mean? You sort of have a proprietary interest in it. It was pride. The first thing they did was take my bloody name off it.” He eventually came to embrace the fact. Fitzpatrick never asserted his rights to the image, he just watched variations of his print spread across the world. No one would forget Che now; maybe his message will spread with his face.

In 1967 Gerard Malanga was in Rome and running out of money. Malanga, who was quite close to Warhol at the time, made two prints of Guerrillero Heróico in the nine frame, multi-colored Andy Warhol style. He gave one to a woman and sold the other through a gallery for $3,000. When an art dealer tried to authenticate the print the following year Malanga wrote Warhol begging him to play along. Malanga would land himself in jail if he were found out. Furious, Warhol wired the dealer and authenticated the paintings but said that Malanga was not authorized to sell it, and that all money should be wired back to him in the US.

Lee Zaslofsky joined the anti-war movement in 1967. When he was drafted in ’68, he decided to come to Canada, forever entangling himself with the movement. He has attended his fair share of protests on both sides of the border. “Back in my day, during the Vietnam War, Che’s image was much more edgy, much more frightening to the authorities. It had much more content than it does now, I think.” Che’s image became an icon of the movement. For most, it was just a symbol of dissent, but there was a wing that wanted to follow Che’s example literally. They wanted the movement to become a revolution. Before he died, Che sent a message out of his Bolivian camp calling for “two, three, many Vietnams” to ensnare and break the American machine. When his image started to appear on banners and t-shirts the message was still fresh. “To many Americans, that was horrifying,” Lee says. “In those days, it was a viable approach. I mean China had shown that the biggest country in the world could be taken over by revolutionaries. And Vietnam, the same thing. People believed that that kind of thing could happen, and they saw it all around them. It was happening.”

As time went on the body grew cold and the threat passed. The image drifted away from Che’s revolutionary reality toward a more palatable figure of rebellion. How far it’s drifted is up for debate. Lee looks at the people wearing Che Guevara T-shirts these days and doesn’t see much more than a fashion statement. “It’s just a way of connecting yourself, in a very minor way, with someone who has become an icon of rebellion … He was a politician who believed in revolutionary politics. I think that kind of meaning has pretty well been ironed out of him.”

In 1999, one of Korda’s friends gave him a copy of FHM. His image of Che was in it. On a two page spread was Che’s face with the words “Hot Fiery Bloody Smirnoff” in the bottom right corner. In the background were bottles of vodka and hammer and sickles, the sickles replaced with chilli peppers. It was an ad for Smirnoff’s new spicy vodka. Korda was furious. “Hundreds of companies used my photo, but none has been as offensive,” said the photographer at the time. Korda sued Lowe Lintas, the agency that produced the ad. It was settled out of court, Korda donated the money to a Havana hospital, and he became the official copyright owner of Guerrillero Heróico. He died eight months later and his daughter inherited the rights.

A few years ago a company called Fashion Victim contacted Jim Fitzpatrick. They wanted to use his image of Che and they wanted to do it legally. Fitzpatrick told them that he didn’t own the copyright and that he wouldn’t accept royalties. The two parties were working out a deal to forward the royalties to a Cuban aid organization when Fashion Victim contacted Korda’s estate. The estate sold them the exclusive North American rights to the image and Fashion Victim ended negotiations with Fitzpatrick. Legally, Fashion Victim is now the only company in America who can produce T-shirts using Guerrillero Heróico. Fashion Victim’s shirts are made in Honduras, presumably in sweatshops. In 2004, sales grossed roughly $4 million. His image remains intact but his message has been thrown to the wind.

At Bang-On T-Shirts on Yonge Street, Che’s a big seller. He hangs on the wall next to T-shirts with Jim Morrison and Chuck Norris. Ronald Reagan’s in the front window. Warhol’s Elvis is in the corner. David Bowie. Super Mario. A lot of the people who buy the Che shirts at Bang-On are young kids. They’ve seen them on the chests of their heroes and now they want one too. They come in asking for that guy with the beard or Fidel Castro. “Regardless of anything else, they look at it and have a sense of belonging,” said Deena Jacobs, a clerk at the store. “They feel that it says something, even if they don’t know what it means.”

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