Luisana Reyes Madera



Venezuela in the 1960s: Artistic Expression, Cultural Experiences, and Political Unrest


One sticky summer afternoon, I telephoned my grandmother Rosa Lucia Reyes to ask her some questions about her experience as a 20-year-old in the 1960’s. She is known in my family for constantly telling stories and having a remarkably lucid memory, even now at her 80 years of age. Her testimony takes place in Caracas, Venezuela, where she still resides. My grandmother retells stories of the city that I grew up in, though our realities juxtaposed are significantly different.

According to Rosa, the 1960s was a time when Venezuela became filled with international influences. Fashion started taking a more unisex approach as everyone was pretty much wearing jeans and printed shirts; the miniskirt boom soon hitting the Venezuelan market. Every woman was rocking legs in the street. From music to film, a lot of the contemporary national art made carried hints of popular music from around the world. The primary artistic references that came to her mind were musical, as many musicians were appropriating English and Italian music to make covers and include samples in their songs. I could sense the change in her voice when talking about the themes of the time. Luisana, everybody was doing the twist!

Rosa’s stories are filled with people. Back then, life moved in clusters of humans. People would get together to play sports outside, watch floats and marching bands, partake in cultural events, etcetera. My aunt, who is a child of the 60s, remembers attending different cultural events in the streets. Art was available to people as a form of entertainment, and it was not hard to consume art as it inhabited everyday spaces.

The 1960s period in Venezuela in the political arena represented revolutionary changes that made a difference in response to General Marcos Perez Jimenez's dictatorship. In 1958, with the cessation of the dictatorship, agreements were established between various socio-political sectors around the formulation of formal and informal rules fundamental for the functioning of the democratic order, some of which were enshrined in the 1961 Constitution.  On those bases, a long-range sociopolitical project was on. When I asked my grandmother about any day-to-day changes that occurred after Perez Jimenez, she struggled to answer. Even though the president was abusing power, she says that many infrastructural changes were made, which were very innovative and helped cities grow and communicate via highways and progressive urban planning. His mandate managed to boost the Venezuelan economy to a point that has not been reached again. However, she tells me that during Perez Jimenez, it was challenging to be involved in politics. The president did not take criticism well, and everyone who was part of the opposition was deemed a communist and brutally beaten and tortured. After Marcos Perez Jimenez's coup-d’état in 1958, the country floaded with influences from Fidel Castro's revolution. Many military revolts and guerrilla movements took place, ultimately leading to the usurpation of the citizen's constitutional rights, making communism illegal. As a result, a lot of radical artists at the time were jailed and censored.

Taking these years as a starting point to select a work of art that exemplifies the Venezuelan artistic essence in the 1960s, I came across Imagen de Caracas (1967), a premise that over time still manages to remain innovative.

Imagen de Caracas was and still is the most extraordinary effort made by Venezuelan artists to integrate different art disciplines made to date. Even 50 years after it was exhibited, it is the most important audiovisual experience in the country’s history. The installation featured different aspects that are pertinent to highlight, from the structure's colossal size to the projected images on the walls. Inside the pavilion's architecture, there were eight synchronized 35mm-film projectors and forty-five 35mm-slide projectors. The exhibition's authors stated that the event worked around the audience's unidirectional relationships. The event, aimed to shy away from film, theatre, happenings, and other types of conventional media.  The concept of the spectacle was affected by Roland Barthes' idea of the author's death, as Imagen de Caracas aimed to integrate the public as much as possible to blur the traditionally clear lines dividing the public and auteur. The multimedia content that was projected told the stories of Venezuelan historical events like the American conquest (c. the 1800s), La Guerra de Carabobo (1841), and the pre-Republican life up until that moment.  The films projected neared 4 hours in total and were divided into two parts, each with different segments. This modality appears to be popular in those years, as in my conversation with Rosa, she recounts her memories of going to the movie theatre and watching films in 3-4 weeks intervals. Imagen de Caracas promoted a lot of attention to the Venezuelan art movements, specifically in realism and modernism, something that the author Jacobo Borges was directly inspired by after his involvement with German-Marxist theatrical aesthetics. In this spectacle, Borges sparked ideas of art as a social movement and political protest. Borges was significantly acclaimed after the event as he showed his interdisciplinary practice, which veered off from his previous reputation as solely a painter. Despite the great success and artistic contribution that the installation provided, it closed after only four months. It is stipulated that amongst the reasons for the closure is the government's censorship, as they wanted to put an end to the controversy that Imagen de Caracas managed to awaken in Caracas' society. However, the official announcement was that the closure was due to economic reasons, as the facility was unsustainable at the time.

The 60s were an iconic and revolutionary time around the world. Many political and social changes happened during these years, and it is necessary to include them in our memories to understand other more joyful aspects of people’s day to day. In Venezuela, this period was incredibly decisive to what the country would be in the future. Many of the policies and constitutional changes implemented were very strict, which arguably prompted the political instability of 1999, when a leftist militant named Hugo Chávez Frias came to power. Venezuela has not managed to be the same since the beginning of the millennium. The country is in constant social, political and economic decline. For this reason, I find myself separated from my family, alone abroad. The older generations and the ever-growing diaspora attempt to find bits of solace amongst the chaos through nostalgic memories of “La Venezuela de Antes”. Perhaps one day, we will receive collective peace and closure to the continuous cycle of Venezuelan destruction, censorship and corruption.