Madonnas in Gas Masks

Protest Art in Contemporary Chile
A painting of Mary inscribed with the words, “Reza Por Lxs Que Luchan” (Pray for those who fight) (Joseph Flipper)

Last November, la Parroquia de la Asunción in Santiago was sacked during protests against the government of Chile. Protesters pulled out the wooden pews as fuel for burning barricades against the police. Statues were thrown into the street. A statue of Mary was carried away above a protestor’s head while a bystander commented, “The Virgin is going to war.” In the midst of this chaotic scene was a procession, no longer religious, but still reliant upon the symbols of Chilean Catholic culture.

During the estallido social, which began last October, the Plaza Italia was the site of violent confrontations between Los Carabineros, the national police, and la Primera Línea, those who envision themselves as the “Front Line” that protects the people from the state. Nearby, one wall of the enormous Centro Gabriela Mistral (GAM) has become the site of memorials to those who have died or been injured in the protests. Built during the Allende era, and used by Pinochet for government offices, Centro GAM is now a cultural center for music and the performing arts. It is also the site of some of Chile’s most spectacular protest art and graffiti. Images depict blood running from the eyes of famous political and historical figures, suggesting both the police violence that has caused so many eye injuries and the blindness of the upper class and government to the desperation of the people. The art at Centro GAM has changed daily. When the government ripped down and painted over the memorial, it was recreated the next day.

Some protest art has an openly anti-religious message. Graffiti marking the exterior of churches—“Dios no existe” (God doesn’t exist) and satanic symbols—is particularly unnerving to Chilean Christians, many of whom are sympathetic to the protests. Yet it is hard to attribute a consistently secular ideology to the movement as a whole. Some of the protest art appropriates religious iconography. One frequent image is of a black dog with a red bandana and a halo (see page 24). Another portrays Jesus, surrounded by dogs, with the face of Keanu Reeves, a reference to the John Wick film series in which the main character (played by Reeves) goes on a rampage of retribution after his dog is killed. These images are often ironic, playfully sending up the conventions of Catholic hagiography.

Yet the wall of Centro GAM also includes memorials and tributes to fallen protesters next to unironic images of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The memorial links these casualties to the deaths of earlier heroes—like the indigenous leader “Lonko” Juan Collihuín Catril and Víctor Jara, a musician who was tortured and killed by the Pinochet regime. A painting of Mauricio Fredes, who died running away from the Carabineros, links him to a long history of struggle. In a representation of a tree—titled “The Sacred Tree of Chile”—the trunk and branches contain the names of the martyrs who constitute that history.

Some of the protest art playfully appropriates religious iconography; a dog with a halo is a frequent image.

Some protest art directly appeals to Christian themes and figures. A painting of Mary with a gas mask and a halo of barbed wire (see above) is inscribed with the words, “Reza Por Lxs Que Luchan” (Pray for those who fight). There is an image of Jesus flanked by two Carabineros. He holds a sign that reads “No Los Perdones, Saben Perfecto Lo Que Hacen” (Do Not Forgive Them, They Know Exactly What They Are Doing). In another, Our Lady of Guadalupe is presented with a bandana covering her face and a slingshot in her hand. It reads “Patrona de las Barricadas, Protégenos de Todo Mal Gobierno” (Patroness of the Barricades, Protect Us from All Evil Governments). Intentionally or not, the religious dimension of such images can’t help but suggest the transcendent roots of human dignity. In addition to the expressions of anger toward religious institutions, especially the Catholic Church, there are also appeals to religious practitioners to join the struggle for justice.

Although the Church has appeared largely neutral during these protests, many Catholics have participated. In a March 3 letter addressed to “Hermanos Curas” (Brother Priests), Mariano Puga, a diocesan priest and longtime advocate for the working poor, pleads with the leadership of the Church to find its moral strength in the Eucharistic body of Christ. In the 1970s, due to his association with the Chilean Left, Puga was captured and detained by the Pinochet government at Villa Grimaldi, an infamous detention center where political prisoners were tortured. His letter asks his brother priests to recognize the body of Christ in the “the murdered, the political prisoners, the blinded, the silent, and imprisoned.” Explaining that many families of victims do not feel close to the Church, he writes, “During these months we have tried to commune with the body of Christ, shot, damaged, mutilated, murdered.” Lamenting that only two priests were present for the Mass celebrated on February 19 for the families of the detained, he ends his letter abruptly, “With which Christ do we commune?” On Saturday, March 14, eleven days after his letter appeared, Puga passed away from cancer.

Published in the September 2020 issue: 

Joseph S. Flipper is Associate Professor and Associate Director of the Ethics and Social Justice Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. He served as a Fullbrw at the Pointifica Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago. He is author of Between Apocalypse and Eschaton: History and Eternity in Henri de Lubac (2015). 

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