Mass looting of public art grips Venezuela

A view of the damaged monument "Homenaje al buen ciudadano" (Homage to a good citizen) by Elda Navarrete in Carcas, Venezuela, Feb. 6, 2019. EFE-EPA

CARACAS.- For months now public art in the Venezuelan capital has steadily started to vanish from squares, streets and even the subway in a growing trend of public art looting, as reported by an NGO tracking the events.

The Institutional Assets and Monuments (IAM) NGO in Venezuela has reported a sharp increase in the theft of public artworks including 40 busts, 31 statues, six cemeteries and 6,732 tombstones of varying value.

Perhaps the most paradoxical pillage is the one relating to a flat frieze titled «El Kaleidoscopio» by Venezuelan artist Beatriz Blanco, made in 1987, and installed at the Chacaíto subway stop in Caracas.

The piece forms part of the «Presencia en el Sendero» series (roughly translated «Presence along the Pathway») featuring life-sized bronze silhouettes of human bodies reaching out from beyond the frame of the artwork.

The sculpture reflects the duality of a traveling passenger, in transit between the point of departing and arriving.

It is precisely the location of one of these figures that has puzzled authorities since a fragment of Blanco’s artwork went missing in November 2017.

What started as rogue theft quickly descended into a seemingly random pillage of artwork in Caracas propped up by the illegal trafficking of bronze.

«As of June 2018 subway travel authorities had not restored the artwork and had failed to inform of any arrests in relation to the heritage crime,» IAM reported.

It seems no one and nothing is immune to the widespread looting which extends beyond the Venezuelan capital, with several Simon Bolívar — the founding father of the Republican states of Bolivia and Great Colombia — artworks going missing.

One sculpture disappeared in December 2017 from a square in the western municipality of Escuque and another bronze version was stolen from the University of Carabobo in the north of the country.

This latter was an artwork by Luis Cardona Villegas created for the celebration of the bi-centenary birthday of the so-called Libertador (Liberator).

The bronze relief, which featured Bolívar’s earnest look looming over the university’s students bore a statement saying «a man with no education is an incomplete being»

IAM was able to ascertain that the theft took place in early 2004, after interviewing Braulio Salazar, the director of the University’s Gallery.

«Once they (the Institution) became aware of the absence of the Bolívar relief and the information plaque that went with it, a report was drafted and handed to the Town Hall describing the situation,» IAM explained in the report.

«However they never received a response nor information as to its’ whereabouts,» the report added.

Today the only thing that remained over the empty pedestal was a green print where the much-admired Libertador once presided.

The worst affected area so far documented was the southwestern state of Mérida, from which 40 percent of the statues and 60 percent of the bronze plaques that were once on public display in the capital have mysteriously disappeared.

What is now left in the city of Mérida are haunting fragments of decapitated and dismembered statues.

A sculptural work by Jesús Manuel Suescún Quintero from 2008 featuring Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez in conversation with his Venezuelan counterpart Tulio Febres Cordero today bears little resemblance to the original piece.

García Márquez was left with no arms whilst Febres Cordero’s remains — all his limbs — were found by locals in the sewers and mistaken for a corpse.

Venezuela is in the midst of political crisis after Juan Guaidó, the speaker of the opposition-led National Assembly self-declared himself interim president on Jan. 23 in an attempt to topple incumbent, president Nicolás Maduro.

Guaidó has been backed by the United States, European Union and several Latin American states.

Russia and China support the leftist Maduro government, while Mexico and Uruguay are calling for mediation between the parties in Venezuela.

The Latin American country also faces an deep economic crisis due to severe food and medicine shortages and hyperinflation.

By Gonzalo Domínguez Loeda

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