So has the Botswana Democratic Party finally succumbed to Marxist revolutionary fervour? How else would you explain secretary general Jacob Nkate turning out in a Che Guevara t-shirt at this week’s launch of the party’s Policy Forum?
Well…….apparently, not much can read into Nkate’s fashion statement for Che’s solemn image has long ceased being a monopoly of the communists, and has been commodified by capitalism into a hot-selling fashion icon. In many cities around the world, pictures of Che are on t-shirts, handbags, sweatshirts, mugs and even thongs!
Even in Gaborone, those eyes stare at you from countless bodies. These are the eyes that Ben Ehrenreich has described as mournful but defiant, staring up and to the right as if at some distant vision of the future, or a giant, slow-approaching foe. Snapped in March 1960, Alberto Korda’s iconic image of Ernesto “Che” Guevara has been described as possibly the most-reproduced photograph in the world. Some version of it has been painted, printed, digitized, embroidered, tattooed, silk-screened, sculpted or sketched on nearly every surface imaginable.
And the fashion world just can’t get enough of Che. There is even a Che online store, which claims to have the largest collection of Guevara’s merchandise found anywhere in the world. Goods on offer include t-shirts of all kinds, tank tops, lighters, key chains, pins, wall clocks, wallets, baseball caps, beanies, bandanas ÔÇô and even the famous beret complete with the metal star!
The story of the century’s most famous photograph has it that it was immortalised at a memorial service for casualties of an explosion in Havana harbour, for which Fidel Castro blamed the CIA. At the memorial service for the many dozens killed, Korda clicked the shutter and caught Guevara on the podium, angry but determined, staring fearlessly off into the yonder.
The image spread mysteriously. Revoluci├│n, the Cuban newspaper, used it to announce a conference on industrialization at which Dr. Ernesto Guevara, then Minister of Industry, planned to lecture. Korda gave a print to the Italian leftist publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who distributed it as a poster when he got home. Around the same time, Paris Match somehow got a copy and published it beside a July 1967 article asking “Che Guevara ÔÇô Where Is He?”
The portrait would outlive its subject. Immediately after Che’s death in October 1967 (in the highlands of Bolivia, where he is now worshiped as a saint), the image multiplied. Marchers carried it through the streets to protest his execution.
The image quickly mutated. It was not just the age of protest after all, but of Pop Art and the sly conflation of culture, celebrity and commerce. Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick flattened out the shading into a bold, T-shirt-friendly graphic in black, white and red. He wanted the image “to breed like rabbits,” and it did. The man became a logo.
As Ivan de la Nuez, a Barcelona, Spain, museum director, puts it, “Capitalism devours everything . . . even its worst enemies”. Che has proved an abundant meal. His image has sold Converse sneakers and Smirnoff vodka. There’s Che beer, Che cola, Che cigarettes, and the inevitable Cherry Guevara ice cream.
But despite that, and despite the selling and sampling and all the multilayered appropriations, Che’s image still means something, even if it’s something as generic as protest, nonconformity, or a wish for change. If Che means change, he can even symbolize dissatisfaction with the regime he helped establish. One journalist tells of a meeting with a young rapper from the slums of central Havana who was thoroughly disenchanted with Castro’s revolution. He was asked who he preferred as president, Fidel or Ra├║l Castro. The aspiring artist laughed and shook his head. “I’d prefer Che,” he said.
Rebels and activists the world over still take inspiration from Guevara. But the image has lost something; Che’s face on a poster in 1968 isn’t quite the same thing as it is on a mouse-pad 40 years later. Perhaps it is precisely that loss ÔÇô the shedding of Che’s radicalism and ideological rigour ÔÇô that renders him so supremely marketable today that he can rock up at a BDP function, and still be welcome.