About a week ago at a Cambridge pub, I met a guy in his mid-thirties. Five minutes into the conversation, he announced he was a communist. OK. Ten minutes and one beer later, he decided to prove his commitment to the cause opening his coat to reveal his oh-so-red Che Guevara T-shirt. Gasp! Awkward at best, but it did get me thinking about Che, the reappropriation and decontextualization of his image, and his paradoxical status as a pop icon.
There is a schism between Che the man and Che the image. The "image" I am referring to is the photograph taken by Alberto Diaz Gutierrez "Korda" in 1960 that has appeared on revolutionary posters, pop art, advertisements and, most prominently, T-shirts.
Fidel Castro's official photographer, Korda took the picture during a funeral ceremony for the Cubans who had been killed during the explosion of a French cargo ship in Havana in 1960. Although it's unclear wether the photograph was published immediately or not, its rise to worldwide popularity seems to date back to two simultaneus events; the 1968 .high contrast drawing done by Irish painter Jim Fitzpatrick and its placement on the cover of Che Guevara's Bolivian Diary. Both occurred shortly after Guevara's assassination.
In the 1970s, the image almost took on a life of its own, coming to represent Latin American unity, anti-Americanism, and class struggle. Since, it has oscillated between propaganda and pop art, but as Sean O'Hagan noted, "Che has remained more Lennon than Lenin ever since."
Although the image has been used in almost every context imaginable, it was only in 2000 that Korda officially deemed one of its iterations unacceptable, objecting to its use in a Smirnoff Vodka campaign. The 71-year-old photographer successfully sued the company, arguing that "to use the image of Che Guevara to sell vodka is a slur on his name and memory." Korda donated the $70,000 settlement to the Cuban health system. The fact that Korda waited 40 years to reclaim rights over his photograph probably corresponds more to the Cuban regime's slow acceptance of individual property than to the photographer's tacit approval of all previous uses.
For me, the T-shirt is the emptiest and most deconextualized version of the image, and, although it still holds some of its original rebellious aura, it's usually hard to link this product of globalization with its original ideological charge . At this point, I'd rather see it as a vintage piece of Rage Against the Machine memorabilia than the remains of what once was a revolutionary ideal.
However, the fact that the photograph still evokes so many different interpretations has made it a particularly malleable object in an era of participatory culture. Last year, the Victoria & Albert Museum in England ran an exhibit dedicated exclusively to this image. On their website you can still upload your own version of Che. So far, murderer, logo, and saint can all be found there. It is as if a battle over its meaning is being fought in each one of its iterations.
That battleground is quite different from the one "Che" fought in, but sometimes it does seem like, 40 years later and in a different context, many of the same issues are still being discussed.