Tools of resistance: a Musical Anthem and Graffiti from the Decade of Fire

  resistere

   I recently came across the lyrics of  Resistiré, (30 artists in the contemporary video) in relation to  my Spanish learning goal, a song that has been cast quite aptly as an anthem of Spain during  these times of COVID-19. This 1960’s classic by  Spaniards Ramón Arcusa and Manuel de la Calva of Dúo Dinámico and composed by Carlos Toro, has become a hymn of resistance during the viral pandemic and the ensuing mandatory confinement and social distancing. Arcusa and de La Calva, singers and songwriters are considered to be forerunners to  pop music in Spain. 

Some of the words of this song are as follows:

I will resist to continue living (Resistiré para seguir viviendo)

I will take the blows and I will never give up (Soportaré los golpes y jamás me rendiré)

And even if dreams break me into pieces (Y aunque los sueños se me rompan en pedazos)

I will resist, I will resist (Resistiré, resistiré)

When the world loses all magic (Cuando el mundo pierda toda magia)

When my enemy is me (Cuando mi enemigo sea yo)

When nostalgia stabs me (Cuando me apuñale la nostalgia)

And I don't even recognize my own voice (Y no reconozca ni mi voz)

When madness threatens me (Cuando me amenace la locura)

( Source : www.musixmatch.com)

   Rather bleak, yes… the song  encapsulates the internal struggle that has come to the fore during days of self quarantine. This opinion piece on the Atlantic talks of a strange purgatory that awaits in the aftermath of social distancing. Given this order of thinking, it is no wonder that social isolation has prompted many to take up residence within their minds and self exploration in various forms. Even so, that Spain adopted Resistiré as its COVID-19 anthem is the telling feature of this exceptional and unusual situation.  A strange resistance therefore, these times have spawned, resistance against what the unseen inflicts upon the self in these times where we are so far removed from our fellow brethren. The forced incarceration has made people rather introspective, incessantly reworking on how to deal better with a non social  life and has driven them to engage in various  shenanigans in an effort to preserve personal sanity. The oppressor appears to be invisible, the only recourse therefore being a general overhauling of self to deal with the accompanying challenges.  Hence the focus perhaps on ‘self hardening’ through a wholesale swallowing of self help advice, staff wellness initiatives in virtual offices, acceptance of behavioural changes to facilitate workplace camaraderie, the mushrooming of various crisis and depression hotlines, reaching out to virtual communities for support. Dúo Dinámico’s  music thus is an expression or reflection of internal angst, exhorting one to reach into a reservoir of purported personal strength and power.

   And then earlier this year, I visited an exhibition featuring images of  graffiti, graffiti being a form of resistance I would opine, transposed on the material rather than the psyche.  Hank Johnston, a scholar of social and political movements, who has written about non violent resistance, calls graffiti oppositional speech acts in that they are unauthorised and unwarranted. As per the SAGE book of Resistance, graffiti is akin to vandalism of public or private space, since the scribbles or colourful artwork are unsolicited,  like we see in  the defacing of random walls and building facades and such like. 

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   So from 1960’s musical artists of Spain, fast forwarded to the present day  Spanish Street artist SUS033, who recently curated an exhibition at the Bronx museum, of  the photographs of Henry Chalfant, who extensively documented  the work of graffiti artists of the 1970s and 80s, I had the opportunity (before social distancing and isolation came into effect)  to view  Chalfant’s photographs. They are a work of visual anthropology and one of the seminal documents of American popular culture in the late twentieth century of which he produced a voluminous body documenting the emergence of the graffiti trend since its early days in the Bronx, following its transformation into the international phenomenon it is today.

   The exhibition featured several life-sized print photos by Chalfant which showcased works by graffiti artists including the ones that I have featured on my blog. (All images taken at the Bronx Museum by Davina E. Solomon)

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   Most of the images at the exhibition were purely artsy and colourful,  not really social critique, but perhaps some messages found themselves inveigled onto the brightly painted sides of subway cars of that period. The one by Fred Brathwaite in 1980, was the superimposition of perhaps a critical message onto an actual advertisement, in this case, Campbell’s Can of Soup. If you look closely, you see the words that say da da soup, pop soup, futurist soup etc; and in Lee’s 1980 artwork, it says stop the bomb.

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   Graffiti can just as well be art expressions on the verge of being political, almost infra political according to Guillaume Marche, in his essay on Graffiti As Infrapolitics, part of  the SAGE handbook of Resistance, ( edited by David Courpasson & Steven Vallas) as in, it lies just below the threshold of what qualifies as such. It may interest you to know that it was the time of intense upheaval in the South Bronx, the youth had no free space for expression, there was a  dearth of after school programs, so they expressed themselves in colour on the sides of subway cars. Some of the street artists worked in  what has been described as a war zone. Some of the artists featured were not even from the Bronx but from the other boroughs of NY and they have run the gamut of stealing paints, painting public property and trying hard not to get caught. What were they resisting I wonder? An internal struggle with boredom? No virtual environment to lose oneself in? The dismal economic situation? An irrepressible  creative urge?  Lady Pink, Bil Rock, Daze, Kel Futura, Lee, Dondi, Skeme, Lee Quiñones, Zephyr, Bade, T-Kid among others feature as those that indulged in graffiti that is now euphemistically called Street Art.

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Imagery on the Subway Cars featured at the exhibit

   It is sad to learn that the South Bronx was quite literally a war zone in the 1960’s and 1970’s. New York city was bankrupt, crime ridden and graffiti was splashed over in the Bronx. It was the decade of fire, a time when buildings burned almost continuously from an estimated forty fires a day that destroyed 80 percent of the area housing stock and displaced a quarter-million residents in the late sixties and seventies. Vivian Vázquez Irizarry  wrote, directed, and documented this in her film the Decade of Fire, released last year, a poignant recollection of why the Bronx burned.  It was also a decade of total economic collapse in the South Bronx and the area was the scene of urban decay. It was a  time when the fiscal crisis prompted the closure of several fire companies in NYC in 1972, quite ironically at the time they were needed the most. So as a backdrop for resistance, there was plenty of reason as it so appears. But it was also those decades that spawned the curious adaptation to challenging circumstances where subway cars became the repository of the splashes of ‘writers crews’ as these artists were called, stamping their signature brands in graffiti, the amazing creative expression under tremendous pressure, described variously as hit and run scenarios. It was also during this time that Hip Hop emerged as an undiluted art form. Given the commercialization of Graffiti today and the regulated safe spaces for it’s expression, I can say that I have respect for these intense expressive artists of the 70s even though, averse that I am to vandalized public spaces. 

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   I wonder where the resistance has gone to now? Contained and monitored in regulated safe spaces,  inwards into the psyche maybe or into private echo chambers? It is the age of Aquarius and perhaps the resistance has gone virtual; long live the resistance!

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