Yamaikaleter (2009) by the Venezuelan artist Alexander Apóstol provokes questions about the power of values and ideologies that can act as the basis for political language, but also communities. Why do voters and members stay loyal when politicians’ words and actions are empty and contradicting, or even outright criminal? Apóstol investigates relationships between history, art, and power in his work, pointing towards hidden and contracting discourses in politics and society. In Yamaikaleter, leaders of different political groups in Caracas, the capital city of Venezuela, read aloud The Jamaica Letter, written by Simón Bolívar in 1815. Often called El Libertador, Bolívar was the leader of South America’s liberation movement from the Spanish colonial rule in the beginning of the 19th century. The eight politicians seen on the film do not speak or understand English, and the phonetic reading quickly turns into a ceremony of formalities. Although it is difficult to understand the spoken words, the reading is accompanied by familiar body language of political speeches.
Can political parties be regarded as communities? Political parties often attract members and supporters because they appear as social communities, built around common habits, values and interests, and leading politicians’ family and social relations play a great deal in their success. The social nature of a party, as well as personal loyalty and nostalgia, have a higher influence than political slogans when attracting new members. Voting the same candidate or a party create a feeling of reciprocity and togetherness. However, values, being the fundaments of political parties, do not always find their way to political programs, actions or strategies, but may become simple doctrines and a narrative basis for pamphlets and tweets when branding the party. When leaders of political communities are caught of immorality, obvious lies and criminal actions, values can determine whether a voter decides to stay loyal – many choose to oversee the crimes as long as they function against views and values of the opposing parties.
As the letter’s verbal content is lost in translation in the film, a corporeal political language is discovered. The speakers have upright and open posture, they make intentional pauses, and they give weighty looks to the spectator as if making a point – even if the spoken words make little sense. The incomprehensible textual dimension excludes the viewer, yet the embodied signs catch the spectator’s attention. The act of reading loud The Jamaica Letter demonstrates how we might all participate in the empty political jargon, attracted to its surface, but at the same time excluded from its hidden agendas.
What happens when the ideology in the core of the community turns authoritarian? Bolívar’s politics were contradictory and conflicting, even if he is still today celebrated as the hero in the fight for emancipating Venezuela, and afterwards many other South American countries, from the colonial rule of Spain. Bolívar wrote the letter to an Englishman interested in his revolutionary plans when he was in exile in Jamaica in 1815. In the letter, Bolívar asks for European co-operation in the further liberation fights and calls for freedom of slaves and the distribution of land to indigenous peoples. Nevertheless, the letter ends with a message that he continued to repeat until his death – the necessity to unite all South American countries into one nation. Although Bolívar fought for the independence from Spanish colonial power, he did not think that the American peoples were ready for liberal forms of democracy. Thinking that they had been influenced by the greed and ambition of Spain for too long, Bolívar argued for small paternal republics with a strong ruler who would serve for life. Some years after writing the letter, Bolívar became the president of Gran Colombia and the dictator of Peru.
Apóstol’s Yamaikaleter can also symbolize the distance between cults of political persons and the common man. Idealized political leaders, heroic images and politics centered around persons rather than parties are common in authoritarian systems. However, they are not uncommon in today’s Western or Nordic democratic systems, either.
Read Rita Agdal's speech in the exhibition opening 2.11.2023: