Rodrigo Acosta’s family left the Chilean seaport Valparaiso when he was 13, seeking refuge from the Pinochet dictatorship in the conspicuous year of 1984. But after settling in Merida, Venezuela, the picturesque city nestled in the Northern Andes, Rodrigo found they had not fully escaped the Orwellian trends that pervaded Latin America in the 1980s.
“It was the 4th Republic,” Rodrigo told venezuelanalysis.com, referring to the neoliberal era that preceded Hugo Chavez, “We found many groups who painted murals and organized meetings in solidarity with Chile, but all of it was clandestine. We were ready to scatter when the National Guard came.”
Today Rodrigo is the founder and artistic director of the Fuga Collective, a word that means escape or flight in Spanish. The group has become an eminent source of urban art and design since it formed in 2013.
Fuga was created just days after Chavez’s death, when Rodrigo met two other artists and kindred spirits among the millions waiting in line to pay their respects at the socialist leader’s wake in Caracas. It was a time of disbelief and heartache for the majority of Venezuelans- but many, like Rodrigo, hit the ground running, channeling grief into action.
“We have to raise the legacy,” he said, recalling the collective’s founding motives, “We wanted to bring his message to life, using art as our medium.”
Once back in Merida, Fuga undertook its first mural, which remains to be the largest in the city- a testament to peace and social justice, featuring John Lennon and Ghandi.
The vivid style and social content of the collective’s work quickly drew positive responses.
The national tourist bureau commended the street art, recognizing its power to transform the city’s public spaces. They soon commissioned the group to paint a total of 20 murals throughout the urban area, and printed a guide for tourists’ to locate each of them, labeling the exhibition a “Gallery Under the Sky.”
Where before there were three friends, 15 full-time artists soon swelled Fuga’s ranks.
The 20-mural endeavor placed emphasis on local heroes and lore; artisans, musicians, and writers- even illustrations of folktales. In that sense, Rodrigo says, the images give “our history, our identity, and memory” an indelible place in the city.
Since that time the collective’s brushes have graced numerous cities’ walls throughout the country, brightening many dull streets with vibrant hues. In Merida alone, they’ve done about 35 murals.
“We try to focus our work in areas where there is often traffic or long lines, and along commuter routes. We believe in the psychology of colors, that this added element can change someone’s state of mind,” Rodrigo explained.
In February, Merida was one of the areas worst hit by the anti-government protests known as guarimbas – the city was paralyzed for months while militants set up roadblocks of burning trash and charged people tolls to pass them, and vandalized and torched public transport vehicles throughout the city.
Another pro-Chavez activist and Chilean refugee, Gisela Rubilar, was shot and killed by protestors while trying to clear a barricade that was blocking access to her community during that time. At least two others were killed by sniper-fire while clearing barricades, and one woman was decapitated by a barbed wire hung by protestors targeting chavistas riding motorbikes.
As most of the region reeled in the face of such brutality, Fuga painted its response on the city’s walls. One image created during that time depicts a bleeding heart and a call for tolerance and respect. Another, which incorporates a haunting image from Picasso’s Guernica, pleads for “a more human, less beastly” city.
“[The protestors] attacked a mural we had done of Chavez multiple times,” Rodrigo recalled. “But each time, we would return and extend the image even further. It started as just his head, but with each attack, we would paint more of him, his arms extending onto the surrounding walls… It’s our metaphor, and our challenge,” he said, to continue branching out and deepening the revolution.