It was a long journey from Barcelona to La Paz, Bolivia, broken by a night’s stay in the filthy airport detention centre at Lima. I was met by the United Nations representative, the project coordinator and several of his colleagues.
That same day, after I had taken a shower that helped set me up both physically and psychologically, we went to see the murals I had come all this way to conserve. Owned by the Bolivian Workers’ Federation, these were painted in 1955 by Miguel Alandia Pantoja, a Trotskyite painter and friend of the Mexican artist Diego Rivera, at the headquarters of the Miners’ Federation to commemorate the workers’ revolution of 1952.
A beleaguered history
When a bloody coup brought General García Mesa to power, one of the military government’s first objectives was to destroy the Bolivian Workers’ headquarters, which over the years had become a symbol of the popular revolution. A first abortive attempt to blow it up (the dynamite charges were placed in the middle of the rooms) meant that mechanical means such as diggers had to be used. The timely intervention of the United Nations representative and the painter’s son succeeded in saving the murals. At the time, Alandia Junior was in hiding, pursued by the authorities for following the family tradition of Trotskyite activities.
The only solution was to take away the walls in one piece, welding bits of railway sleepers together to form the base in a hollow dug out of the lower part. The murals were shrouded by fabric sheets and then enclosed in wood, forming a case into which plaster was injected. They were taken to an orchard where they remained hidden, at the mercy of wind and weather, until my arrival in March 1983.
The climate of La Paz is characterised by violent changes in temperature, heavy rainfall and sudden droughts—hardly the best conditions for preserving art temperatures, particularly murals removed from their original home and left in the open. My first inspection revealed that they were badly damaged, rainwater had got in at the top and the supports were cracked.
Further examination showed that the sheets used to protect the paintings had been neither washed nor cut and as they dried had shrunk by several centimetres, detaching and distorting the paint layer. The plaster used to reinforce the packing had been injected directly on to the sheets in liquid form, creating an extremely high level of relative humidity. This had caused the sheets to rot and eight different types of mould to form. Three years of bad weather and the inadequate measures taken to protect the works had left them in a deplorable state. I decided that some of them could be saved and, having made such an arduous journey, it was at least worth a try.
Scabies, fleas, bull’s gall and Troskyites
The first task was to move the murals, each measuring five by four metres and weighing thirteen tons, to a combined storeroom and workshop nearby which was on the point of completion.
Since they were the property of the Miners’ Federation, all my co-workers were Trotskyite members of the Bolivian P.O.R. (Workers’ Revolutionary Party). Not one of them knew the first thing about restoration, but their deep political convictions that the murals were a symbol of the workers’ revolution and their strong party discipline was likely to be sufficient motivation for them to work hard. And so it turned out.
Our first task was to clean round the outside of the workshop where there were piles of straw used as beds by the building workers. They provided a breeding ground for huge numbers of fleas which took a particular fancy to my legs. Added to which I had the beginnings of scabies caught in a cheap restaurant where we sometimes ate. The waiter there was a walking catalogue of skin diseases.
In order to get my helpers used to the work, we started with the more manageable, smaller murals measuring 2 x 1 m. Since varnish had been used throughout, we could not apply any kind of organic solvent. The whole process of cleaning and relining had to be carried out with water-soluble materials, basic solvents and alcohol. In order to reline the canvas I thought of using carpenter’s animal glue, adding vinegar and bull’s gall, a classic recipe seldom used these days. I made a “bain-marie” from a 250 litre drum filled with water into which I put a spotlessly clean oil tin containing the glue. Obtaining the vinegar was simple enough; the bull’s gall was another matter. The local abattoir provided a recently extracted gall bladder and I tipped its evil-smelling contents into the glue. It was more like making a witch’s brew than preparing a solution for restoring murals.
Yet another problem was heating such a quantity of water. At an altitude of 3,700, La Paz does not have enough oxygen to make for effective combustion. The answer was to station a workman either side of the fire puffing air down a metal tube. For several days the dull sound it produced provided “piped music” as background to our work. The general enthusiasm for traditional Indian music, mostly played on wind instruments, made the puffing and blowing a much more congenial task.
With the animal glue and a little polyvinyl alcohol I had brought with me I was able to compensate the most badly damaged parts. Matters were complicated by the use of Bolivian-manufactured brushes which after two or three applications of relining material started to fall apart, leaving hairs on the surface of the mural, creating strange flaws that were very hard to get rid of.
We used the polyvinyl alcohol as an adhesive by dissolving it in a 50% solution with water. I noticed we were using up more alcohol than necessary. When I mentioned it to the project coordinator, he advised me to look in the dustbins for the remains of fruit. The following day I told him that I had found some orange peel and he solved the mystery for me. My co-workers were mixing the alcohol with orange juice, making a devastating cocktail with which to end the working day.
The appalling state of the murals meant that we had to work on the back of them, prizing away bits of wall which still contained remains of the water pipes from the Miners’ Federation building. Since the murals were too fragile to be struck with a hammer, we used cutting gear with disks to smooth away the remains, creating great clouds of dust. We protected ourselves with plastic bags on our heads and pieces of gauze secured to our faces with bits of sticking plaster. It was a fascinating spectacle.
We had no choice but to install a shower with an electric water heater. A few days later, one of the lads, affectionately known as “Mowgli” because of his resemblance to the character created by Rudyard Kipling, was taking a shower. The hot water ran out and in Bolivia, the cold water is very cold indeed. When he tried to mend the water heater he got an electric shock that threw him against the metal walls of the workshop. I managed to turn off the current and we all dashed towards poor Mowgli who was completely dazed. As his friends set about trying to revive him using their own bizarre techniques, I discreetly withdrew.
Shortly afterwards, I saw Mowgli fiddling about with the wires which fortunately were not live. After a clumsy attempt to cut the wire’s plastic casing with his teeth, which was tough despite being manufactured in Peru, he ended up clutching a tooth in his hand. A long history of malnutrition, plus his habit of chewing coca leaves, had left him with a very poor set of teeth.
When he asked me pitifully what he should do about it I grudgingly suggested he should glue it back in place. I had done enough experiments for one day. A few days later his mouth was visibly swollen. He had tried to stick his tooth to his gums with epoxy resin. He went to the dentist who took out most of his decayed and infected teeth and a few days later gave him a temporary set of false teeth. Mowgli strutted about with a smile worthy of an American toothpaste commercial. For a while he went around with his mouth open. It was useless to tell him that the new teeth were made for him alone. After a few weeks he had sold them to someone with similar problems but more money. I went to the same dentist some months later.
The work was hard, sometimes very hard. We needed more food. Our meals in the workshop consisted of what Mowgli bought at the market. During this period of social unrest, some kinds of food were scarce. The usual cuisine du marché menu was based on noodles, cooked to a sticky pulp to which were added bits of meat, often chicken feet or gizzards. This would be accompanied by a salad of tomatoes and strongly flavoured onions. For a change we would have the occasional tin of Peruvian sardine chunks. I never managed to find out whether this was in fact intended as pet food. Every dish was garnished with hot spicy sauces and, at the end of particularly strenuous days, washed down by excellent beer, the best in the world.
Bolivian revolutionary or American spy?
Months went by and work progressed, albeit slowly. Social unrest was also rapidly increasing. There were continual strikes and demonstrations and food began to grow scarce, both because traders were hoarding it and because of the difficulty of getting supplies through the peasant blockades to the capital. Already we had received several threatening phone calls from extreme right-wing paramilitary groups. One night they fired on the walls of the workshop, but fortunately there was no one there at the time. Rumours of a coup were growing.
My own position was tragi-comic. According to the Trotskyites I was a CIA agent. Clearly they had a problem distinguishing between the United Nations and the United States, added to which I was in touch with the various embassies, including that of the US. This caused much confusion with sometimes unpleasant repercussions. The version put out by the Americans complicated the issue even further, since they were convinced that I was giving financial help to the Workers’ Revolutionary Party. The kids had used money I had given them to buy weapons and hand grenades. It was a dangerous and messy situation.
When I saw that I was no longer needed and that as a foreigner I would be better off out of it, I decided to leave. I bought a ticket for a flight taking off around midday and set about packing. At 7:30 am I turned on the black and white TV borrowed from the owner of my apartment. On the screen I saw soldiers and armoured vehicles. At first I thought they were library pictures of one of the more recent coups. Unfortunately they were live. An attempt to call a general strike had ended with the military taking over the whole country. I stopped packing and telephoned friends to find out what was happening. Then I settled down to wait. I waited fifty-four days.
I finally returned to Europe on one of the first planes to leave after the beginning of the conflict. A few months later, when things had calmed down, I returned to Bolivia, which I had sworn never to do. For political reasons of its own, the P.O.R. had appointed a new team of workers. The new group included two former assistants of the painter. It was hard to convince them that the murals should be restored. They believed that they should be repainted. They knew all about Alandia Pantoja’s technique and could do the work in a few weeks, saving time and money. Without getting involved in theoretical discussions, I had a job to persuade them that under the circumstances it would be a waste of time and effort and that we should preserve what we had.
Work progressed faster than before. The hardest part was already done. We were able to construct temporary rigid supports for the small murals although we had to buy polyvinyl acetate needed to seal the ground layer on the black market at the Brazilian border. The large murals were fully protected and smooth.
I left the team working on the only unfinished mural and returned to Europe. The last I heard, one year later, was that they were just as I left them. They must be in a good state of preservation.
I hope to see them one day in a place worthy of them. Too much human endeavour has gone into the murals for them to be forgotten. They have a history as dramatic and as violent as the social upheaval they symbolise. Let us hope that they do not come to a tragic end.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Wanted: a home for a cycle of almost restored Bolivian revolutionary murals'