As he regains consciousness in a train car filled with slowly decaying bodies, José Arcadio Segundo – the protagonist of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) – observes that the soldier-butchers ‘had had time to pile [the corpses] up in the same way in which they transported bunches of bananas’. When he arrives home to the fictional town of Macondo, where no one believes his story, since it contradicts the official government and media narratives of peaceful reconciliation, Segundo’s memories of bodies discarded ‘like rejected bananas’ linger in a fugue state.
The events in García Márquez’s book were inspired by the actual 1928 massacre of striking United Fruit Company (UFC) workers in the Colombian coastal town of Ciénaga. In 1889, the Boston-based UFC began growing fruit in the rural region of Magdalena, which it marketed abroad with the invented coquette, ‘Chiquita Banana’. When labourers gathered in a public square to peacefully protest the company’s abusive practices, the army – under pressure from the US government – fired upon them; casualty estimates range wildly from 47 to 2,000. The slaughter sent shockwaves through Colombian society, toppling the conservative hegemony, a regime that had dominated national politics since 1886, initiating the career of liberal populist Jorge Eliécer Gaitán and producing an ideological touchstone for both the left-wing guerrilla revolutionaries and the right-wing paramilitaries who fought for power in the latter half of the 20th century.
Drawing from the same real-life tragedy, José Alejandro Restrepo’s ‘Musa paradisíaca’ (Paradisiacal Muse) actualizes García Márquez’s linguistic conflation of rotting human and plantain flesh. An adapted restaging of the artist’s eponymous landmark work, first presented at Bogotá’s Museo de Arte Moderno in 1996, saturates the three-floor exhibition space with the acrid smell of overripe fruit. Cut stalks of banana clusters, their elongated stems culminating in aged flowers, are hung with white rope from the ceiling of the second floor. Three of these phallic blossoms have been severed and replaced with small black monitors whose cords twist up the plants’ spines like cyborg implants; their screens display black and white video footage documenting the 1928 killings, only visible as reflections in small circular mirrors placed on the wooden floorboards.
These easily overlooked filmic reflections form what Gaston Bachelard termed an ‘epistemological rupture’, or a critical point of temporal discontinuity, by which Restrepo’s narrative segues between past and present. For example, a series of photographic works from 1996, also titled ‘Musa paradisíaca’, features a 19th-century engraving of a nude woman posing suggestively beneath a banana tree. Referred to by the artist as an ‘ideological-colonial vision of the New World’, the image is a forerunner of both the Chiquita Banana Walt Disney cartoons and Busby Berkeley’s 1943 Technicolor film The Gang’s All Here, clips of which are featured in an untitled video work also on display. In a later collage from the same series, the engraving is juxtaposed with screenshots from a pornographic website, in which a nude woman eats a banana in a similarly recumbent position. Given temporary reprieve from her labours on a banana plantation, the exploited female is deployed as an object for touristic fantasy, recalling the exploitation and violent treatment of workers that continue to plague Colombian society. It is fitting that Restrepo – whose work exerts an immense influence over a younger generation of Colombian artists – takes as his subject here nothing less than an image-based genealogy of the nation itself. In this visceral exhibition, he collapses these complex histories of race and labour, language and gender, into the deceptively simple presence of a hanging fruit.
First published in Issue 183