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/ARTS WEEKLY/ SCULPTURE-VENEZUELA: Virgins Along the Highway

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Mar 2 2004 (IPS) - Fourteen sculptures of virgins and saints of the Catholic Church will be put on permanent display along the highways of the northwestern Venezuelan state of Yaracuy, the country’s first “religious roadside museum”, picking up on an arts initiative begun more than 20 years ago.

Under this initiative by officials from Yaracuy, located 250 km west of Caracas, each municipal capital will display sculptures by artists from this farming state, including José Luis Díaz, Wilker Ríos, Milagros Lugo, Mireya Camacho and Felipe Guevara

These works of art, standing six metres tall on two-metre pedestals, represent Archangel St. Michael, the Holy Trinity, the Virgin of Coromot and the Virgin of Rosario, among other figures of the Roman Catholic faith. There will also be a statue of Mother Theresa of Calcutta, who founded her first mission outside of India in the Yaracuy town of Cocorote.

The aim of this highway “museum” is to link “religious faith and culture to the landscape, so that local residents and visitors can travel pleasant roads while also highlighting the talent of Yaracuy’s sculptors,” Abelardo Oropeza, head of the project, told IPS.

More than 90 percent of Venezuela’s 24 million people are considered Catholic.

The initiative for roadside museums emerged in southeast Venezuela in 1982, along the 120 km of highway between the cities of El Tigre and Soledad, on the banks of the Orinoco River. Thirty art sites were set up, some of them encouraging reflection on what highway travel itself.

That project, directed by Venezuelan artist Rafael Bogarín, sought to keep drivers alert on a very long, straight road where many accidents occur due to drivers falling asleep at the wheel.

Two years later, the experiment was repeated along the binational highway connecting Cúcuta, in northeast Colombia, to San Antonio del Táchira, in southwest Venezuela.

That open air gallery, dubbed the “highway museum for peace”, exhibited 20 works by Colombian and Venezuelan artists, including Bogarín, Omar Rayo, Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar and Alirio Palacios.

The binational highway museum was created at a time when tensions ran high between the two countries over border disputes, and experts say it served to draw Colombians and Venezuelans together.

With the passing of time, however, weather and vandalism took their toll on most of the works of art.

Then, the idea made its way to western Colombia, where two roadway exhibits were set up: one along the highway between Roldanillo and Zarzal, in the department of Valle del Cauca, and another in Caldas department.

Brazil also caught on, displaying art on the route connecting Rio de Janeiro to Sao Paulo. And in Ecuador, there is an outdoor art exhibit along the Equator.

“The initiative picks up on the notion that the museum should go out to the street, to be among people, instead of waiting for the public to visit the museum. But it is a romantic notion, which in Venezuela has faced many problems, especially vandalism,” María Elena Ramos, former director of the Museum of Fine Arts, told IPS.

She said the highways are spaces that are far from the order of the cities, and that some of the works on display along the roadsides were destroyed, such as “Gran ojo” (Big Eye) by Guatemalan artist Rodolfo Abularach, on Soledad highway, “which was used for target practice.”

But Ramos defends the idea of making art for the road, and said it poses a new challenge for the artists: “how their works are perceived from the movement of a car.”

“You have to make an impact, because the drivers cannot stop to appreciate the details of the work, and at the same time reflect the fine points from the spiritual perspective,” she said.

Art critic Guillermo Barrios also praised the initiative, which he says “animates the roads in a country that has a strong automobile culture”. Venezuela has 2.5 million cars on its roads.

“But these road museums need a system for ongoing updates and maintenance. In the case of the Bogarín project, the deterioration occurred very quickly,” Barrios told IPS.

In Yaracuy, whose Governor Eduardo Lapi is a practicing Catholic, the gallery of statues of virgins and saints is interwoven with private tourism initiatives, such as a new botanical garden and the restoration of a Catholic mission that dates to the 18th century.

 
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