Che Guevara keyring
Materials: laser-cut plastic sheet, metal ring
Dimensions: 5 centimeters high
Place acquired: V&A museum shop, London
Place of manufacture: not known
This keyring was for sale in the Victoria and Albert Museum gift shop when the museum curated a small exhibition about Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. The exhibition was not about the man, or his life or political beliefs. It was about his face – that famous image that has adorned a million posters and tee-shirts. I picked this keyring out of a display bin containing hundreds of identical ones, all made from laser-cut plastic, so I think it’s safe to assume that this little item has nothing much to do with revolutionary communism. At best it makes a vague fashion statement about the owner of a bunch of keys. But what is interesting about it is the power of modern graphic design not only to spread meaning but to change meaning.
The original black and white photograph of Guevara was taken by the Cuban photographer Alberto Korda in 1960 at a public event in Havana. Korda enlarged and cropped the photo, clearly recognising its impact, though for several years it just remained pinned to the wall of his studio. But in 1967 Korda released the photo to an Italian publisher to use in an edition of Che’s Bolivian Diaries. It was subsequently used on a poster around the time of Che’s death in Bolivia in 1968. These were heady times of revolutionary struggle in the third world, and counter-culture activism in the West, for which Che was becoming a heroic symbol. It didn’t take long for this image to spread around the world. The handsome face, the determined gaze, the starred beret and long, tousled hair became a romanticised archetype of leftist revolutionary action.
But a major factor in the success of the image was the graphic treatment of the photograph. In 1968 the graphic artist Jim Fitzpatrick deleted the mid-tones (greys) from the photo and converted it to a black and white line image which he used on a poster. The result was dramatic. The line image could be easily reproduced – photocopied, stencilled, screenprinted, graffitied, painted as a mural. There was no end of ways that this image could now be used. But along the way the meaning of the image has changed. In some places and to many people Che's face still symbolises revolutionary struggle, but it has also become, like my keyring, a commercialised motif that has been emptied of meaning. It has become a sign that refers only to itself.