By Alexandra Ulmer
CARACAS (Reuters) - Tear gas canisters fired by the thousands on the streets of Caracas are being transformed into sculptures in a competition seeking to give an artistic twist to this year's anti-government unrest in Venezuela.
The opposition-governed Chacao district, a hotbed of violent clashes between masked protesters and security forces in the capital, is inviting locals to submit creations by the end of this month based on spent canisters found on the streets.
"This initiative seeks to convert instruments of repression into a tool of peaceful protest," reads the council's invitation, which has a photo of a pink flower poking out of a canister.
"This is a symbol of the response of the Chacao municipality's residents to the disproportionate and inhumane acts of repression that have happened in our streets at the hands of the state security forces," the invitation said.
Each district in Caracas is governed by a mayor with considerable autonomy in the day-to-day running of affairs.
Rights groups and opponents of President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government say National Guard troops used excessive force to quell three months of near-daily protests that began in February.
Officials, though, say the demonstrations were cover for a U.S.-backed coup plot. They insist that security forces showed great restraint in the face of hooded protesters hurling rocks and gasoline bombs, and sometimes including gunmen.
At least 42 people died and nearly 900 were hurt in the violence around the protests, with victims on both sides.
Although the violence has died down, some hardliners are still taking to the streets sporadically. Opponents say the root causes - economic hardship and repression - remain unresolved.
Security forces fired scores of gas canisters night after night when demonstrators began stoning them or refused to vacate blocked streets.
Art competition organizer Diego Scharifker said the wealthy Chacao district's council had collected about 200 canisters. Students have been displaying hundreds more on the streets.
"The project's idea is one of transformation. These are things created to make you cry," Ricardo Benaim, a 64-year-old Venezuelan artist who plans to submit an angel crafted from canisters, said in an interview last week. " ... Angels are the guardians of hope."
Political art became commonplace across Venezuela during the 1998-2013 rule of the late Hugo Chavez.
Walls across the country are emblazoned with murals glorifying him, Argentina's revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, former Cuban leader Fidel Castro and other Latin American leftist icons.
In response to the recent protests, government supporters have begun depicting doves on walls with the Spanish slogan: "Pintale una paloma a la guarimba." The phrase translates literally as "Paint a dove at the protests" but also, in local slang, means: "Stick one finger up at the protests."
(Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Jonathan Oatis)