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Riding the buses » Cultural travel, Mexico » The Mexican Muralist movement: Change through public art

The Mexican Muralist movement: Change through public art

It would be hard to imagine anyone entering the National Palace in Mexico City and not stopping in the stairwell to study the mural that covers its walls. It’s huge and breathtaking in scope. The images tell the story of Mexico from the earliest of times and some of it is heartbreaking such as the treatment of the indigenous peoples by the conquering Spaniards. The King of Spain granted the colonists large grants of land and the owners were allowed to force the Natives living on the land to work for them, usually under very harsh conditions. 

This is the work of Diego Rivera, one of three artists most associated with the Mexican muralist movement, the others being David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco, a movement that was promoted by the Mexican government after the country’s decade-long revolution ended in 1920.

History of Mexico by Diego Rivera, National Palace, Mexico City

Different factions vied for power during the revolution and the new government wanted to convey the message to a largely illiterate Mexican population that Mexico was now a mestizo nation and that the principals of the revolution—particularly labour and land reform—would be upheld. So by commissioning some of the country’s best artists, the government was indicating through public art that change was coming. 

Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco had different styles but all three were confirmed Marxists, independently minded and highly political.

Diego Rivera had studied in Europe and sometimes incorporated elements of cubism in his works. His mural themes were about Mexico’s history and the subjugation of the indigenous population.

Miguel Hidalgo, father of Mexican independence by Jose Orozco, Guadalagara

Jose Clemente Orozco’s murals are considered to be the “angriest” of the three. He too chastised the ruling class for its brutal treatment of the indigenous people and the ruination of their culture. His finest murals are found in Guadalajara. 

Our Present Image by David Alfaro Siqueiros, Museo de Arte, Mexico City

David Alfaro Siqueiros was the youngest of “los tres grandes” (the three greats). He was also the most radical and ended up in jail several times because of his politics. His mural Polyforum Cultural Siqueiros, “History of Humanity”, in Mexico City is considered to be his masterpiece.

Fernando Castro Pacheco, Merida, Yucatan

The muralist movement, while strongest from the 1920s to the 1950s, continues as a Mexican tradition. The ones done by Fernando Castro Pacheco in the 1970s in the Government Palace in the Yucatan city of Merida speak to the Maya peasant, virtually a slave, who was “perpetually on the move, going to his field at sunrise and not returning home until dusk”.

Still today, murals are being painted around the country. In Puebla, this form of public art is found on giant billboards, started in 2010 to express “who we were”, “who we are”, and “who we want to be”. The volunteer artists describe themselves as “architects, graphic designers, painters, journalists, dancers, photographers, environmentalists, biologists and anybody with noble creative ideas towards beautifying our city and empowering our historical identities. We stand for colorful facades, smiling faces, dripping paintbrushes, restored houses, cactus paint, dancing, linking communities and mural art as a tool towards cohesiveness.”

Puebla billboard mural

Some of these murals speak to the time when Puebla’s poorly equipped army fended off the French army in May 5, 1862. This was said to be a miracle and worthy of celebrating every year to this day. 

All to say that murals in Mexico are the public’s art, created with passion and available to all.

By Sylvia Fanjoy

Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy

© Riding the buses 2017

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