Mexico is a funny place. If you study our history you’ll soon learn that the country was unified under an ideology called Mestizaje. According to Mestizaje, people from indigenous, European and African backgrounds could be thrown into a melting pot, given a good stir, and then rebranded as a new, ‘civilised’ and unified Mexican race. Our connection to our indigenous past was severed, and at the same time it was made clear to us that we were no longer Europeans either.
In my opinion the whole idea behind our identity as Mestizos (or half breeds) is fundamentally racist and instructs us to sabotage any chance we might have had of achieving a strong, well grounded identity based on a connection with our ancestors. Sometimes I feel that we are a country full of brave but broken people, disconnected from our past, but going, well…somewhere. Anywhere.
Although there are a lot of deeply rooted issues in modern day Mexican society, there’s one thing that has been a constant source of hope for me: Mexico’s muralists. Muralism was prevalent in Mexico during the 1930s and 40s, when artists set out to educate the people through massive paintings in public spaces. Their paintings depicted the country’s history from a ‘not so western’ perspective.
Perhaps the artist Diego Rivera is a good place to begin if you want to understand a bit more about muralism in Mexico. I’d really recommend, however, that you check out the works of other muralists who aren’t as well-known outside of the American continent. My personal favourites are Jorge Gonzalez Camarena, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco.
I was introduced to muralism through Orozco’s fifty-seven frescoes at the Hospicio Cabañas, a centuries’ old orphanage now turned into an art gallery and concert hall in my hometown of Guadalajara, Jalisco. When I was a kid we’d go to the orphanage to learn about the history and the murals during school field trips. I had no idea about the politics behind the frescoes at the time, I was simply fascinated by their magnificence.
As I grew up I began to understand the meanings behind every fresco in the orphanage, and it wasn’t long before they sparked within me what I guess you could call a revolutionary fervour that has prevailed throughout my life.
One fresco that particularly caught my attention on my last visit was “The Wheel” by Orozco (pictured above). It warns Mexico of the dangers of westernisation and the west’s obsession with progress, and can also be read as an “I told you so” to modern Mexico. It features an iron wheel in a state of glory that is often interpreted as Western culture or ‘civilisation’. Buried underneath this iron wheel is everything that once meant something to us and our ancestors – our culture, our religion, our worldview, and our identity.
I like to think that if every Mexican could decode and truly understand murals like this that have been left behind by brave revolutionaries, then maybe we could overcome the tyranny of the west and move onto a new phase where we hold our future in our own hands.
The beauty of murals is that unlike other forms of artistic expression, they’re not confined to museums. They cover walls in buildings and courtyards all over the city. So next time you are in Mexico and you stumble across a massive wall with a painting that looks just like a Diego Rivera, chances are it is a Diego Rivera.
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