Art history is a fascinating way to learn more about Mexico and the figures who shaped the nation — political, social, cultural. Through their interpretation of characters and events, the famed muralists — Diego Rivera, David Alfara Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco — gave definition to a new nation seeking to redefine itself post-1920 Revolution. We call this Mexican Muralism.
While I’m now in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, I’m reflecting back to last weekend in Mexico City, where, in collaboration with my art historian friend Valeria, we led a group of nine participants from the USA through the historic center. Here is where a turbulent history is interpreted through art. We started on Thursday evening and ended on Sunday afternoon, packing it in, walking miles each day, absorbing a fascinating evolution.
Mexico is defined by many internal and external forces, mostly her on-going desire to reconcile the Spanish conquest with her indigenous origins. Embracing Mestizaje — blending indigenous roots with conquerors, occupiers and immigrants, is what makes Mexico unique among nations, and very different from her northern neighbors.
Rivera, who sat out the 1910-1920 Revolution, painting and making a name for himself in Europe, returned to Mexico City in 1921. Jose Vasconcelos, the first minister of education, recruited Rivera to paint the murals at the Secretariat de Educacion Publica (SEP), his first commission.
The murals of Rivera, Orozco and Siquieros are commentaries on national identity, statehood, oppression and power. The Rivera murals at SEP in particular were part of a national communication plan (aka propaganda) to embrace native culture and arts. Critics say Rivera’s murals are romantic and idealistic. His contemporaries, survivors of the Revolution, painted a more hopeless, violent vision, expressing their belief that the past must be destroyed in order to create a new order.
By Sunday, we move more deeply into the life and times of Frida Kahlo with a visit to Casa Azul, a stark contrast to the muralists.
Frida Kahlo was born in 1907, the year Rivera went to Europe as a young man. During her lifetime she was dwarfed literally and figuratively by her imposing husband. It wasn’t until after her death in 1954 at age 47, that she became the iconic figure she is today — representing women’s strength, pain, fortitude, perseverance, endurance.
We revere her because her art is self-expression. She painted emotion and the internal life. She was a participant, not an observer. She hid her deformities under extraordinary handmade Mexican clothing — popularizing the style, corseted beneath to hold her injured spine erect. Andre Breton called her surrealist. We call her survivor.
Our art history tour weaves the relationship between Diego and Frida with the times in which they lived and worked. We also examine the politics of Socialism and Communism in Mexico, how the Rivera’s gave sanctuary to Leon Trotsky, the idealism of young American artists like Pablo O’Higgins, Isamu Noguchi, and the Greenwood sisters — Marion and Grace, who were drawn to the movement. We see their deteriorating murals in an obscure market blocks from the city center.
We understand Mexico more now, how the creative stream of artistic energy here continues to express social and political inequalities, injustices, and discontent.
Here in Oaxaca, our beloved Maestro Francisco Toledo, carried the mantle of social justice art until he died in September 2019. Young graphic artists follow in the footsteps of the masters, use wood, linoleum block and metal plates to carve out images of truth to power. Mexico offers creative opportunity to any and all who choose to express themselves.
Note: If you put together a group of 5-6 people, I am happy to organize this experience over a long weekend in Mexico City.
The Latino Comics Expo @Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach, California
After hiking the wetlands trails of Bolsa Chica (little purse) Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach along the Pacific Ocean, my son decided we should take in some local culture at the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) in nearby Long Beach. What’s there? The Latino Comics Expo to celebrate it’s 5th anniversary at MOLAA, age 20.
Lucha Libre is a popular Latino comic book subject
The Expo was created by Javier Hernandez and Ricardo Padilla. They started it at the San Francisco Cartoon Art Museum in 2011. This is their second time at MOLAA. They mounted the first expo there in 2013.
As a lover of Oaxaca graphic arts, it’s not a stretch for me to consider that comics are a natural extension of the great Mexican tradition of illustrator Jose Guadelupe Posada. In fact, there are Posada illustrations on exhibit at this museum, too.
Jose Guadalupe Posada original illustration, a poke at the bourgeoisie
After all, Posada is Diego Rivera’s hero and he features him prominently, and fondly, in the mural Dream on a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Park (Mexico City). Muralists Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siquieros form the second and third legs of the Mexican Muralist Movement stool. They used caricature, too, as prominent artistic expression in their work.
In artist Ramiro Gomez’ Magazine series, he comments on who does the work
The Latino comics tradition of Los Angeles is rooted in these antecedents. Illustrators used and continue to use political parody in their work, just as Posada, Rivera, Orozco and Siquieros did one hundred years ago to poke at their adversaries.
Do you think they use pesticides? Who is harvesting? What is health risk?
In the permanent exhibition, Ramiro Gomez, son of Mexican immigrants, reflects his experiences and stories growing up in a working class family. His art (above) focuses on class difference and the people behind a socially constructed representation of luxury. He tears out advertisements from upscale magazines and superimposes domestic workers into the composition.
The Trump High Five, by Lalo Alcarez
The Latino Comics Expo was a two-day event, August 6 and 7. There were about 50 illustrators there demonstrating their work, selling books, posters, postcards, t-shirts, ball caps and pins. Some works were prints, silkscreen, engravings and hand-illustrated with colored pen.
Lowriders at the Center of the Earth, illustrated by Raul The Third
Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, illustrated by Raul the Third, grabbed my attention. So did the lowrider on the cover, an integral part of my growing-up years in the San Fernando Valley when young Latinos/Chicanos altered their Chevys, Fords and Chryslers. Tuck and roll leather seats. Raked front ends. Flashing lights. Flames. The more elaborate, the better.
Illustrator Lalo Alcarez. Political & social justice commentary, too. Plus a little pin-up.
The t-shirt Lalo Alcarez (above) wears, Hecho en California, speaks to the strong influences of Latino culture in the second largest city of America.
As I looked around at the posters and books, I thought, this is great art, just like what I’m used to seeing at the Oaxaca printmaking studios of Fernando Sandoval and La Chicharra. I walked away with an autographed book copy of Lowriders.
Hand-colored illustration of the Conquest. With codices footnotes.
Then, my son tells me, mom, he’s pretty famous. He’s published in L.A. Weekly. What do I know?
Zapotec poet Natalia Toledo, in featured museum video
As I turned the corner to go through the regular exhibition, there was a video interview with Oaxaca poet Natalia Toledo talking about the importance of literacy and preserving Zapotec culture. Natalia also designs extraordinary jewelry (available for sale at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca gift shop). Versatile like her father, Francisco Toledo.
Untitled, by Rodolfo Morales, Oaxaca painter
Show Me Your Papers! by illustrator Lalo Alcaraz
Comic book art/illustration defines the culture and sub-culture, makes a political, social commentary and moral observation about the world that can be humorous, biting and truth-telling. What if Native Americans had asked immigrating English, French and Spanish for their papers?
Uncle Sam wants YOU! Who else will clean homes, harvest food?
After over a wonderful, satisfying month visiting family and friends, I’m back home in quiet, calm Oaxaca. No freeway congestion or the lure of mall shopping, over-priced lunches and dinners, blustering television pundits that I admit had me addicted to the next adrenaline fix. My wi-fi service is now reconnected and it’s raining. What could be better? Now for a bit of sopa de pollo con limon (chicken with lime soup).
Come! It’s safe.
Comic book series, The Hand of Destiny
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Mexican Immigration, Oaxaca Mexico art and culture, Travel & Tourism
Tagged California, comic book, graphic art, illustration, immigration, Latino comics, Long Beach, Los Angeles, lowrider, Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, Mexico, migrants, Museum of Latin American Art, Natalia Toledo, Oaxaca, Orozco, posada, Raul The Third, Rivera, Siquieros