Monday, October 16, 2017

National Hispanic Heritage Month: A Mural’s Unveiling 85 years ago


Colored digital rendering of David Alfaro Siqueiros’s America Tropical
Courtesy Luis C. Garza; mural © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SOMAAP, Mexico City

Although National Hispanic Heritage Month has just concluded, here in Los Angeles the celebration of Latina/o heritage is in full swing.

In September, the Getty launched its widely anticipated region-wide initiative, Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, with more than 70 participating institutions and organizations. Among them are a number of exhibitions featuring the works of Latina/o and Latin American muralists.

Artists and curators featured in Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA stand as a group at the Getty Center, September 2017

In addition to our own ¡Murales Rebeldes! L.A. Chicana/o Murals under Siege at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes and its spotlight installation L.A. History: A Mexican Perspective at Union Station, Latina/o murals are featured in the Skirball Cultural Center’s Surface Tension by Ken Gonzales-Day: Murals, Signs, and Mark-Making in L.A.; CSU Northridge Art Galleries’ The Great Wall of Los Angeles: Judith F. Baca’s Experimentations in Collaboration and Concrete; Chapman University’s My Barrio: Emigdio Vasquez and Chicana/o Identity in Orange County; Laguna Art Museum’s California Mexicana: Missions to Murals, 1820–1930; and Pomona College Museum of Art’s Prometheus 2017: Four Artists from Mexico Revisit Orozco.

It has been said that many Chicana/o muralists in Southern California drew their inspiration from the city’s first public mural, América Tropical (1932) by David Alfaro Siqueiros. As LA Plaza and California Historical Society executive directors John Echeveste and Anthea M. Hartig Ph.D. noted, “Siqueiros’s work, along with those of his Mexican muralist contemporaries fueled the artistic fires of the many Chicana/o muralists who emerged in Southern California beginning in the 1960s. Like Siqueiros, they used their art form to express their frustrations, dreams, hopes, and grievances against a society they viewed as largely oppressive.”

Composite of details of murals featured in ¡Murales Rebeldes! L.A. Chicana/o Murals under Siege, designed by Amy Inouye, FutureStudio, 2017
LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes/California Historical Society

The mural, located on Olvera Street, which graphically depicts the crucifixion of a Mexican Indian on a cross crowned with an American eagle, was considered dangerously anti-American and was whitewashed within a few years of completion.

The far-reaching Getty Conservation Institute, of course, has played a significant role in the mural’s continued inspiration. On October 9, 1932, the patrons who commissioned América Tropical were scandalized when the mural was unveiled. Expecting a benign, romanticized tropical scene for the newly developed Mexican marketplace, Olvera Street, their dismay by Siqueiros’s surprise political message, resulting in the mural’s almost immediate whitewashing, a process that continued over a few years. 

As Siqueiros later explained in a 1971 documentary by Chicano filmmaker Jesús Treviño, “for me ‘America Tropical’ was a land of natives, of Indians, Creoles, of African-American men, all of them invariably persecuted and harassed by their respective governments.”

The Getty Conservation Institute’s Monitoring Notebook and a visual of América Tropical on the roof of the recently renovated Italian Hall at El Pueblo de Los Angeles National Monument, March 21, 2017
Photo: Shelly Kale; mural: © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SOMAAP, Mexico City

In 2012, eighty years to the day after the mural’s first unveiling, a second unveiling made news. This time, however, there was cause for celebration. On October 9, 2012, after a nearly $10 million restoration funded by the City of Los Angeles and the Getty Conservation Institute, the mural as it had emerged—ghostlike—from behind four decades of whitewash in the 1970s was carefully conserved and protected, enhanced by an interpretive center that explained its conservation and artistic legacy.

This writer wonders: Might this conserved version of the mural serve the same role in inspiring today and tomorrow’s Chicana/o muralists? Might the PST: LA/LA initiative inspire greater dialogue between Latino communities across North America?


Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager
skale@calhist.org

Sources:
Erin Curtis, Jessica Hough, Guisela Latorre, ¡Murales Rebeldes! L.A. Chicana/Chicano Murals under Siege (Los Angeles: Angel City Press, 2017)

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Learn more about ¡Murales Rebeldes! L.A. Chicana/o Murals under Siege at http://muralesrebeldes.org

Learn more about Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA at http://www.pacificstandardtime.org/ 

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