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Art and History, Not Ethnic Politics

L.A.: The Olvera Street mural by Siqueiros both told and forecast the plight of Mexican immigrants.

April 07, 1998|IRENE HERNER | Irene Herner is a professor of visual arts at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, visiting professor at UCLA and Getty curatorial researcher for the Getty/Siqueiros project

In the fall of 1932, the Mexican Revolutionary soldier, militant and painter David Alfaro Siqueiros was invited by the patrons of Olvera Street to paint an outdoor mural, the theme being "Tropical America." The intent of this mural was to decorate and emphasize the Mexican colonial style of this recently inaugurated Mexican pueblito designed by Christine Sterling, fondly known as the mother of Calle Olvera.

Why did they call upon a known communist artist to paint this mural? Because Siqueiros was the only one at that time who could perform the feat. He was an innovator in painting exterior murals.

Why do we have to conserve this work? Because in the history of art since antiquity, it is thought to be one of the few exterior murals that remain. And, it was painted in Los Angeles, renowned for outdoor muralism.

Siqueiros was an experimental artist and one of the first to integrate into the language of painting the languages of the new mass media such as film and billboards. He also integrated into his artistic process the most advanced industrial and technical materials available. He was a pioneer of public art; he planted the seed in Los Angeles.

Siqueiros the man paid dearly during his lifetime for his political beliefs and mistakes. He was exiled, deported and jailed numerous times. Why judge him again? The Cold War is over. Let's recognize his artistic achievements and who he was in the social/historic context of his era.

For Olvera Street, Siqueiros painted a tropical jungle eating up the remains of a Mayan ruin. Before the unveiling, he stayed up all night to paint the central composition, a crucifixion of a Mexican peon subjugated by American imperialism. He painted an America of inequality, of injustice, of the illegal deportation of thousands of Mexicans, citizens or not, taking place at that time; people who had no legal recourse and a shrinking means of survival. What is really impressive is how relevant that theme is today.

Surprise, outrage and indignation precipitated censorship of Siqueiros' point of view, and by 1934 Sterling had whitewashed most of the mural. Forgetfulness and neglect almost destroyed it during the following 64 years. With the impetus of the Chicano movement during the 1970s, a group of concerned citizens tried to rescue "Tropical America" from oblivion and asked for Siqueiros' permission to restore it. He replied that this was not possible, but promised to redo the Christ figure as a separate gift to be donated to the Mexican American community of Los Angeles. Unfortunately, he became ill and died before this could be completed.

Since the end of the 1980s, Miguel Angel Corzo, director of the Getty Conservation Institute, together with the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument Authority and neighborhood merchants, have envisioned a project that would rescue "Tropical America" as an archeological conservation site, with an exhibition that will present the history of this monumental mural as a cultural legacy of the city.

It was in Olvera Street that the mural was commissioned, painted, whitewashed and neglected. Today, it should be rescued and conserved, its story retold--and finally renewed.

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