Murals: Speaking Walls

Murals have been called one of the oldest art forms.  They have been around since the era of cavemen, but the term became famous with the Mexican “muralista” art movement in the 1920’s.  Diego Rivera (husband of the infamous Frida Kahlo), José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, a few of the most popular Mexican muralists, were busy during this period painting some of today’s most well-known murals. Still today, the artwork of these master muralists are displayed in places such as the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (INBA) in Mexico City.  These masterpieces continue to inspire artists all over the world, including Hispanic muralists in the United States.

Since the height of their popularity, Latino artists across the U.S. have continued this tradition  from the neighborhoods of L.A. to the streets in New York.  This public artwork is an important artistic tool for communicating social issues with a large crowd.  These big scale paintings on the walls of buildings reach a wide audience who otherwise may never set foot into a traditional art gallery.   “They [murals] intrigue me because they are usually powerful not only in size, but in content and they have the ability to reach across cultures and captivate very diverse viewers,” says Maria Natividad, a muralist from El Paso, Texas.

Javier Aguiñaga, an art teacher and well-known muralist in Texas, was originally driven to murals during his visit to the INBA.  “I saw firsthand the murals of the great ones—Diego Rivera, Orozco…What inspired me was the impact of the message.  When you have something so large, the message embraces you because you’re in front of a humongous piece of artwork.  Just standing in front of it, you can’t help it and you can’t escape it.  You have to deal with the message in front of you.”  As a result, murals have been and are still used to attract many, many viewers.

Murals typically convey a message directed to a large, public audience. For this reason, many artists find the need to communicate and illustrate social issues such as religion, history and politics through murals.  During the Mexican Mural Movement, politics played a major role in the messages conveyed by the muralists, as did the history of Mexico.  Some of the recurring themes during the movement included Aztec ancestry and communist ideals.

Today, muralists address a wide range of issues and themes.  In her mural titled “El Paso History, Lower Valley Pride,” Natividad displays a variety of images, all of which have influenced her hometown.  In the middle, she painted a family.  “It represents unity, harmony and love… The family is the nucleus of our lives.  All the other images are also important, but our connection with one another is of prime importance…Since the mural was to be located in a library, I wanted the mural to be a starting point for people to learn more about our history. I wanted it to be useful and educational as well as artistic. The models I used were family members and members of our community… I did not want to invent faces from my imagination. I wanted real faces with real stories representing their heritage.”

In using murals,  Aguiñaga finds a way to act on the problems that exist today.  “I would like for my paintings to display a message of hope,” he says.  “The subject matter is challenging and it’s so sad.  [They’re] things that you really have to challenge to find that hope again.  You feel you have your hands tied and you want to do something.  That’s my way of trying to do something.”  Art provides a useful venue for community involvement and the chance to make a difference in people’s lives by using something beautiful and meaningful.  Aguiñaga chooses to depict images of culture, politics, and human rights abuses here and in Africa. “That’s [message] what I think is missing from murals today…some people have lost the purpose of doing it,” he adds.

Murals can be located just about anywhere—restaurants, people’s homes, businesses, so many artists find murals as a good way to put their art out there and gain recognition.  “Learn all you can about your art no matter what media you are involved in,” shares Natividad as words of advice to young artists.  “Your only true competition is yourself. Always strive to make the next painting better than the last. Be true to yourself and create art that has value and meaning.”

“Don’t ignore your gifts,” says Aguiñaga.  “They are something special that everybody has, but sometimes it’s hard to notice those things.  If you have a gift, it’s even more rewarding to share it with everybody.”

By Cynthia Arvizo

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