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Oct. 2, 2022

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Mexico’s groundbreaking muralism movement being revived

Artists’ goal, 100 years ago and today, is to share messages of social and political importance

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A bicyclist rides past a mural painted by Mexican artist Jesus Rodriguez Arevalo on July 30 in San Salvador, Mexico.
A bicyclist rides past a mural painted by Mexican artist Jesus Rodriguez Arevalo on July 30 in San Salvador, Mexico. (fernando llano/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

POXINDEJE, Mexico — A painter in orange overalls touches up the image of a hand holding a rifle while an artist perched on scaffolding painstakingly places bits of colorful ceramic in a mosaic of a guerrilla fighter.

The artists aren’t just decorating a wall. Together, they are helping to revive muralism, a movement that put Mexico at the vanguard of art a century ago.

Just as their famous predecessors did shortly after the Mexican Revolution, teachers and students of the Siqueiros School of Muralism are on a mission to keep alive the practice of using visual imagery to share messages of social and political importance.

The mural in progress is on three walls of a municipal building in San Salvador, a small town of about 29,000 people north of Mexico City in Hidalgo state. The Siqueiros School is based in a converted elementary school in the nearby hamlet of Poxindeje. One of its co-founders is Jesús Rodríguez Arévalo, a pupil of disciples of Mexico’s three muralism masters: Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco.

“The school is small, a humble space, but it is very serious and it is professional,” Rodríguez said.

One hundred years ago, Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco also started out at a colonial-era school-turned-art laboratory. It was 1922, and they were charged with fulfilling the then-Mexican education minister’s mission to take art out of the galleries and into public spaces. The plan, part of a national literacy campaign sponsored by the national government, transformed Mexico and permeated the entire continent.

The artists’ manifesto was to make “ideological propaganda for the good of the people” and give art “a purpose of beauty, of education and combat for all.”

They identified with the agrarian and proletarian revolutions and mingled with European artists who fled to Mexico from both world wars. Sponsored by the government, they had access to the country’s most majestic buildings and the necessary resources to experiment with new techniques. Eventually, they began to paint in other nations, including Argentina, Chile, Cuba and the United States.

Despite the backing of Mexican political leaders, their work turned out to be too provocative in some places outside the country: A mural that Rivera painted in New York City’s Rockefeller Center was censured and then demolished because it glorified communism, according to its detractors.

“We are a bit more cowardly,” said Ernesto Ríos Rocha, 53, a muralist who is trying to found Mexico’s first muralism university in the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa. “We talk more about peace.”

The murals being created in San Salvador and other small towns today still have much in common with those created in the early 20th century, however: They encapsulate themes of war, injustice and oppression — as well as 21st-century issues such as climate change and violence against women.

But Rodríguez and his students don’t anticipate monumental reverberations from their work. Their aspirations are lower and their incomes are more modest, coming mostly from local governments that commission them to paint murals and support from community members who donate meals and house foreign students.

The Poxindeje school bets on recycling and reusing discarded materials donated by glassmakers or flooring manufacturers, said Janet Calderón, who co-founded the Siqueiros School with Rodríguez five years ago. They’re even making murals from garbage.

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