Murals at the Intersection of Politics

Photo: Original mural by painter Diego Rivera located at La Secretaria de Educaion Publica in Mexico City, Mexico.

June 29, 2017-

Nestled along the bustling streets of Oakland, Calif., stands a tiny Mexican food joint with big personality. The walls of the establishment are adorned with a mural that pays homage to its cultural heritage.

In it, a woman with long, dark braided hair and a bright blue dress kneels over the stone surface with a rolling pin in hand. She is flattening the yellow masa to make corn tortillas. In the distance, the sun hangs high above a mountain range of an arid landscape. Cacti grow near a riverbed where a lone hummingbird flies.

The mural at La Casitia is one of many emerging around the San Francisco Bay.

This October, the city of Richmond, Calif. is set to host the second annual Bay Area Mural Festival (BAMFest). Over the course of one week the festival will produce a total of 12 new murals throughout the city. Fiscal support for the project comes from the California Arts Council, who just announced an award in the amount of $45,000 to BAMFest.

The state’s financial support toward the creation of murals is recognition of a connection between the arts and the pressing social issues often found in disenfranchised communities. The physical and thus visible increase of murals signifies a greater capacity for public awareness of these narratives. This development reveals that politics occupy the intersection of muralism.

After the 1910 Mexican Revolution, political awareness became a focal point of art in Mexico. During the 1920’s, muralist Diego Rivera helped pave the way for what would be known as the Mexican Mural Movement.

The intent and philosophy of the movement was to produce information through public forms of art that were accessible to the poor masses. It evolved into a new stylization of murals, one that altered significantly from those of Europe. Murals thus became a platform for politics.

Many muralists today continue to produce in that style form. Laura Salazar aka Mujer Muralista, the artist of the mural at La Casita, confirmed that in “…the philosophy of the 1920’s, a mural is a very political statement to the people… you have a responsibility as a storyteller. There usually is no text, it’s all images. You’re showing a visual picture to the public… you’re speaking to your community.”

Murals depict the political climate of the time. The images serve as narrates to relevant social issues.

Take immigration, which is is currently at the forefront of political conversation. Migrant communities that are directly impacted by policy outcomes do not readily have access to platforms where their voices are heard. In such cases, art as expressed through murals serves as a platform for a disenfranchised community.

67 Suenos is a non-profit organization headquartered in San Francisco that works with migrant youth to create such platforms. The non-profit says one way they do this is by helping youth build personal and political skills. Youth are engaged “in an intensive mural creation process derived from the real experiences of the community surrounding them.”

In May, the organization hosted a 5k charity run in order to raise money for their annual summer mural workshops. Linda Sanchez, the Director of 67 Suenos, said that the program has a significant impact on youth. And one youth member, Oscar Calderon, confirmed that youth “come and are so angry, and they leave empowered, with tools to succeed.”

Salazar agrees that muralism has the capacity to impact and empower communities from multiple angles. The muralist, an Oakland native, said she was a “product of the streets and poverty, and gang affiliation.” It was her art teacher and mentor who guided her and gave her direction. Salazar said she “exposed me to murals… and then I just haven’t stopped… I’ve been painting a mural a year if not more.”

The mural Salazar painted at La Casita was completed in November of 2016 and she is now working on another piece at that location. She is also painting a mural in the girls restroom of a middle school located on Treasure Island. She facilitates youth workshops with students at the school. The muralist, also an educator, said “in any community that I go to I facilitate workshops, I talk to the community members, we create murals together.” Salazar said she sees murals as a form of empowerment and activism.

One of Salazar’s long standing murals, titled ‘Suenos de Mestiza’, is located at La Pena Cultural Center in Berkeley, Calif. The center’s communications director, Natalia Retamal, is witness to the community’s response to the mural. “People of color react the most beautiful way looking at murals… a lot of selfies are taken at that mural… the mural allows them to really feel like they belong”, she said.

La Pena is also the main sponsor of BAMFest. The festival will enact many of the same principles behind this style of muralism. It will host artist residencies and workshops to create 12 new environmentally themed murals. In addition, art teachers will work with marginalized youth to create two more.

La Pena decided to pursue the mural project because is aligns with the center’s values and core mission. Their mission is to promote social justice through the arts. Retamal said “murals are a form of public art and reflect a message that speaks to the community… they help to beautify neighborhoods that have been neglected.”

Malcom Marshall, a local journalist and community member of Richmond was surprised to hear about the Bay Area Mural Festival. Marshall said that over the last few years he has witnessed an increase in murals around Oakland and Richmond. He was even more intrigued when he learned that BAMFest would be taking place in his backyard this year. “Murals beautify the city, they tell stories about culture(s)”, he said.

But not all murals are inherently political and not everyone finds the art form aesthetically pleasing to the eye.

Earlier this month, Mission Local reported the defacement of a mural in the Mission District of San Francisco, Calif. A new business owner to the neighborhood allegedly hired two non-local artists to paint over the standing mural, calling it too “dark”. He replaced the mural with brighter colors and text that read: Be A Good Person.

The defaced mural was created by youth under the guidance of Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center. The local community, who has fought for the copyrights of mural art, contests that there is a mural culture and that part of that culture is to receive permission from the artist(s) before removing a mural.

The controversial new mural was not inherently political. Instead, it was a mosaic of colors with a positive message. It replaced a black and red mural that read: Our Culture Is Not For Sale.

Sources:

Laura Salazar- oaklandmuralist@gmail.com

Natalia Retamal- natalia@lapena.org

Linda Sanchez- lsanchez@afsc.org

Malcolm Marshall- mmarshall@richmondpulse.org