At War, Latina is a Political Artist

“History is written by victors” a proverb that is always encountered when trying to unleash the truth about our ancestors in the history of man on Earth. However, history of literature, visual arts, fine arts and music are only written by artists who try to portray the real truths about themselves, experiences and societies in a certain way or another. Likewise, in the time when the literature of Latin American art was dismissed and undervalued by many critics – especially by Europeans and North Americans- essentially because they are “hybrid”, Latin American audiences have viewed their writers and artists as the representatives of their real national genuiniety. Naturally, this has put writers and artists in a peculiar position where they were directed to be the source of national identity in the times of upheavals, crises and movements; the artist equals the nation not the political leader. This is in contrast to what has been the tradition in Europe where –for example- French glorified paintings of the 17th century owe much to the state power more than being a representative of the people as France was the forefront of the European Art. However, since the Renaissance this has changed, but with a more tendency to represent the nationalities not the European identity, which shows the originality of Latin American artists of uniting a hybridized identity of common struggles.

Therefore, the artistic and the political situations that prevailed in Latin America in the period from 1910 with the bloody Mexican revolution till the period of modernism in 1950 meant that the most famous artists are those who first yearned back to discover their indigenous origins as Latin Americans, and then they have launched a new line of modernism that specially appeared on their own lands. Actually, Latin American countries are more to be realized in the context of their political and social circumstances. However, the uniqueness of Latin American culture as a whole is the fusion of its countries’ traditions as a result of a mixture of races. In fact, Caucasian invaders of the continent interbred with Native American Indians, Jewish traders and merchants who found a better trade on its shores lived there and interbred with Indians, Spanish colonials and Brazilians who imported blacks from Africa as slaves interbreed with the white masters and also with the Indians. Besides, there was the Asian influx of Chinese and Filipinos (who were Spanish processions), and a massive Japanese immigration to Brazil that led to making Sao Paulo one of the largest Japanese cities in the world. As a result, this hybridization created a vital, original and surprising art throughout the continent’s history expressing its political situation by its own people not the intruders.

Cortes and Malinche
Figure 1

Art has always been used as a tool to forge a new Latin American reality and identity in order to overcome trauma and displacement. However, Latin America’s development is best to be expressed by individuals not as structured movements. Starting with the political situation in Mexico during the 1920s when a development of a new art “Muralism” was initiated by Diego Rivera (1886 – 1957) one of the greatest hero figures in the history of Latin America. Rivera was out of Mexico when the savage revolution took place in 1910; however, with the government of Alvaro Obregon that finally put an end to the civil wars, Rivera went back to his country where he started presenting his political ideas in his artistic works. He was a leading figure in the formation of a new Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors whose manifesto borrowed the slogan of the Russian revolutionary Constructivists. Ironically, though his radical political positions that implied opposition to the United States, his reputation internationally was greatly helped by North America’s enthusiasm. He regarded himself as a natural communist but was in bad terms with the Mexican Communist Party and with the official communists in the Soviet Union. Luckily, his art was less closely controlled in his country related to those in the USSR. Two other artists, Jose Clemente Orzoco (1883-1949) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1898-1974) are usually grouped with Rivera to form what Mexicans call the tres grandes. They recommended returning back to the Pre-Colombian indigenous art before the coming of Europeans to serve the originality of their lands and at the same time to cope with modernism [Figure 1].

diego rivera dream of a sunday afternoon in alameda park
Figure 2

Siqueiros explained: “Understanding the wonderful human resources in ‘black art’, or ‘primitive art’ in general, has given the visual arts a clarity and depth lost four centuries ago along the dark path of error. Let us, for our part, go back to the work of ancient inhabitants of our valleys, the Indian painters and sculptors (Mayas, Aztecs, Incas, etc.). Our climate proximity to them will help us to assimilate the constructive vitality of their work. They demonstrate a fundamental knowedge of nature which can serve as a point of departure for us. Let us absorb their synthetic energy, but avoid those lamentable archeological reconstructions (‘Indianism’, ‘Primitavism’, ‘Americanism’) which are so in vogue here today but which are only short-lived fashions.” However, Ozoco was not only a painter but a csricturist as well who claimed “I came to no harm and I ran no danger at all. To me the Revolution was the gayest and most diverting of carnivals”, and he was soon caught up in the burgeoning mural movement [Figure 2].

Tarsila do Armel - Antropofagia
Figure 3

The end of the First World War marked new beginnings in Latin America –although it was out of the conflict- as in the whole world. A series of artistic events took place at the “Semana de arte moderna” held in Sao Paulo incorporating music, literature, art and poetry events with a sole desire of confronting the bourgeois, and to assert a new Latin American cultural nationalism. Tarsila do Amalar (1886-1973) who is described as ‘Brazilain painter who best achieved Brazilian aspirations for nationalistic expression in modern style’, studied art mainly in Paris, an opportunity that is not offered to everyone. However, in April 1923 she wrote to her family: “I feel myself ever more Brazilian. I want to be the painter of my country. How grateful I am for having spent all my childhood on the farm. The memories of these times have become precious for me. I want, in art, to be the little country girl from Sao Bernando, playing with straw dolls, like in the last picture I am working on…… Don’t think that this tendency is viewed negatively here. On the contrary. This explains the success of the Russian Ballet, Japanese graphics and black music. Paris had had enough of Parisian art.” Tarsila then went back to Brazil in December 1923. She made trip to the historic towns of Minas Gerais sighting its eighteenth century Baroque churches and rustic houses. She wrote: “I found in Minas the colors I had adored as a child. I was later taught they were ugly and unsophisticated”. She started to pain a mixture of local naïve art, and the beginning of her most creative period of Cannibalism (cannibalizing other cultures is Brazil’s greatest strength to assert itself against European post-colonial cultural domination) started with Abarpou –Indian term means ‘man eats’- and followed by Antropofago [Figure 3].

Based on: Latin American Art of the 20th century by Edward Luci-Smith


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