In 1932, when David Alfaro Siqueiros unveiled his mural América Tropical in the newly refurbished, tourist-baiting Olvera Street, one can only imagine the shock on the face of its patrons. Expecting a colorful Mexican genre painting for an adoring public, they were instead delivered a scathing commentary on U.S. imperialism and its exploitation of indigenous people. Measuring more than 15 feet tall and 40 feet wide, composed of a surrealistic landscape with undulating ceiba trees and cubist ruins of a Mayan temple, it featured a crucified indigenous laborer, with a North American eagle sitting atop the disturbing scene. Siqueiros' revision, entitled La América Tropical Oprimida y Destrozada por los Imperialismos (Tropical America Oppressed and Destroyed Through Imperialism), symbolized the U.S. domination of Latin America's natural resources and the continued defilement of indigenous heritage. Executed by his Bloc of Painters from the Chouinard Art Institute of L.A., technically abetted by architect Richard Neutra and whitewashed shortly after its unveiling, Tropical set a precedent by employing an array of new techniques and industrial instruments used to forge a new expression of image-making, the outdoor mural. Siqueiros envisioned a new mestizaje form of art, one that celebrated the ancient cultures of Mesoamerica while embracing modern forms of painting and architecture.
The Autry National Center's current exhibition Siqueiros in Los Angeles, Censorship Defied brings to light the time spent by Siqueiros in Los Angeles and the subsequent groundwork he and fellow Mexican Muralistas laid for what would become the Chicano art movement of the '60s and early '70s. Among early canvases of Siqueiros are works by Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco that express the political agenda and social consciousness inherent in their art and the incredible effect it had on this city and its artistic communities.
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Siqueiros in Los Angeles, Censorship Defied: Autry National Center, 4700 Heritage Way, Los Angeles. (323) 667-2000, now through Jan. 9