A brief history of the Zapatista murals
2 Jun 2020, 2:29 pm
Zapatismo is a historical movement in Mexico that, in addition to politics, influenced various sectors of the country, such as the arts. The murals painted within its territory, covering its walls and important buildings, are great works that marked and still mark the aesthetics of the movement, telling the history of the Zapatistas, influencing new artists, and often leaving their contribution to the art market.
The movement emerged clandestinely in the 1980s in a region of southeastern Mexico inhabited by indigenous peoples displaced from their native land because of the occupation of land by non-indigenous people, who had been using the land for cattle breeding and coffee cultivation. As a result, the indigenous people were expelled from the most productive regions of the mountains and pushed towards the forests, places with less fertile soil and, consequently, with greater difficulty for food production. They were joined by guerrillas pursued by the army in the post-Mexican Revolution who fled to the same inhospitable regions, and thus the Zapatista community was formed. Lucas da Costa Maciel, an anthropologist specialized in the aesthetics created by the Mexican movement, says that “At the time of clandestinity there was already much talking about art such as poetry and theater, due also to the guevarist tradition of these guerrillas, somewhat inspired by the art production of Cuban guerrillas.”
On January 1, 1994, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), which is still present in the country, occupied the town halls of several cities in the Chiapas region and drew attention to its demands: an end to the marginalization of indigenous people; the fight against corruption in local politics; and the great driving force of the demonstration, the extinction of NAFTA, a free trade agreement between Mexico, the United States and Canada, created on the same day of the uprising. Zapatista art began to solidify in the initial moments of the occupation. At one of the movement’s meetings that received foreigners – journalists who came from around the world to cover what was happening – the first known mural began to be painted, beginning the great tradition of murals existing in the areas occupied by Zapatistas.
It is important to point out that the Mexican muralist tradition did not originate with the Zapatistas. The Maya, an ethnic majority among the peoples who are part of the movement, have an extensive history with muralism. In Mexican archaeological sites, there large murals are painted that resemble the current Zapatista muralist aesthetic, occupying building walls and narrating the stories of the rulers, of disputes and sacrifices.
“They are peoples who are used to a visual tradition of murals, which converges with popular practices and Amerindian, indigenous history, which produces this type of art”, quotes Lucas.
In addition to the Mayan tradition, the Mexican government itself began efforts to create a state-owned mural tradition. Between the 1910s and the 1960s, the Mexican state was concerned with producing a national identity that contrasted with the art produced in Europe. For that purpose, they hired several artists to produce public works, ordering paintings for places like subway stations, university buildings – such as the Central Library of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) – and the interior of public buildings. Thus, the famous panel “The Epic of the Mexican People” was born, a work by the artist Diego Rivera painted between 1929 and 1935 in the national palace, headquarters of the Mexican government located in Mexico City.
The murals made in the Zapatista territories, however, aim to go against the premises of a single identity for all Mexicans, but to celebrate the differences between them, especially between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.
The autonomous territorial zones – known as caracoles, spirals – formed by the Zapatistas in the occupied territories, are renowned for being similar to open-air museums, with large amounts of painted murals that can be visited by everyone who walks on the streets. “The tradition in Zapatista muralism has a strong mark of color saturation, and the colors produce a very intense contrast”, says Lucas.
In addition to the tonality of the paintings, images of corn with the human face, the figure of spirals, talking animals and human beings represented in a lateralized way, a reference that comes from the Mayan Mesoamerican tradition, are repeated in the works. The murals also served as a means of disseminating the icons of the movement, which are always present in the paintings: names like subcomandante Marcos, spokesman for the Zapatista movement since its inception, and General Emiliano Zapata himself. In addition, several figures represented on the murals make use of balaclavas and bandanas, an aesthetic option of the movement since the beginning.
It is worth noting that the aesthetic criteria used by the population in general to evaluate these works are different from what we commonly see. “There are pieces that are, from the point of view of the aesthetics of Western art, extremely refined, with fine lines, various techniques, under different supports, with depth, some realistic, other more conceptual. And there are other pieces that are simpler, more flat, without depth, with no pretension of realism, and yet there is no criterion for differentiating between these types of pieces,” says the anthropologist.