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Street art in Mexico City

[05/02/2019]

On a global scale, Mexico city – a sprawling megacity with more than 20 million inhabitants – represents a relatively tiny marketplace for art. However, a lot of Mexican art (and there is much) escapes commoditization since it is created in public spaces… for the public… often profoundly transforming the shared moral and cultural values of Mexican society.

Mexican art is both effervescent and chaotic, in complete accordance with this complex and yet superlative country. It pops up literally everywhere, starting with the walls of building and structures. By hiding grey concrete under superb explosions of colour, Mexican painters have profoundly transformed the physiognomy of the country’s cities. With its long tradition of mural painting, the scale of the phenomenon has no real comparison anywhere in the world. The Toltecs and the Aztecs already painted frescoes to honor their gods. Then came the Mexican Revolution with its concomitant drive to place public painting at the service of social demands, spearheaded by Los Tres Grandes of mural painting: Diego RIVERA, David Alfaro SIQUEIROS and José Clemente OROZCO. The walls of official buildings were covered with frescoes devoted to the country’s history and critiques of capitalism during the 1920s and 1930s… with the support of the government of course. A form of militant activism served by a Realist style of painting with significant Constructivist overtones. Even today, painter’s play an essential social role in Mexico, exercising their skills in all cities and towns, not just painting political frescoes or religious scenes, but touching on a broad spectrum of themes and styles, often with highly improbable cross-filiations. In fact, the Mexican government is still using painters to ‘regenerate the fabric of society’. The most ambitious project to date is the Pachuca Rainbow (2012-2015) in a poor neighborhood subject to serious gang violence, about 100 kilometers northeast of Mexico City. The government allocated 5 million pesos and contracted the collective Germen Crew to paint a huge rainbow on the facades and roofs (20,000 m²) of a neighborhood of Pachuca. More than 1,800 inhabitants contributed manually to the project … and the neighborhood’s level of delinquency was drastically reduced.

The Mexican government’s social ‘improvement’ initiatives therefore rely heavily on the notion of ‘reappropriation of public spaces’. But… with or without the financial support of the government, mural painting is part of the DNA of Mexicans who spontaneously use more-or-less professional graffiti artists to repaint their facades. Indeed, the phenomenon has gone viral and is turning lots of cities into open-air museums. ‘Naïve’ drawings regularly appear alongside high-quality frescoes in cities nowadays well-known for the diversity of their graffiti and tags like Mexico City, Monterrey, Querétaro and Ciudad Juarez. The latter, facing El Paso on the border with the United States, has experienced terrible waves of violence between the cartels (2008 to 2012) and a globally shocking period of female homicides (femicides) since 1993, and was once considered the most dangerous town in the world. This is no longer the case today, but the wastelands and abandoned villas of this once cursed city have since been covered with frescoes. The city of fear has now become the city of paint. And the painting is not over… Juarez City is included in a project for the largest mural in the world that will embellish the Mexican side of the wall separating Mexico from the United States. Here again, thousands of local people have spontaneously mobilized around an artist, Enrique Chiu, to engage in a peaceful and poetic resistance.

The popularity of Mexican Street Art has also reached collectors. As elsewhere, in Mexico the best muralists are naturally the most sought-after. The country’s most famous muralist, Diego Rivera, reached a new summit last year with a result just under 10 million dollars (The Rivals, 1931, at Christie’s New York, on 9 May 2018). At that price, it became the most expensive work by a mural artist ever sold at auction. If it manages to express itself on canvas as well as it does on the street, the new generation of Street artists could also emerge onto the art market. For the time being, few of them have officially-recorded auction sales to their names, but that could soon change for an artist like Flavio Martinez, better known as Curiot, who already has exhibitions in international galleries. Among the few artists in their thirties gradually emerging onto the auction market, several are revisiting Aztec imagery, including Smithe (his drawings sell for less than $500 in France) and Saner (one of his canvases fetched over $10,000 at Louis C. Morton in Mexico City). The domestic market values this ‘Neo-Mexicanism’ that appeals to local buyers proud of their culture as well as to foreigners attracted by the “local” style. But this narrow view of the market should not be allowed to hide the socio-political commitments of a large number of young Mexican artists who have yet to find their true ‘resonance’ on the secondary market.

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