Representing Originary Identities

The objective of this glossary term is to explore the theme of representing originary identities in Latin American art and politics. This writing looks specifically at the role played by Mexican muralists, art critic Marta Traba and painters, Oswaldo Guayasamin, Fernando de Szyslo and Alejandro Obregon in representing originary identities in Latin American art. This article explores how many Latin American countries constructed glorified Pre-Columbian legacies, because much of their native identities had been lost during colonial times. This glossary term examines how influences by American and European art have muted indigenous culture in many Latin American countries.  

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term “originally” as: that originates or springs from the thing or place in question; derived, sprung, or having one’s extraction from; aboriginal, native. Identity is defined as the quality or condition of being the same in substance, composition, nature, properties, or in particular qualities under consideration; absolute or essential sameness; oneness.[1] The words originary (1) and identity (2) are key in the discourse of Latin American Art as the idea of composing an absolute unity stemming from aboriginal roots is an essential part of Latin America’s post-colonial history. Gareth Williams once wrote, “The formation of the modern nation state in Latin America was for the most part predicated on the active integration and institutionalization of the notion of the people—of the common populace, or the popular/subaltern sectors of society—as the originary ground from which to consider the contours of national history, national identity formations, and national modernization.” (10) The importance of perpetuating a specifically originary identity in many Latin American countries came after the Independence Wars, when the heads of Latin American nation-states tried to look for ways to unite their country under a specific identity that was separate from the core countries culture that had been forced upon them during colonial times (3). Latin American oligarchies looked to artists, poets and writers for works that would unite the common people under a single national identity.(8) In the art world this resulted in a resurgence of conveying pre-colonial indigenous times. This promotion of a national culture through the remembrance of their indigenous (4) past was seen by the heads of state as a way to consolidate and move their nation-states forward. This socialist popular project took shape in the form of various artistic movements across Latin America such as the Muralist movement in Mexico. (8)

It has been said that Indian presence was acknowledged in Mexico earlier than anywhere else in Latin America. (6) After the Mexican Revolution of 1910 Mexican murals were used to help form a national popular culture that was enabled through government apparatus.[2] While many critics argue that the representation of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past in Mexican murals (5) is a false construction of national identity, it did succeed in uniting the largely illiterate Mexican peoples and helped to provide Mexico with a national self-definition. (6) Under the presidency of Alvaro Obregon, the Minister of Education Jose Vasconcelos hired Diego Rivera to be a core contributor to the Mexican Cultural Revolution that he envisioned would embrace and celebrate indigenous music, dance, architecture, literature and art. Shortly thereafter, with government funding, the muralist movement began. (3) From the movement Los Tres Grandes (6) emerged which consisted of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros all of whom played a crucial role in defining a new, romantically historical, national identity for Mexico. (4) All three artists were very political and sought to depict themes of nationalism and indigenismo in their works. Los Tres Grandes were deeply influenced by revered political illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada who was a precursor for creating works inspired by Mexico’s pre-Columbian past. Not only did the muralist movement celebrate Mexican indigenous people, it helped to broadcast a specifically Mexican cultural identity globally and it has been said that Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros helped to define what is “Mexicannes” to the world. (7) In Mexican murals the myth of origins was crucial for defining Mexico’s cultural identity and Los Tres Grandes conveyed these myths in their murals, and in doing so, glorified Mexico’s indigenous past. A critique of the representation of originary identities in Mexican art may point to a lack of African historical presence. Africans have been present in Mexico since the time of the African-Atlantic slave trade, yet in post-revolutionary Mexican art, when Native-Mexican indigenous roots were being embraced and celebrated, African-Mexican heritage was left out. (5) Some critics, such as Marta Traba, have blamed the end of the Muralist movement’s momentum and popularity in the sixties on the rise of “American aesthetic colonialism” in Latin America. (8)

Argentine Marta Traba was very vocal against American cultural imperialism in Latin America.[i] In one of her most significant books on art history; Two Vulnerable Decades in Latin American Art, 1950-1970 Traba divides Latin America into open and closed cultural areas. Countries that had received high levels of immigration and held on loosely to their native history and culture, such as Venezuela and Argentina, were deemed open countries. On the other hand, countries with lower levels of immigration and whose native cultures still influenced people’s day to day lives, such as Columbia and Peru, were deemed closed countries. According to Traba open areas had inevitably absorbed foreign cultures (most specifically the United States). Traba argued that closed countries had the responsibility to promote authentic Latin American modernity by showcasing their pre-colonial, originary identities.  Traba asserted that ultimately even the closed countries were at high risk of being absorbed by American culture and she saw the likelihood that any possibility of growth of modernity from Latin America’s native roots would be discarded.[ii] Traba, like many critics of her time, was strongly opposed to United States materialism and regarded it as the major threat to Latin American art which placed indeginismo as a political and artistic subject. During the Cold War, at the height of Trabas influence, many artists and art critics vocally opposed American cultural, military and political intervention. During the sixties and seventies an affirmative notion of Latin American identity was emerging and Latin American art became very ideological and opposed to the new form of cultural colonialism by the United States. Art critics such as Traba have had a lasting legacy of enforcing the importance of representing originary identities in Latin American art. (8)

Artists such as Oswaldo Guatasamin, Fernando de Szyslo and Alejandro Obregon have been lauded for their resistance of American cultural imperialism by representing and celebrating Latin America’s originary identities in their artwork. Oswaldo Guatasamin was an artist from Ecuador and during 1942 and 1943 travelled with Mexican muralist Jose Orozco across Latin America. (13) The indigenous culture and poverty he observed on this trip appeared often in his painting.[iii]  His death on March 10th, 1999 was marked by a national strike by the indigenous people of Ecuador. (11)  Fernando de Szyslo was a vigorous promoter of the international modern movement but still saw the importance in preserving Latin America’s native identities. His paintings alluded to the rituals and myths of ancient Latin American cultures.  Szyslo’s painting series Cajamarca marked the first time that native Peruvian content was expressed in an abstract fashion. The series recalls aesthetic concepts that have been embodied in Peruvian folklore from the pre-Hispanic past. (9) Columbian artist Alejandro Obregon’s work was fiercely nationalistic and his expressionist pieces often showed sentiments to the geography and pre-colonial history of Columbia. (8)

In conclusion, “representing originary identities” in Latin American art is arguably more important in Latin America than almost anywhere else in the world, in that, by representing originary identities, no matter how romanticized they may have been, Latin America was able to create a legacy that had been lost due to colonialism and in so doing countries were able to unite under a national identity. (12) The loss of this representation due to the influence of the United States on Latin America, has been, and continues to be of real concern to many Latin American art critics such as Marta Traba. (8)

Sally Girdler

Fall 2010


[i] Cuban art critic Gerardo Mosquera has recognized Traba as a pioneer of

Latin American art history, arguing that she “published the first book to approach

Latin American art in a global manner, attempting to give the subject some

conceptual unity.” 8

[ii] Recently countries such as Columbia and Mexico have also been described as open countries. See

[iii]“ Guayasamín’s work…has echoes of José Clemente Orozco, with strong shapes, tortured bodies, echoes of Christian iconography and a dark, brooding palette, but in a language all his own.” 12

Works Cited 

1 “Identity, Originary.” Oxford English Dictionary (Online). 2nd. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2000.

2 Coffey, Mary Katherine. “Muralism and the People: Culture, Popular Citizenship and Government in Post-Revolutionary Mexico.” Communication Review. (2002): 7-38. Print.

3 Hamill, Pete. Diego Rivera. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1999. Print.

4 Indych-Lopez, Anna. “Mural Gambits: Mexican Muralism in the United States and the “Portable” Fresco.” Art Bulletin 89.2 (2007): 287-305. Web. 12 Oct 2009.

5 Phillips, Wendy E. “Representation of the Black Body in Mexican Visual Art: Evidence of an African Presence or a Cultural Myth?” SAGE publications. 39.5 (2009): 761-785. Print.

6 Dent, David W. Encyclopedia of modern Mexico. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2002. Print.

7 Barnitz, Jacqueline. Twentieth-Century Art of Latin-America. 1st Ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001. Print.

8 Rodriguez-Sarmiento, Victor. “Cold War Legacies Otherwise:.” University of Rochester (2009): 17-62. Web. 16 Nov 2009. <;.

9 Congdon, Kristin, and Kara Hallmark. Artists from Latin American Cultures: A bibliographical dictionary. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002. 259-262. Print

10 Gareth, William. “The Other Side of the Popular: Neoliberalism and Subalternity.” Durham and London: Duke University Press, . (2002): Print

11 Aznar, Jose. “Hispanic Heritage in the Americas,.” Oswaldo Guayasamín. Barcelona: Polígrafa: Encyclopedia Britannica online, 1973. Web. 18 Nov 2009 <;.

12 Fraser, Valerie. “Ecuadorean Art in the Twentieth Century.” The University of Essex Collection of Latin American Art. UECLAA online, Web. 14 Nov 2009. <;. 

13 Flores, Gemme. “Mirror Man Love, accusation and violence, humanism pictorial Oswaldo Guayasamin arrives in Guatemala.” Revista D. 31 07 2005. Semanario de Prensa Libre , Web. 17 Nov 2009. <;.


This entry was posted in Alejandro Obregon, colonialism, Fernando de Szyslo, identity, indigenous, Marta Traba, Mexico, murals, Originary, Oswaldo Guatasamin, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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