Art Restoration: “Mitin Obrero” (Workers’ Meeting) by David Alfaro Siqueiros, in Los Angeles

David Alfaro Siqueiros has been widely known to have been interested and to have had a strong influence on the political and social dimensions of art. This was due to the fact that he grew up in Mexico with radical ideas and opinions as a student and as a young man fighting in the revolution. At the time, Mexico was filled with disturbances arising from protests and with conflict between the classes. (8) Therefore, Siqueiros grew up putting effort into being a committed communist and a union organizer, which had him arrested several times. His role in political uprisings was proved to be true after the artist created the mural “Mitin Obrero”, also known as Workers’ Meeting or Street Meeting in Los Angeles in the year of 1932. Besides two other murals, it was the only painting created by Siqueiros in the United States.

Workers’ Meeting was believed to be an explicitly political mural, created for an Art School in Los Angeles, California by the name of the Chouinard School of Art. It was painted when Siqueiros was hired to teach students about fresco and about muralism. It was the first outdoor mural which created a public space, and it was also the first time the method developed by Siqueiros’ was used in the United States, of which was using a projector to transfer an image onto a large surface and also, to use a mechanized spray gun to apply the paint onto the wall. This made the mural revolutionary in more ways than one. Siqueiros was expected to take months to finish the mural; however, he was able to have it completed in about two weeks.

The mural depicts a steel-girded balcony on an LA street corner, where a group of multi-cultural workers are sitting and have their tools put down to listen to the oration of a gesticulating street speaker, believed to be a militant union organizer and a communist as recognizable by his red shirt. There appears to be a black man and a woman, both carrying children, who are standing by the speaker’s side, symbolizing that the speaker’s message is of great importance as they seem to demonstrate earnest attention. (1) The speaker also seems to demand attention by facing forward. (9)

In this mural, Siqueiros intended that it’s “object was to combat the anti-democratic politics of racial discrimination in the south of the United States”, and it was thought to employ the tools of the United States’ capitalist infrastructure, but also critiqued the country’s content. When it was set to be revealed in July 1932, 800 people attended and when it was unveiled, the public reaction was said to be mixed as some thought it was bold and powerful. However, on the other hand, critics and conservatives were infuriated as they claimed that the mural was too political and too closely resembled agitprop art. It was blamed to have indicted U.S. imperialism and exploitation and it also raised controversy as it was painted at a time when political and cultural leaders attempted to unify the social ideals of the Revolution. This in turn exploited the mural as an instrument of social and cultural transformation, especially since Siqueiros painted his murals in high-profile government buildings, all of which caused controversy. Workers’ meeting was about union organization, and it represented interracial relations between the workers especially as it was clear that the man standing beside the speaker is a black man, holding his child, while on the other side there is a white woman carrying her child as well. This was unacceptable to those who had ideas of racism at the time. (6)

Siqueiros referenced specific political concerns, especially those related to the exploitation of labor practices and social injustices of the Depression era. He subverted Los Angeles’ finely-tuned and globally projected self-image by exhibiting the political meanings of its local places. Therefore, despite the fact that Los Angeles combated art that challenged its civic identity, it was thought to attract artists to do so, and Siqueiros did so through all three of his murals of which he painted in the city, by expressing his opinions through controversial and effective art.

The mural was then completely whitewashed and people were only able to view it through reproductions. It was unclear if it was covered as a result of the high amount of controversy that it brought up, as it was also claimed that police who had spoken to Mrs. Chouinard, who was a member of the school, had told her that it had to be covered. Moreover, another reason was said to be that the fresco technique had failed to survive; hence it had to be covered. However, the strongest belief as to why it was covered was that it was a due to the fear of the passions that it might inspire. Since it had been covered, the painting had slowly faded due to the whitewash when the civics ordered a cover-up. After having his murals whitewashed, Siqueiros continued to participate in the union and in its activities. This eventually led to his imprisonment and afterwards his exile in the United States.

In 1972, the Chouinard Art School closed its doors and was then replaced by a Korean Church by the name of Good News. Luis Garza, who is a documenter and was a leader of the Chicano movement in the late sixties, searched for the building where the school was located and eventually discovered that it was still beyond the walls of the building, which is now used as a daycare. He began making efforts to restore the mural as he believed that to the Mexican-American community named the Chicano, it represented and expressed their life experience as they grew up in the United States as Mexicans. After restoration experts visited the property and discovered that the mural was above the kitchen ceiling of the building, and after many efforts made by Garza, investments were made by the J. Paul Getty Museum of Los Angeles to restore the mural for 9.95 million dollars. It was since placed for public viewing at the Santa Barbara Museum’s permanent collection.

Siqueiros has through his art inspired people to reclaim their history and their own voice. Moreover, the mural has motivated many street artists, including Siqueiros’ disciples and those who are settled in the Chicano districts, into painting a representation of their interest through their murals. He has had an outstanding influence on Mexican muralism.

Nadine Beiruti

Works cited

(1) Saab, A. J. (2011). “Modernist Networks: Taxco, 1931”. Modernism/modernity 18(2), 289-307. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

2) Schrank, S. (2010). “Public Art at the Global Crossroads: The Politics of Place in 1930s Los Angeles”. Journal of Social History 44(2), 435-457. Oxford University Press.

(3) Goldman, M. Shifra. “Siqueiros and Three Early Murals in Los Angeles”. Art Journal, Vol. 33, No. 4 (Summer, 1974), pp. 321-327. Published by College Art Association.

(4) Campbell, Bruce. (2003). “Mexican Murals in Times of Crisis”. pp. 41-57. Published by The University of Arizona Press. Retrieved from the University of Guelph Library on October 21, 2013.

(5) Estrada, A. Nora. (2010). “Viva Siqueiros – Whitewash and All”. Retrieved from: http://www.labeez.org/articles/2010/11/09/viva-siqueiros-whitewash-and-all on November 23, 2013.

(6) Vallen, Mark. (2005). “Siqueiros Mural Discovery!”. Retrieved from: http://art-for-a-change.com/blog/2005/01/siqueiros-mural-discovery_14.html on November 23, 2013.

(7) Indych-Lopez, Anna. (2007). “Mural gambits: Mexican muralism in the United States and the ‘portable’ fresco.” The Art Bulletin 89.2: 287+

(8) Vallen, Mark. (2002). “SIQUEIROS: Portrait of Mexico Today”. Change Links Newspaper, November 2002 Edition. Retrieved from http://www.art-for-a-change.com/News/siqueiros.htm on November 23, 2013.

(9) W. Lee, Anthony. (1999). “Painting on the Left: Diego Rivera, Radical Politics, and San Francisco’s Public Murals”. University of California Press. pp. 118-120.

(10) Latorre, Guisela. (2008). “Walls of Empowerment”. University of Texas Press. pp. 58-218.

(11) Indych-Lopez, Anna. (2009). “Muralism Without Walls”. University of Pittsburgh Press. pp. 103-157.

(12) Siqueiros, David. (1975). “Art and Revolution”. Lawrence and Wishart London. Pp. 1-26.

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