In our first blog that reports on a secondment related to the CO-CREATION project, Senior Research Fellow from Oxford Brookes University, Dr M. Reza Shirazi, gives us insights into his month based at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), in the Faculty of Political and Social Science, researching into the role of murals in everyday urban space in Mexico City.
Is there any place on the planet where an artistic work is fundamentally and ontologically embedded into individual and collective embodied memories, everyday socio-political life, and urban cultural landscape? Yes, of course: Mexico!
My research aimed at exploring the role of Murals as a means of socio-political and cultural expression in Mexico. The idea came into my mind after my 2016 visit to Chicano Park in Barrio Logan, San Diego, California, where Mexican American community members used murals as a tool to reclaim their neighbourhood space, fight for the open space beneath the San Diego-Coronado Bridge, and turn it into a community park. This encouraged me to learn more about the history, tradition, and current manifestations of Murals in Mexican urban space.
During my stay, I visited several museums, governmental buildings, community centres, and public spaces which hosted works of Mexican murals. I also met academics, experts, street artists, and community activities who are involved in the production of scholastic knowledge or the creation of artistic works on murals. I was very much impressed by the works of los tres grandes (three prominent muralists: Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros), colourful murals across the UNAM campus and particularly murals of the Constructo initiative at the Faculty of Political and Social Science, and community-oriented murals in different neighbourhoods such as San Pedro, San Lucas, and Miravalle (Iztapalapa, Mexico City) as well as works of Collective Tomato initiative (Xanenetla, Puebla).
The complexity of life in Mexico City is difficult to pack down into a blog post, but the following notes partly narrate my lived experiences of my month in what is a fascinating city.
Notes on My Mexico City
Mural: You don’t need to look for murals, they project themselves on your body and senses. Murals, as physical images, are everywhere, and as cultural identities, are omnipresent. It is hard to find any type of artistic work that is so fundamentally and existentially embedded into political, cultural, and social debates, and so present in everyday life. Murals are to be found in metro stations, governmental buildings, museums, old houses next to pyramids, simply everywhere! The wallness of walls are sensed by murals; this is what I can say as a phenomenologist!
Fig. 1: Murals on the walls of a courtyard house in Teotihuacan
Fig. 2: Community Muralist Enrique Ceron, San Pedro, Iztapalapa
Karl Marx: Karl Marx and his legacy is present both implicitly and explicitly; in early murals of Rivera, paintings by Frida Kahlo, and deep into the minds of society. Much of the leftist mentality that universally expanded in the 1960s is still alive today. Mexico City helped me to localise and contextualise thoughts of leftist urban thinkers such as David Harvey; social injustice, alternative practices, rebel cities, neo-liberalism, etc.
Fig. 3: Karl Marx, The History of Mexico mural, National Palace in Mexico City, 1929-1935, Diego Rivera.
History: Admiring pre-colonial past as the origin of identity and culture is omnipresent: elements of the past can be perceived in different forms while you are in the city. The presence of the past might be part of the everyday life for citizens and part of unconsciousness; as a stranger, this engages part of your consciousness and calls for contemplation. Old history guides Mexicans to digest recent history.
Fig. 4: Dance and History, Zocalo
Colour: Mexico is colourful! Here people admire and celebrate colours. Putting contrasting colours next to each other, in a building or in clothing, demands particular taste that Mexicans possess. Celebration of colour grants urbanscape singularity.
Fig. 5: Mural and Colour; Central Library, UNAM
Multisensory: All cities, for sure, are multisensory in a way; but Mexico City is ultra-multi-sensory! Juxtaposition of multiple colours, the smell of Mexican food, chants of street vendors, changing topography, all together call for the bodily experience of the city. Listen here!
(In)formal: I dislike this term as it intentionally reproduces discrimination, marginalisation and injustice both in language and on the ground. Academia, I believe, without such discriminatory terminologies would be a more just environment! But how should I call all those street vendors who give peculiarity to the city? Damn language! As soon as you name, you spoil! I love Heidegger who admires silence to escape language! …….. Don’t name street vendors, just sense them!
Fig 6: Street Vendors
Hospitality: Mexicans are incredibly kind! You need only a minute to feel like a friend. Soon, you are invited to a café, to watch a football match at home, or go for a tour. Quick communication is so important that they can’t bear the formality of email; they use WhatsApp!
De-romanticizing: Mexico City should not be romanticised, as my previous notes may carry this feeling. Like all mega cities, it has multiple ups and downs. Mexico City is the city of contradictions, uneven development and severe inequality. While the less-advantaged struggle and face growing challenges in areas of poverty and crime, the advantaged create urban areas of comfort and discrimination to practice a high standard social life. It is sad to hear that students living in poor areas put their life at daily risk by commuting to UNAM which is the most privileged higher education institution. On the surface, good and bad, monotony and diversity, rich and poor, seem to live side by side, but the less-advantaged are the last beneficiaries of the goods of the country.
Fig. 7: Cityscape; view to and from Alameda Park, City Centre
Co-Creation: Finally, I have to come to the point: Co-creation! Community Muralism, as I would call it, as the latest development in the modern history of Mexican muralism, is a perfect manifestation of co-creation; a collective endeavour by multiple agents with a bottom-bottom nature. (Is this a new participatory framework to get rid of the classic bottom-up/top-down dichotomy? Why not!). What we need to understand is, how community muralism is initiated, mediated, imagined, negotiated, and implemented, or in a nutshell, co-created.
At the first glance, one month is too short to understand Mexico City, but long enough to get familiar with the complexities, dynamics, challenges, and opportunities of this huge urban conurbation. My engagement with Mexico City, however, was so intensive during this one-month that towards the end of the stay I started to feel myself Mexican! Viva Mexico!