By Emilia Sawada, PhD Candidate in Social and Cultural Analysis. This post was written in the summer of 2017, based on research funded by the Tinker Grant.
Although I spent only two weeks in the field (Mexico City, Mexico), this research expedition generated a wealth of information about two subjects of interest: post-revolutionary Mexican public art and the influence of the latter on contemporary Mexican and Japanese artists. In fact, I collected such an overwhelming amount of information from Mexico City’s museums, art fairs, and government buildings, not to mention my ethnographic interviews with contemporary artists, that I hardly know where to begin this blog post. I spent the entirety of the first week at museums and other landmarks in the historic center, photographing artworks and looking for examples of Asian mestizaje in Mexican history. Although I am particularly interested in post-revolutionary Mexican aesthetics, I found abundant examples of Asian influence in colonial ceramics and furniture—perhaps most obviously, the biombo, an Asian-style folding screen imported to New Spain in the fifteenth century. However, I had a more difficult time locating Asian subjects, or even Asian themes, in the public works of post-revolutionary muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Some of the subjects depicted in Rivera’s murals, for example, look Asian, but are more likely indigenous Mexicans. I wonder if the post-revolutionary muralists consciously mobilized this racial ambiguity in their work? Interestingly enough, some of my Mexican interviewees noted that their collaborations with Japanese artists had brought them closer to indigenous culture, suggesting that such Asian-indigenous connections persist into the present.
Even more striking is the history of Asian and Asian American participation in the Mexican muralismo movement, of which I was unaware until my visit to Mexico. Apparently, Los Angeles-born Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi actively participated in the muralismo movement, executing some of Rivera’s designs at sites like the Rodriguez Market in Mexico City. In fact, not only Noguchi, but Taro Okamoto, Koji Toneyama, Luis Nishizawa, and Shinsaburo Takeda also participated at least transiently in this 1920s-1930s post-revolutionary movement, which coincided with the mestizophilia (national obsession with racial hybridity) of the early twentieth century. This penchant for cross-racial public art continued for Japanese Mexican artist Nishizawa, who created a number of—unfortunately, unrealized—sketches for mural projects in the 1960s-1970s, at the height of postwar decolonization and the student liberation movements. Although an extensive body of literature exists on post-revolutionary muralismo, less work exists on the enduring influence of artists like Rivera on late twentieth-century and twenty-first-century Mexican and Asian artists. These historical moments promise a potential counterpoint to the concurrent 1960s-1970s U.S. public arts movement and its enduring legacy in California.