On Belonging, Truck Art and Mexican Muralism: Art Movements and Their Legacies Around the World

El hombre controlador del universo Diego Rivera scaled

“The Picasso of Pakistan” has traveled the world to show off his art. He has painted in St. Petersburg, held an exhibition in L.A., and created a piece for the Smithsonian. As the honorific suggests, Haider Ali got his start in Pakistan. His father first put a brush between his hands at the age of seven, but Ali did not touch a truck for years. He spent his time painting perfectly straight lines, circles, and other simple shapes with only his steady hands. Ali took on his first job as a professional truck painter at the age of 16. He only recognized his mastery when he painted the Smithsonian’s Jingle Truck exhibition in 2002.

Pakistani truck artist Haider Ali paints in Washington DC
Pakistani truck artist Haider Ali paints in Washington DC (Source: Wikimedia Commons by Bangabandhu)

Diego Rivera’s life is the stuff of legend in Mexico and the United States. An avid artist from a young age, Rivera’s family sent him to the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts in Mexico City at the age of 10. In 1907, the 21-year-old Rivera received government funding to study in Europe. Rivera remained in Europe for the following decade, coming back to Mexico in 1921 as the Mexican Revolution came to an end. The Revolution stoked Rivera’s Marxist leanings and reinvigorated his deep reverence for indigenous, working-class Mexican culture–a foundational starting point for most if not all of his work thereafter. The growing political nature of his artwork led to some of his most famous murals, many of which he would paint in the United States after the Mexican government’s public mural program stopped commissioning him in the late 1920s.

Diego Rivera with a xoloitzcuintle dog in the Blue House Coyoacan Google Art Project
Diego Rivera with a Xoloitzcuintle dog (Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Mexico and South Asia have both wrestled with political, cultural, and economic structures put in place by their former colonizers. These colonial legacies continue to influence the art of both regions. South Asian truck art directly traces its roots to British colonial rule. The first trucks in South Asia were large, Bedford-brand military vehicles used to transport military equipment during World War II. When the British hastily left the subcontinent in the late 1940s, the trucks proved essential for traversing South Asia’s vast distances, complex topography, and sprawling urban centers. Truck painting grew in popularity a few years later as drivers who slept, ate, and worshipped within their trucks began beautifying their living spaces. Soon after, truck painting became a mainstay of commercial transportation—the better the truck looked, the more clients would want to contract it.

Colorful jingle truck
Colorful Jingle Truck (Source: Wikimedia Commons, by Linluv84)

Mexican muralism, as well as the other art styles born during the “Mexican Renaissance”— the title often given to the decade following the Mexican Revolution—has a complex colonial legacy. Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco—“Los Tres Grandes”—are often credited with being the three most influential Mexican muralists. They came together in 1923, under the patronage and eager support of Mexican President Alvaro Obregon’s secretary of public education, Jose Vasconcelos, to create a set of large government murals. Vasconcelos had tasked the artists with painting these murals to foster a new National Mexican identity. Indigenous livelihood served as the bedrock for this new Mexican identity, and the murals offered the chance to effectively communicate with Mexico’s mostly illiterate populace.

Rivera and Siqueiros both studied and cultivated their artistic skills by traveling to Europe. Orozco received his art education at the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts and developed his own artistic philosophy from the teachings of Dr. Atl, a professor at the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts, who encouraged Orozco and other students to reject European artistic traditions in favor of Indigenous visual aesthetics. Orozco became a muralist when the government commission gave him the chance to return to Mexico after fleeing to the United States during the revolution. Much of Orozco’s decisions throughout his artistic career would be driven by his pursuit of patronage and his desire to live and work in Mexico. Rivera’s interest in painting murals partly emerged from a trip to Italy during which he studied frescoes. Rivera also wished to spread his Marxist beliefs through his work. Siqueiros—an avid Stalinist—tied his devotion to murals to the artwork’s fundamental monumentality. Murals can not be privately owned.

As Yale art history professor Subhashini Kaligotla, an expert in Medieval Deccan Indian creations, explains, South Asian aesthetic theories have long incorporated discussions on “essence” or “rasa”—a fundamental quality found in aesthetic interpretation. South Asia’s beautiful, intricate truck art consistently serves as an exercise in both function and aesthetic. When it comes to painted trucks, South Asians see their aesthetic qualities and their functionality. Some of the most common and popular symbols on painted trucks began as religious iconography. Hawks pepper many trucks—an important symbol Sikh drivers use to express their faith. Some drivers adorn their trucks with political figures. Almost every truck includes instructions to other drivers, such as “Horn Please.” In Pakistan, a popular joke is often written in Urdu across the back bumper: “Don’t get too close, or you’ll fall in love.” The vivid colors, patterns, sprawling designs, and scenes on these trucks play upon aestheticism and functionality and do so at the behest of the painter, driver, and company.

Haider Ali is no stranger to the individual nature of truck art. Each truck is as much a reflection of the driver and their business as it is a testament to the painter’s skills and story. Take the white van Ali painted for the Pacific Asia Museum in Los Angeles. Throughout the van, he includes symbols of both Pakistan and California—connecting the regions together through the importance transportation, natural beauty, and language play in both cultures.  On one side, the American and Pakistani flags are joined by a bouquet of flowers. On the hood flies a bald eagle painted in the distinct truck art style. The rest of the van features symbolism from route 66, The Grand Trunk Road, native flora and fauna, and a dizzying array of design elements. Ali also painted a small easel as a thank you to the museum for facilitating his visit.

Orozco, Siqueiros, and Rivera all came to the United States in the late 1920s in search of patronage. A change in the Mexican government’s leadership led to the mural program ending in 1927, meaning the artists had to seek patronage elsewhere. After finding success in San Francisco and Detroit in the early 1930s, Rivera ended up in New York City in 1932. Influenced by his wife’s love for Rivera’s work, John D. Rockefeller Jr. contracted the muralist to paint a monumental fresco in the lobby of the near-complete Rockefeller Center. Rivera’s vision centered around the idea of competing social developments. He designed the piece to evoke a sense of symmetrical asymmetry—everything on one side has its equal and opposite on the other. Though the painting might lack diversity of gender, body type, and ability, Rivera ensured that throughout the mural workers, aristocrats, and historical figures of varying race, class, power, importance, and expertise were present. Rivera never finished the fresco. After painting the likeness of Lenin, local newspapers decried the mural as anti-capitalist propaganda. The development company responsible for his commission demanded he remove the Communist figure. Rivera refused; instead, he offered to paint Abraham Lincoln to juxtapose the Soviet figure’s presence. The development company eventually paid Rivera’s full commission and destroyed the work in its entirety. The turn of events scandalized artists and Marxists across the world. Writers deplored the loss of Rivera’s masterpiece. Rivera, a fond follower of Trotsky’s teachings, had his work besmirched, denigrated, and destroyed by the wealthy capitalists of New York City, yet Rivera had chosen to work for John D. Rockefeller Jr.—an almost archetypal embodiment of nepotism, capitalism, and class distinction. He chose his patron, and he chose a capitalist.

El hombre controlador del universo Diego Rivera 1
A Recreation of the Mural that was Destroyed. El hombre Controlador del Universo, Diego Rivera (Source: Wikimedia Commons, by Renata Frias)

Professor Kaligotla emphasizes that many people are quick to discredit the agency medieval creators enjoyed under their wealthy patrons. She explains that in studying the creations of master craftsmen for various elite families, she found that there was always a degree of agency in the work. The patron—though influential and powerful in the relationship—did not control every aspect of the creative process as many might assume would occur under dynastic or feudal power structures. Kaligotla also suggests that modern creators and thinkers might be quick to diminish the agency of past creators while simultaneously overestimating their own.

Liz Ohanesian—a writer for KCET, a cultural programming organization in Southern California—wrote an article for Haider Ali’s painted van exhibition in the Pacific Asia Museum. In the article, Ohanesian described Ali’s professional trajectory: “At 16, he took on his first job, but was unsure of his skills. Ali spent nights practicing the paintings that he would apply to trucks during the day. It wasn’t until he painted trucks at the Smithsonian that Ali realized that he was good at his job.” Ali, who in other places is described as a truck painting prodigy, felt unsure of his skills until he painted a truck for the Smithsonian museum. Ohanesian may have exaggerated this point or Haider Ali may have meant something different than what is written in the article itself, but Professor Kaligotla describes what Ali’s story seems to verify: many South Asian creators seek out “ratification” from Western art institutions. As Kaligotla elaborates, these creators want the material wealth and global prestige that comes with the respect of “international”—most likely Western—institutions. Without access to that wealth and prestige, artists will almost never achieve international respect for their work.

In 1922, Siqueiros wrote the manifesto for the Syndicate of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors—a Mexican trade union he helped organize. He entitled the work A Declaration of Social, Political and Aesthetic Principles and demanded the world of art to fundamentally change: “We repudiate so-called easel painting and every kind of art favored by the ultra-intellectual circles, because it is aristocratic and we praise monumental art in all its forms, because it is public property… Art must no longer be the expression of individual satisfaction, but should aim to become a fighting, educative art for all.” Art, he declared, must exist for anyone and everyone. Perhaps Siquieros believed he could find a wall large enough for the world—that is the seeing world—to see. Has there ever been an artwork physically accessible to everyone—let alone culturally relevant to everyone? Rivera’s Man at The Crossroads would have displayed itself to a primary audience of wealthy New Yorkers. Each exhibition Haider Ali paints for a museum can only ever benefit those people who can afford to go to museums. Do creators ever choose their audience? Can creators choose their audience? Can creators ever choose correctly?

Siqueiros believed that monumental artworks, such as murals, could evade class distinction and aristocratic appropriation. After all, powerful and wealthy classes could not possess the wall of a government building in Mexico City. This resilience to the influence of money and power in art is a rare attribute. Debbie Lechtman—an Israeli and Costa Rican anthropologist specializing in Jewish history—remarks that, in both Costa Rica and Israel, artists and creators usually focus on producing work to sell to American tourists, even if it comes at the cost of their local cultural ideals and customs. In Israel, Jewish creators often appeal to the American Evangelical narrative which views Judaism as a precursor to Christianity rather than an independent, ancient tribal and religious tradition. This trend worries Lechtman. Even in Israel—where Jewish ethnic traditions are widely respected and cherished—the perspectives of Jewish creators are treated as secondary to the desires of Western tourists. How much worse it must be outside of Israel, where antisemitism remains a pernicious, daily reality for Jewish communities. Lechtman laments that creators often need to seek out financial stability by diminishing their own culture. She sees a similar situation in Costa Rica, where creators often caricaturize facets of Costa Rican identity to sell to American tourists.

Lechtman is herself a creator; she runs a small business making Jewish-inspired jewelry by hand. Lechtman knows that appropriation has become commonplace in jewelry-making, especially when it comes to Native American creation styles, but she continues to work against appropriation however she can: “As far as what I’ve done to combat it, I’ve done what I always do… Try to educate people on the cultural significance of those amulets. I don’t directly confront those who appropriate them because it seems like a waste of time and I don’t think it’d really be effective. My approach to these things is always education.” 

Discussions on cultural appropriation—what it is, how it works, and the consequences it has—inevitably lead to questions about power. Under this structural reading, cultural appropriation is understood to occur when members of a dominant culture take cultural elements from a systematically oppressed minority culture. Members of the minority thus take elements from the dominant culture not out of choice, but out of a need to assimilate. This reading leads to the following conclusion: cultural appropriation occurs wherever a power imbalance exists. When creators who are driven by their cultural heritage and personal experiences—as most creators are—seek out patronage outside of their original cultural context, they—in some capacity—engage with appropriation.

The city of Phoenix, Arizona’s tourism website, visitPhoenix.com, offers a gallery of photographs directed to potential and prospective tourists. The images show everything from desert parklands and mouth-watering tacos to crystal blue pools and breathtaking sunsets. They often also include a mural, painted on one of Phoenix’s many alley walls. The Chicano mural movement began in the Southwestern United States in the 1960s as a way for Mexican-Americans to showcase their culture. The mix of Indigenous iconography with motifs and scenes from the tumultuous shared histories of Mexico and the United States are a direct descendent of the Mexican Mural Movement of the late 1920s and early ‘30s. They often feature scenes of social upheaval and are meant to spark debate with their vivid and dynamic compositions. Many of the muralists who work in Phoenix often emigrate from Mexico; like “Los Tres Grandes,” they develop their work within Mexico and then find patronage in the United States. Rivera chose to paint for Rockefeller; Ali chose to paint for museums in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. Few of these creators’ work derives cultural meaning and influence from the audiences that ultimately end up having access to their work—at least the work they create outside their original cultural context. Even if it is a public mural or a large truck free from the restrictions of a paywall, what does it mean when a creator—whose work builds upon unique cultural traditions defined by complex historical legacies—creates for a community distant from that cultural narrative? Can those creations ever stay true to themselves while sitting within the walls of a museum—while adorning the communities that have no inherent connection to their origins?

Chicano Park icons 1
Mural in Chicano Park, San Diego depicting artists David Siquieros, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera along political leaders Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Fidel Castro (Source: Wikimedia Commons, By Rpotance)

Rivera did not need to paint for Rockefeller; he had enjoyed plenty of financial success in Detroit and San Francisco. Rivera chose to do so, maybe precisely because it was Rockefeller. Ali chooses to travel to spread his artwork because he wants the tradition of truck painting to live on. Young people throughout Pakistan are no longer interested in painting trucks. When he painted the van for the Asia Pacific Museum, Ali made a deliberate effort to advertise the craft to as many potential students as he could. Ali even runs an organization devoted to continuing the practice of truck painting. Many of the Mexican muralists who emigrate to Phoenix do so to gain access to opportunity, to fulfill their creative desires. It is much harder to find the kind of financial security they enjoy in the United States in their hometowns. Often the question of why a creation is located in a particular space at a particular time comes down to whether the creator had any other choice.

Contemporary creators seldom, if ever, choose their audiences. Even Rivera—who at the time of the Rockefeller incident had wide appeal and international acclaim— could not select his audience. Unless he wished to paint without concern for money or without concern for conveying a particular idea through a large platform, his audiences would almost always be limited to the Western world. Once the Mexican government stopped commissioning him, he worked all across the United States. One can blame Rivera for appropriating his own work; one can decry his pursuit of material gain over the ideals of artistic integrity; one can call him a hypocrite for following his Marxist philosophies only when it benefitted him. One can also recognize that Rivera had two basic choices: cultivate his art and philosophy within Mexico despite threats, coercion, and lack of patronage; or work in the United States and sell his artistic creations to those who might never properly understand them.

There are plenty of articles about cultural appropriation, as the topic is varied, complex, and impossible to easily solve. Despite the many articles on the subject, there is often a defensive stance those afraid of being labeled appropriators resort to: “It’s cultural exchange, not appropriation.” Sadly, it isn’t. When Orozco began working in the United States, he wanted nothing more than to return to Mexico as a respected artist. When Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads was destroyed by Rockefeller, he recreated and completed the project in Mexico. When Ali left Pakistan to share his craft, a huge factor was the ongoing survival of his life’s passion. When creators from across the Global South enter the lucrative creative markets of the West, they rarely do so out of an honest desire to play with those markets’ inherent cultural narratives and complex traditions. More often than not it is out of a sense of necessity. Today’s wealthy institutions are full of art that would rather reside and grow somewhere else. 

In a world where “Los Tres Grandes” had never left Mexico and Ali never left Pakistan, there would be no international tradition of Muralism or truck art. There would be no discussion of Rivera’s interactions with the Rockefellers. There would be no elaborately painted white van in Los Angeles. This is not the world of art without cultural appropriation. It is impossible to understand what the world of art would look like without cultural appropriation. The only thing about this world that can be predicted with any degree of certainty is that creators would be driven by something beyond the physical need to create. They’d be driven by something within themselves. There is a high degree of probability that creators the world over already do behave like this—that they “follow their hearts,” so to speak. For a select lucky few, their desires and interests align with the resources the world has bequeathed onto them, but no creator can ever know if they belong to this lucky few. Imagining this world counterfactually can never truly determine whether the ideally perfect choice was even available to the creator, let alone if they made that choice. In a world where the options are limited, there is little agency. Choosing between so-called “international” cities leaves creators with little say. Their creations will inevitably always form a conversation with an audience, with a culture, that has no foundational understanding of who they are. Appropriation is the use, manipulation, adoption, or fetishization of someone’s work without their consent. Creators currently cannot consent. They do not have enough options to do so. It wouldn’t be enough if creators had guaranteed economic security. It wouldn’t be enough if creators have the chance to work for patrons and audiences from numerous, distinct backgrounds, cultures, and desires. It will only begin to be enough when creators have both. Until then, patrons the world over will buy and commission art that never truly belongs to them. Creation without meaningful consent is appropriation.


Works Cited

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Nolen, Jeannette L. “José Clemente Orozco | Mexican Painter.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 9, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jose-Clemente-Orozco.

Ohanesian, Liz. “Haider Ali: The King of Pakistani Truck Painting.” KCET, October 29, 2014. https://www.kcet.org/shows/artbound/haider-ali-the-king-of-pakistani-truck-painting.

“Siqueiros Speaks.” Accessed February 9, 2021. https://www.nga.gov/education/teachers/lessons-activities/self-portraits/siqueiros.html.

Tikkanen, Amy. “David Alfaro Siqueiros | Mexican Painter.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 9, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/David-Alfaro-Siqueiros.

“Visit Phoenix | Find Things to Do, Hotels, Restaurants & Events.” Accessed February 9, 2021. https://www.visitphoenix.com/.Vox. India’s Trucks Are Works of Art, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WlriwanO4e4&t=186s.

Author

miguel.vonfedak@yale.edu