The New Public Art: Collectivity and Activism in Mexico since the 1980’s (Review)

Mara Polgovsky Ezcurra’s edited volume traces the emergence of new, non-state-led forms of public art in Mexico in the age of neoliberalism.

April 5, 2024

The cover of Mara Polgovsky Ezcurra's edited volume "The New Public Art: Collectivity and Activism in Mexico since the 1980’s" (University of Texas Press, 2023)

Mexico is well-known for its muralists: Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco. These were men from the political left who were at the height of their careers in the inter-war period and whose art was also supported financially by the post-revolutionary Mexican state. These men were international artistic giants, referred to as los tres grandes, synonymous with the revolutionary politics and grandeur of México. Their works visually define significant public spaces throughout Mexico City: Palacio Nacional, Bellas Artes, the National Preparatory School, the central mall of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

However, since the 1930s and 1940s, when many of these very famous public and publicly supported works were created, the meanings of public space, the fine arts, and the relationship between the state and the arts have changed significantly. Artistic talent no longer takes pride of place in a portfolio of valuable national assets. The national Mexican public Benedict Anderson wrote about in his famous work Imagined Communities (1983) has long since been fractured into a multitude of sub- and counterpublics in the sense that Michael Warner theorized in Publics and Counterpublics (2002). Contemporary public art, much like our media landscape in general, no longer addresses or helps articulate a single hegemonic national public. Additionally, more than 50 years of neoliberal reforms around the world have meant the dismantling of non-commercial public spaces of all kinds. What is public art under these conditions? These are some of the questions posed in Mara Polgovsky Ezcurra’s new edited volume The New Public Art: Collectivity and Activism in Mexico since the 1980’s.

An example of this radically altered landscape came with the 2009 order of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights obliging the Mexican state to erect a monument and public space as part of its reparations for failing to protect the fundamental human rights of women in Ciudad Juarez. The monument was meant to memorialize three specific women who had been killed: Claudia Ivette González, Esmeralda Herrera Monreal, and Laura Berenice Ramos. The public installation was meant to call attention to the femicides at the U.S.-Mexico border, force the state to take responsibility for its role in perpetuating an ongoing epidemic of gendered murders, and facilitate a process of collective grief and reconciliation.

It did not go well, according to Michael R. Orwicz and Robin Adéle Greeley in their chapter “Conceptualizing the Public: Femicide, Memorialization, and Human Rights Law.” The state did not work with the victims’ families as it was meant to do. It committed not to an artist or a process but chose a submitted plan—a statue of a lone, dancing woman—that was meant to celebrate women, but also obscured the perpetrators of violence, fell into gendered stereotypes, and did not incorporate any criticism of the state. Furthermore, the public space created around the piece, the Campo Algodonero Memorial Park, erected in 2011 on the site where the women’s bodies were found, was constructed behind a wall with limited accessibility. It continues to be a place where it is easy to imagine more bodies being dumped with impunity. The case is a revealing example of how this traditional form of public art—a state-sponsored statue marking a public place meant to commemorate and memorialize—might be well past its utility for collective healing.

The story of the unsuccessful Campo Algodonero Memorial Park is an outlier among the dozens of exciting, inspiring, and provoking bodies of work presented and analyzed throughout Mara Polgovsky’s volume. Because of its engagement with a previous era of public art, Orwicz and Greeley’s account highlights the incredible innovation of new forms, from Erin McCutcheon’s chapter discussing a “necropublic” of deceased Indigenous and Afro-descended ancestors in the work of artist Guadalupe García-Vásquez (“Performative Resurrections”) to the activism of the alternative free public library Aeromoto and their declaration, “We like to drink, and we like poetry, and we think they make a magnificent pair.”

Polgovsky frames the new public art in Mexico as emergent in a time between two major earthquakes: the 1984 earthquake that radically transformed Mexico City and its relationship to the state, and its bizarre twin that occurred on the same day, September 19, more than 30 years later, only hours after the commemorative siren marking the anniversary of the 1984 catastrophe. “The premise of this book,” Polgovsky writes, “is that a new, non-state-led understanding of ‘the public’ came into being in Mexico during the temporal arc roughly traced by these two major earthquakes, from the mid-1980s to the late 2010s.” The 1984 earthquake was a moment in which it became glaringly obvious to a great number of Mexico City residents, if it wasn't already, that they could not rely on the state to provide safety or services in their neighborhoods. Many came to the realization that if they wanted something done, they were going to have to do it themselves. This activist and collectivist ethos is the analytical thread that unites the diverse chapters of the volume.

The book is divided into the themes of “New Muralisms,” “Feminist Publics,” “Antimonuments and the Undercommons,” and “Migrant Poetics and Capitalist Landscapes.” Within each section, the chapters alternate between scholarly engagements and dossiers of activist art collectives. Among the dossiers are statements from Grupo Germen, Campo Audiovisual Itinerante (CAI), Colectivo A.M., Teatro Ojo, La Casa de El Hijo de Ahuizote, Aeromoto, Antimonuments: The Brigade for Memory, and Brigada Tlayacapan. The collectives include muralists, filmmakers, dancers, performers, community archives, innovative libraries, architects, and sculptors. The scholarly analyses present artistic interventions that engage with many of the major topics of Mexican politics from the 34-year period between earthquakes: femicides, the war on drugs, the Ayotzinapa 43, antiracism, the re-structuring of housing, and public space.

Of particular interest to the artists and scholars whose work is compiled in the volume is how the new public art is using collectivity and collective processes to pose challenges to classically liberal and neoliberal conceptions of humanity, political participation, and artistic practice. It is notable, for example, that all of the artist dossiers are presented by art collectives, rarely mentioning the name of any one individual member.

Compare and contrast, for example, the individual artistic practice and “genius” protagonisms of los tres grandes, and Grupo Germen’s famous mural project in the working class neighborhood of Palmitas in Pachuco de Soto, Hidalgo. Grupo Germen describe in their dossier how they worked with residents to decide what they wanted out of the project, centering how residents found value and strength in a neighborhood that is often denigrated. Grupo Germen lived in the neighborhood throughout the artistic process, going house-to-house to speak with people and involve them in a collaborative process of transformation. The result is a fantastically vibrant and multi-layered work that, when seen from afar (the neighborhood is spread nearly vertically up a hillside), ties all the buildings together under continuous swoops and swirling shapes of color that leap from building to building. When one is in the neighborhood, the murals “narrate the history, customs, and daily life on the streets of Palmitas,” including many larger-than-life photo-realistic depictions of local people from the neighborhood and of the shared work of construction. Grupo Germen is a collective actor, facilitating a collaborative practice of transformation, focused on the depictions of everyday life, “refunctionaliz[ing] public space” and “germinat[ing] a new relationship between citizens and their environment.”  This is a very different muralism than that of los tres grandes.

There are, however, individual artists represented in the volume. There is a very welcome depiction of Mónica Mayer’s career, beginning the 1970’s, in Karen Cordero Reiman’s chapter “Politics of Enunciation and Affect in an Age of Corporeal Violence.” Of particular interest to U.S. academics may be the history of Mayer’s piece, “The Clothesline,” initially presented in Mexico City in 1978 but then re-created as part of a feminist workshop in Los Angeles in 1979. It seems self-evident that “The Clothesline Project,” which happens annually on college campuses throughout the United States (and whose official history locates its origins in Cape Cod in 1990) is a later derivation of Mayer’s work. This is not an argument that Cordero makes in her chapter, and yet it seems important to reclaim the narrative that such a visible ritual of collective feminist art practice in the United States seems to have originated with this important Mexican feminist artist.

Abeyamí Ortega Dominguez and Sarah Abel discuss the emotional public performances of Indigenous, gender non-conforming (Zapotec, muxe) artist and anthropologist Lukas Avendaño in their chapter “Public Art and the Grammars of Antiracism.” They argue that Avendaño’s performance “Buscando a Bruno” brings a powerful affect of rage and pain to public space, turning it “into a shared space, a sort of commons” that they connect with Harney and Moten’s (2013) idea of the “undercommons” (a shared sociality that is “fugitive” or operates underneath official, hegemonic shared spaces and discourses).

Carlos Fonseca and Enea Zaramella present the works of Teresa Margolles in their chapter “The Ultimate Witnesses: Listening to Teresa Margolles’s Counterforensic Archive,” and the visceral encounters she creates between viewers and what the authors identify as the “state’s necropolitical archive: the morgue.” Margolles mists museumgoers with water previously used to wash bodies in the morgue, and transports blood-stained tiles taken from the murder site of a friend, the artist Luis Miguel Suro, to the museum gallery. At the Mexican Pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale exhibition, she enlisted family members of murder victims to wear janitorial uniforms and silently wipe the floor with the diluted blood of their loved ones. Fonseca and Zaramella note that Margolles’s work forces audiences to realize that they “are always already stained by the presence of today’s necropolitical violence” and calls us “to recognize the traces of violence that the narco-state wishes to disavow.”

Attempts to communicate the incomprehensible weight of violence, collective grief, and the culpability of the Mexican state loom large in The New Public Art. However, the emphasis on the activist restructuring of public collectivity through art leaves a sense of excitement, provocation, and inspiration that will be attractive to activists, artists, and academics alike. I imagine one of the reasons it was attractive to Polgovsky and the contributors to publish this volume in English was to make connections among artists and activists on both sides of the US-Mexico border. For those not particularly interested in the fine arts, the chapters would do very well as a window into thinking about some of the larger trends in recent Mexican politics in scholarship and the classroom alike. My only regret, and I imagine Polgovsky’s, is that the essays and dossiers in this otherwise beautifully crafted book-object are only illustrated with black-and-white images. The works presented warrant full-color treatment.

Livia K. Stone is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Illinois State University and the author of Atenco Lives!: Filmmaking and Popular Struggle in Mexico. She is currently working on a book about the history of autogestion in Mexico.

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