‘Diego Rivera’s America:’ a testament to the power of activist art

There is no word for “spectacular” that best describes the experience of viewing “Pan-American Unity,” Diego Rivera’s 1940 mural, housed from 2021 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). The piece is the focus of SFMOMA’s soon-to-close exhibition, Diego Rivera’s America, curated by James Alli and Maria Castro.

The mural, whose full name is “The Marriage of Northern and Southern Artistic Expression on this Continent”, is an extremely vivid and honest work of art. Seventy feet wide and 22 feet tall, this massive work is Rivera’s ode to the Bay Area and his last mural in the United States. Depicting the passage of time across North America, Rivera shares his vision of cultural solidarity with diverse groups across the continent. Rivera describes his work as “the fusion between the great past of the lands of Latin America, as it is deeply rooted in the soil, and the high engineering developments in the United States.” Full of rich detail, this mural serves as an inherently activist piece and is both a fitting and exciting exhibition opening.

“[The fresco] encoded by DNA history. The mechanisms that happen in history are here,” said mural historian William Maynez. He marveled at the scope of the piece—he still notices new things every day, even after serving as the mural’s curator and historian for more than 22 years.

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The main exhibit itself is as meaningful as the mural. “Diego Rivera’s America” ​​is divided into 10 galleries, each representing a different theme that Rivera emulated in his works. These include places like Manhattan or Tejuatepec, as well as themes like artisans or street markets.

Bay Area connections are the heart and soul of the exhibit, as well as an important aspect of Rivera’s life. In addition, the show focuses on representing the peoples of North, Central and South America.

Beyond the opportunity to encounter the amazing quality of Rivera’s murals, it is equally fascinating to examine his vision for the future and the activist nature of his art. Rivera was a staunch opponent of creating “art for art’s sake” and instead aimed to create change by softening viewers’ preconceptions. Rivera is able to accomplish this by unapologetically including commentary on historical events such as World War II in tracks such as “Pan American Unity.”

Focusing on Rivera’s work from 1921 to 1940 and bringing together 150 of his most notable works, the exhibition guides viewers through the maturation of the artist’s style, his rejection of the historical canon of Western art, and his struggle for greater social equality.

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One of the most impressive aspects of the exhibition is the use of projections. The exhibition’s overture is Rivera’s mural “Creation”, which is presented to the public in a way it has never experienced before. SFMOMA uses a technique called “projection mapping,” a technological technique for projecting video onto various surfaces, to accomplish the feat. Through a 1,000-square-foot projection on the museum wall, curators were able to recreate the feel of the original mural as if viewers were visiting the Bolívar Auditorium of the National Preparatory School in Mexico City, where the original is housed. Alongside the display are sketches and early drafts of small pieces of the mural, mostly compiled by a Bay Area collector, that stand as evidence that San Francisco was part of Rivera’s journey even before he arrived in the Bay Area.

Another of the projected murals is the famous “Allegory of California,Rivera’s first fresco in San Francisco. The piece shows California workers in many different fields—agriculture, mining and engineering, as well as education—represented by famous figures in the fields from California history. Much of the mural is dominated by a woman who is a symbol of the state’s rolling hills.

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Not only do the projected murals retain the beauty of the originals, but they are also modernized by adding movement within the projections. In front of “Creation” are additional views of musicians practicing their instruments, and “Allegory of California” features long-haired women descending long flights of stairs. Visitors are fully immersed in the context of the works, experiencing Rivera’s works in their full glory.

These projections allow viewers to be instantly transported to the locations of Rivera’s most important works. While the show is not a complete retrospective of Rivera’s work, the juxtaposition of projections and physical copies of his works offers viewers a comprehensive overview of his art from the time he returned to Mexico to his final mural in the US.

With “Pan American Unity” by Rivera scheduled to return to City College of San Francisco (CCSF) in January 2024, this immersive educational exhibition is not one you want to miss.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective thoughts, opinions and reviews.

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