What is the Vibrant Chicano Art All About ?

June 16, 2016

Historically defined as art created by Americans of Mexican decent, Chicano art came out of the Chicano Movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s as the art of struggle. In its essence, it was a form of a protest with vibrant iconography and the depicted subject matter that was direct and ‘in your face’. As the central issue to the movement was the creation of a collective identity, the early mural paintings created by the painters gathering under this name helped to define the cultural and self-identity of the Chicanos and to fight for the self in a way affirmative and challenging towards the racial stereotypes. An important part of the Chicano Movement and their mural paintings was the involvement of the community members in the process of creativity by discussing and utilizing their history, aspirations and struggles as an educational subject matter for the paintings. Alongside the public murals, which in fact were created by the self-thought authors, other art forms that were developed at that time was the use of silkscreen creations, especially important for poster production. During this period, the printed images depicting political and social issues were to be seen everywhere.

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Carmen Lomaz Garza - La Feria en Reynosa (The Fair in Reynosa). Image via carmenlomasgarza.com

Major Influences

The most important influence on Chicano production came from the traditional Mexican muralist and pre-Columbian art, yet the strongest influence came from the "Tres Grandes" Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Their powerful political images depicting the historical and liberating struggles of the indigenous people and workers mesmerized the painters who also believed in the power of art as a vehicle for change and rebellion. The views on the perspective and the choice of color created by the post-revolutionary Mexican painters was also integrated into the style. Central to the group was the concept of "rasquachismo" (from rasquache, Spanish for poor), which referenced an attitude of resourcefulness and inventiveness towards the use of the most ordinary materials for the creative production.

Art should be visible in the most strategic places, visible to the workingman, in the public places, in the sport’s arenas.  - David Alfaro Siqueiros

Crucial for the development of the Chicano style was the growing mural paintings scene spreading through America, starting from Los Angeles, where the movement emerged, and later spreading to Chicago, San Antonio and other cities. The negative reactions towards the paintings, often criticized for the bright color and therefore labeled as too folkloric, only helped to keep the fire of rebellion and creativity going in the soul of Carlos Almaraz, Judy Baca, Benny Luna and Frank Romero who were defined early on as some of the important mural painters with the strongest impact on the community and art scene as well.

chicano project murals california united states working known cultural angeles work chicanos rights
Left: Joe Calderon - Chicano prison artwork / Right: David Campos - Chicano prison artwork. Images via theprisonartscoalition.com

The Subject Matter of Chicano Culture

Affirming the cultural identity, most of the paintings produced by the Chicano authors, refers to the religious iconography with the key elements of their Mexican, US., and indigenous cultures. The social and political aspect of the movement is seen in the creation of paintings reflecting some of the crucial issues such as immigration, feelings of displacement and in some cases, images of alternative history would decorate the walls of the barrios (Spanish word describing Latino neighborhoods in a city or town.) It is here that the most interesting form of Chicano style is produced.

Used in a similar way as silk-screen printing and mural paintings from the beginning of the movement, this form of Urban, Street Art,  and Graffiti, reflected the need of preserving the true identity of this large community. It was a tool for resistance as much as it was a vehicle of empowerment. This sense of community, and the role of the creative production that expresses the burning questions and viewpoints, alongside some of the more tranquil images of family life and celebrations, showcases that Chicano art is rooted in the keeping of the history and glorification of a culture, often thought of as outside. A great example of Chicano production that is considered outside art is Chicano prison art, and the famous Paños drawings. These forms of drawings possibly best describe the focus on the inventiveness and use of everyday objects for the production, which stands between traditional Chicano tattoos, graffiti, and religious paintings.

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Left: Ester Hernandez - Sun Mad. Image via blog.ryanhay.com / Right: Edgar Flores Saner - Ravi El Protector. Image via planetswintonandgrat.com

Contemporary Chicano Art

In recent years, a number of different curators have focused their practice on the presentation and the understanding of the broad range of subject matter and mediums used by the Chicano painters. The rebellious birth and the use of the creative force in the service of politics and community education is only one aspect of the history of the produced images that often seem to entrap various contemporary Chicano artists today.

The versatility of forms of art, that have sprung from the mural paintings, propaganda posters, and different images that called for a reaction against the treatment of the Mexican Americans and the paintings which celebrated the Mexican and Latin American culture, is still strong today in the sense of the historical importance but the young contemporary Mexican American painters, who are in fact gaining visibility for their art, seem conflicted about being defined just by their racial heritage. The versatility of their art follows the major trends of contemporary art today and the authors,  in some cases, wish not to be defined by their race. The heritage and the versatility of the Chicano art have provided the contemporary Chicano artists with the knowledge that reality and world around us should not be approached from just one standpoint, and this, we all must agree is an important piece in the big jigsaw puzzle building art today.

Editors’ Tip: Contemporary Chican@ Art: Color and Culture for a New America

This book explores the historical development of Chicano art and reflects on its start as a social phenomenon and its major artworks and artists, touching upon the reaction of art community members not belonging to this Mexican American art community. Seen today as taking a different shape, focus of the contemporary Chicano artists is placed on global and universal issues, reflecting the shift of subject matter and understanding of art’s functionality. This book offers an insight into this remarkable transformation and it includes an in-depth look at selected Chicano artists who share their thoughts.

All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image: Judy Baca – Danza de la Tierra. Image via judybaca.com