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To see the many

Politics of visibility and Latin American identity

Helena Valdivia

The adjacent image is from a

mural in San Miguel, Santiago de
Chile, painted in 2011 in a public
building that was given up for the
purpose. The mural depicts Latin
American territory, from Mexico
to the Patagonia including Cuba
and some of the Antilles, over a
red, orange and yellow circle that
most probably represents the sun




patterns as decoration. The words

live, resist, feel and fight
can be read in the circle, as well as
Latinoamerica, written twice.




culture in specific regions and

countries, but recognizable by
many, decorate the geography: a
pre-Columbian skull from the
Day of the Dead in Mexico, a
Central American macaw, an Amazonian indigenous, a Bolivian worker, an Inca-like mask, the
Atacama Desert, and an araucana, the typical tree of the Patagonia. An interesting feature of
this composition is that, with the exemption of the Mexican skull, all illustrative elements are
in disorder: they are not positioned where they are supposed to be from. This can be due to

compositional reasons, of course, but also to an intentional discourse of Latin American

identity: solidarity among all countries, one of the discourses -along with workers movements,
telluric motives, ethnicity and human rights- characteristic of muralism. In fact, when Nstor
Garca Canclini writes about modernity and postmodernity in Latin American art, he
notes that there has been a willingness [] in many Latin American countries to reflect on
what it means for culture to move away from its original territory and to communicate and
interact with others1.
It looks like there has always existed some kind of consciousness of Latin American
identity amongst its territories2. However, the issue started to be a major topic after the victory
of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Economic alliances among Latin American countries were a
very serious program, and in February of 1960 the first Latin American integration organism,
the Latin American Free Trade Association (LAFTA) appeared. The institutionalization of the
intellectual Latin American community gained likewise a big relevance, for intellectuals were
attributed a huge responsibility within the liberation program. In 1965 the Latin American
Community of Writers was founded, and the next year the first congress took place in Arica,
Chile. This way, being Latin American meant more than a birth certificate; it entailed an active
engagement with a revolutionary process and an ideological commitment against colonization
and imperialism. A Latinamericanism consciousness started to grow and be evident in more
than one cultural manifestation. Pablo Nerudas Canto General, the Nueva Cancin
Latinoamericana musical movement, the Latin American literary boom and dozens of
essays on Latin American identity are just an example of the relevance and impact that such a
topic had. Representations and reflections about Latinamericanism are evidently not exclusive
of muralism, however, it is noticeable that it does render representation more evident and
explicit. But why is so?
Representing and sustaining a Latin American identity is a difficult issue. National
symbols tend to be created within the state and are reinforced by every day communications
and identitarian myths that strive to unity3. A supranational identity, in contrast, is
heterogeneous, and is not necessarily supported by national symbols. Therefore, the

Modernity after Postmodernity in G. Mosquera (ed.) Beyond the Fantastic. Contemporary art criticism from Latin
America. London: Institute for International Visual Arts, 1995, p. 49.
See, for example, Jorge Larrain (2010) Identity and Modernity in Latin America.
3 See on this respect the seminal work of Benedict Anderson (1983), Imagined Communities.

representation has to recur to other kind of strategies, while it has different political and
aesthetic implications.
Muralism in Latin America is about identification; identificatory narratives that are
visible in public spaces streets or institutional buildings-, communities that have been
dedicated murals, and painting styles that are representative of regions or even countries.
Latin American muralism is, moreover, a collective art: even though at times a single artist
designs a particular mural, it is commonly painted by more than one person, in agreement with
the community, heir of the space. This is why the question of identity in public art might prove
sharper. Yet, the politic implications of such a gesture are larger than one might think: it is not
only a matter of representation (to be or act instead of); it is a matter of the act of appearance
In this essay, then, I will argue that Latin American identity in murals takes place not
only within the pictorial representation, but in the performative act of visibility, of appearance.
Hence, the question I will still be pursuing is this: how can Latin American muralism as a
political act of visibility be an anchor in helping to devise a Latin American identity?
Latin American muralism was born in Mexico after the Mexican Revolution (ca. 1920) as a
state program to reinforce nationalist values and consolidate social ideals. The three main
muralists, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jos Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, were soon known
outside the country and had a huge impact not just in Latin America but also within the
abstract expressionism of the United States. At first, the state granted artists the use of public
places where murals were to be shown: institutional buildings, schools, etc. Therefore, it was
the state who held the ideological control of public space, even if bestowed to artists.
However, when Mexican state interests and ideology were no longer compatible with
rebellious, pro-Communist artistic message, muralism shifted walls and started to be an art of
the community, of old buildings, of favelas of libertarian schools, related more to graffiti and
unfamiliar to state interests. That is the muralism that was inherited to Latin America and
which now is an influential communitarian political movement.
Muralism is much about public space appropriation. It was the first category
denominated public art in Mexico4 for being an art that does not need a special enclosure to

See Dra. Guillermina Guadarrama, Arte pblico (mural)-espacio pblico in the digital journal

be shown and, instead, chooses common spaces where transit is free and anyone can be
spectator. It contests the division between public and private by reconfiguring the materiality
and functionality of public sphere. It, thus, creates its own forum by establishing an interactive
grid between material public space, visual narrative and participants. Eyal Weizman writes on
this respect that a forum is constituted by a contested object or site, an interpreter tasked with
translating the language of things, and the assembly of a public gathering 5. He relates this
with what Quintilian called prosopopoeia: the mediated speech of inanimate objects [] Things
too far away, too abstract or too large [] had to be brought vividly to life by the power of an
aural demonstration6. This is important when exploring not only the spatial distribution of a
forum but also its interpellative and expository function. According to Marcelo Carpita,
muralist and researcher from Buenos Aires, the visual narrative of muralism brings to life
specific stories about traditions, historical events or sociopolitical definitions in a direct and
unambiguous dialogue with the spectator. The social critique it manifests aims to generate
consensus among interpreters7 in the sense that spectators are expected to engage with the
narrative and acknowledge it as part of their history. This way, communitarian participation
does not only comprise the people who collaborate in the pintas, but also those who
participate by embracing the murals message in their communities and, in that way, being part
of it.
When the Italian operaists wrote about the multitude8, they conceived the term
commonality to refer 1) to the life in common that allows the political-social existence of
the many seeing as being many9, and 2) to the product of immaterial labor: communication,
collaboration and cooperation10. Commonality is, in this way, like an amniotic liquid where
individuals, even though being common to each other, acknowledge difference and
heterogeneity as part of their way of being. This is the kind of interplay that comes into my
mind when looking at a mural and envisaging, in addition to the creative process an unceasing
feedback and rearrangement from all those who participate from it 11-, the interaction with the

In Forensis, Berlin: Sternberg Press/HKW, 2014, p. 9.

Idem, p. 9-10.
7 Muralismos en pugna, February, 18th, 2014. In:
See Paolo Virno (2003), A Grammar of the Multitude; Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri (2004), Multitude. War
and Democracy in the Age of Empire.
9 Virno, op.cit., p. 24.
10 Hard and Negri, op.cit.
11 Carpita writes that: Me juego a asegurar que todos los muralistas aprendemos y nos modificamos cuando
vemos que un colega logra un resultado esttico y tcnico que consideramos admirable y pasible de ser absorbido

spectator(s), which generates a communitarian but also supra-national identification. In the

mural above, the possibility of identification is directed not only to those depicted (Mexicans,
Amazonian indigenous, Bolivian workers), but also to those belonging to the Latin American
community and those who assent with the exposed values (namely, recognition of the
importance of indigenous communities, folkloric traditions, esteem of endemic fauna, etc.)
Subsequently, a mural, as a forum, pursues to be a meeting point: a place where subjects meet
their social reality, where they meet their colleagues, where they meet themselves as social
subjects in the reproduction of collective memory, and where big community projects of
public art meet active and participative spectators, as Marcelo Carpita emphasizes12. But how
active a spectator can be? Does this really build an identitary consciousness?
In The emancipated spectator (2007) Jacques Rancire questions the notion of
active and passive spectatorship that has been brought to the discussion in the history of art,
especially within theatre and performance. I endorse his critique to state that the kind of
spectator conceived by muralism is not an active spectator but, yet, an emancipated one.
Rancire picks up the notion of the common to defeat the hierarchy that the dichotomy
passive/active implies, and asserts that the common power is the power of equality of
intelligences [] the capacity of the anonymous, the capacity that makes anybody equal to
everybody (p. 278-279). In this way, emancipation means blurring of the opposition between
those who look and those who act, between those who are individuals and those who are
members of a collective body: allowing a community of storytellers and translators. And this
is exactly what muralism intends: to establishing a commonality of subjects where everyone is
participant (for the mural is located in a public space, where everybody is owner) and where
everyone is represented in archetypical symbols. A mural, hence, depicts the collectivity of the

como enseanza. No puede haber plagio cuando se vive un mismo tiempo, una misma realidad, se batalla en el
mismo campo contra los mismos enemigos: la mediocridad y la miopa conceptual. And then: Este es el
muralismo que nos toca vivir? Aquel de barricada, el que se realiza en un par de das, el que el estado no financia
ni promueve; el que reflexiona al tiempo que se ejecuta? El que surge y representa a un pueblo que todava busca
un estado de bienestar? Un muralismo que comparte la pintura que ha sobrado, para que otro pueda empezar?
Un muralismo de pequeos muros para optimizar pintura y el fcil acceso a las alturas?
He writes in the source previously referred: Qu es lo que hace uno en los "encuentros de arte
pblico"? Encuentra. Se reencuentra, Se encuentra a s mismo. Todo el tiempo se encuentra con la realidad
propia y del compaero. Slo hay que darse cuenta que sta es dinmica y se renueva por cada generacin que
encuentra en el muralismo una herramienta de comunicacin con su medio vital, y una disciplina que permite
desarrollarse como un sujeto social (September 16, 2012). In

Seeing the mural as a forum where the issue of Latin American identity is presented, we
must bear into consideration two points: 1) the act of visibility and presentation (the public
gathering), and 2) that being represented (which gathers the object being contested and its
translation to the language of things). The act of presentation, as we saw, presupposes a
communal gathering among creators, spectators and representation(s). Indeed, two key
features of muralism are the (intendedly) unequivocal display of narratives, and the space of
appearance and communication it raises in the act of making visible and explicit any
ungraspable discourse.
Judith Butler has written about politics of visibility in the street and how public
occupation brings the space of politics into being: The bodies on the street redeploy the space
of appearance in order to contest and negate the existing forms of political legitimacy while
the material supports for action are not only part of action, but they are also what is being
fought about.13 Of course this is relevant when discussing about public art and how the act of
public space-taking contests political regimes. However, in The Human Condition Arendt was
actually more enlightening when she writes that action and speech create a space between the
participants which can find its proper location almost anywhere and anytime14. The
subversive, political, act in public appropriation is not so much the materiality of the space
being occupied as the interaction among occupiers. An interaction that, as we discussed above,
goes beyond the physical subjects involved: it includes the archetypical identities that come
into play when being presented.
We have to go back to Rancire at this point. The argumentation developed in The
emancipated spectator is sustained in a concept coined in The Politics of Aesthetics (2004), the
distribution of the sensible (le partage du sensible): the system of divisions and boundaries that
define, among other things, what is visible and audible within a particular aesthetic-political
regime (2004, p.22). The police, defined as an organizational system of coordinates that
establishes the distribution of the sensible, divides the community into those who can take part
of the political life and those who are excluded. The essences of politics is, then, breaking in
this distribution and give a part and a voice to those who do not have it. In principle, every act
of appearance, such as demonstrations for example, is a way of interfering into the polices
distribution. That makes them political acts. In our case, a mural the mural above- is a
Judith Butler (2011), Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street. In:
14 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958, p. 1988.

political act in three orders: it is political in its message (Latin American identity after decolonization); it is political in the act of appropriation of public space, but it is also political
because it renders visible the subjects of its commonality.
And this is the crucial part of this analysis. Muralism, as a political act, occupies public
space to 1) contest the distinction between public and private and 2) found a new logic of
Cultural identity (ultimately, Latin American identity) is supported on images,
discursive practices and representations that enable subjects to recognize adherences and
belonging to social groups. However, the logic of representation can vary depending on the
regime of power relations it is subjected to. In The Politics of Aesthetics, Rancire discusses three
ways of distributing the sensible that structure the way in which works of art are involved in
politics. They are not contemporary, since they have historically come one after another. 1)
the ethical regime, concerned with the origin and telos of imagery in relationship to the ethos
of the community; 2) representative regime, which liberates imitation from the constraints of
ethical utility for a normatively autonomous domain with its own rules for fabrication and
evaluation; and 3) aesthetic regime, which abolishes the dichotomous structure of mimesis in
the name of contradictory identification between logos and pathos. In my opinion, it is this last
regime which makes possible the effectiveness of Latin American muralism, and of the new
development of cultural identities. Representation15 under the aesthetic regime does not consist
in a mimetic image of individuals but instead in the relationship between what (and how) is
being shown and the possible interactions of the participants that elicit engagement and
identification. In other words, representation, under the aesthetic regime, is performatively
constituted. In the mural above, for instance, it is the relation of contiguity between owncultural symbols and foreign ones, which stablishes a new epistemic order in relation to
cultural identification: an expansion of what is considered to be the self. Therefore, solidarity,
bonds and acknowledgement are expected. This new order plays in the consciousness as well
in the unconsciousness in the same way that cinematographic montage builds new conceptual
meanings on the basis of superposition of audiovisual images.
Latin American identity, then, is rooted in more than visual memetic- representations.
It is rooted in the possibility of interaction -the commonality- and their multidynamical, equal,


Possible not only under the representative regime, but also under the other two.

and heterogeneous relationships. It is rooted in the act of appearance and in the politics of
visibility itself.
To summarize, the political act of space appropriation of muralism as public art can be
seen as the settlement of a forum where the appearance of a political subject is determined.
This designation is by any means a mimetic representation; instead, it is a rupture with the
distribution of the sensible, the configuration of a new system of subjects: subjects (it can also
be symbolic elements, historical events, etc.) that do not have a part in the hegemonic political
regime. Consequently, the space of politics is not only the material space that is being
occupied, but the forum as a living space: the possibility of interaction amongst subjects. Since
muralism does not act under the representative regime, but under the aesthetic one, identity is
not constituted but constituting, found in the relationships between subjects: their action, their
speech. Subjects can identify with what is being depicted not on the basis of mimetic
identification, but on the basis of interaction, acknowledging heterogeneity and difference, but
taking as a principle what they have in common: being part of the political act of appearance
and recognizing themselves as political subjects. In this manner it is possible to generate a
supranational identity that embraces every particular alien- identity as part of the same life in
Finally, and to conclude: this way of representation of the collective or the commonand formation of Latin American identity is not exclusive of muralism. It can be found in
other cultural artifacts, where the configuration of a space of communication is vital and where
the interaction of culturally different subjects (an enactment of heterogeneity) is attempted. It
normally happens in artifacts and media where mimetic representation is disregarded, such as
in poetry, songs or some cultural magazines. They try to show how collective memory and
cultural identity are, ultimately, framed by past events as much as by present interactions,
present cultural performances and collective expectations for the future. They, consequently,
bet for communication and speech that, in action, devise identity. It is, hence, an interesting
phenomenon of performative identity constitution.

Pages from our legacies, Juana Alicia, 2006

Pueblos Originarios, Pato Madera, Cristian Ferrada, Beto Pastene, Patricio Albornoz, Gustavo
Chavez Pavn, 2013.