A mural long riddled with scandal and cloaked behind white paint is finally seeing the light of day.
For 80 years, David Alfaro Siqueiros’ fresco mural known as América Tropical has been hidden from the public eye in downtown Los Angeles and was thought to have been destroyed.
J. Paul Getty Trust
|Getty Conservation Institute conservators work to preserve América Tropical, by David Alfara Siqueiros. The public artwork in Los Angeles was whitewashed in the 1930s, due to its anti-American message.|
The 1932 installation depicted a minority being crucified by American oppression—a powerful message that didn’t go over well with the era’s city fathers, who had it painted over.
Now, however, the City of Los Angeles and the Getty Conservation Institute have spent many years and almost $10 million to reveal and preserve the forgotten work.
Finally, the revived mural was officially unveiled Tuesday (Oct. 9).
Controversy behind the Art
The piece is the only surviving public mural by Siqueiros in the U.S. that’s still in its original location—on a second-story exterior wall of the Italian Hall on Olvera Street in the downtown area known as El Pueblo.
The work dates to the Great Depression, when the city commissioned Siqueiros, one of the great Mexican artists of the 20th century, to paint a tropical America.
But what the artist saw in America at the time was a far cry from what could be considered “tropical,” according to reports.
City of Los Angeles; Getty Research Institute; © 2012 Artists Rights Society
|Roberto Berdecio, an associate of Siqueiros, stands in front of the mural shortly after completion. The artwork features a Mexican Indian bound to a double cross with an American eagle above him.|
Instead, he painted a Mexican Indian bound to a double cross, with an American eagle above and revolutionary solders—one aiming at the eagle—closing in.
“Controversial from the start, within a few months, the mural was partially whitewashed, and it was completely obscured by whitewash within a decade,” the city said.
The work was “virtually forgotten” until the 1960s, when the rise of the Chicano mural movement brought a renewed interest in América Tropical, Siqueiros, and social justice, the partners said.
Coincidentally, the literal whitewash began to fade around the same time, with the aging white paint giving way to glimpses of the work below.
In 1988, the Getty Conservation Institute became involved. Since then, the institute has carried out extensive research and documentation on the work. The organization has also led the conservation treatment, including plaster stabilization, cleaning, and consolidation.
The work has included scientific studies to identify the materials originally used by Siqueiros to create the mural. This information will be shared to inform the conservation of other Siqueiros works.
According to current conservation philosophy, the mural was “preserved,” but not “restored” to its original appearance.
“We are so pleased to bring América Tropical back to the people of Los Angeles,” said Tim Whalen, director of the institute.
The city and Getty noted that the mural’s pictorial surface is significantly deteriorated and its colors are faint, due to the early whitewashing and ongoing exposure to the elements.
“But the power of the image and Siqueiros’ composition remain as strong as ever,” the partners said.
Shelter and Exhibit
The mural boasts a new protective shelter spanning the south wall of the Italian Hall—a canopy with sun shades on each side to protect it from direct exposure to sun and rain.
In addition, a rooftop platform has been constructed to allow for public viewing.
Los Angeles based-architectural firm Brooks + Scarpa oversaw the design and construction of the shelter and platform, as well as an América Tropical Interpretive Center. The exhibit explores the work’s history and techniques, the conservation process, and Siqueiros’s artistic legacy.
Gengiskanhg / WikiMedia Commons
|In 1944, David Alfaro Siqueiros painted this mural in Mexico City.|
The Interpretive Center is managed by El Pueblo and located on the ground floor of the historic Sepulveda House.
The Getty Conservation Institute has committed to maintaining and conserving the mural for the next decade. The long-term stewardship of the mural and the center rests with the city.
Making it Possible
The effort to preserve the mural and the construction of the platform, shelter and interactive center was made possible by a $9.95 million public-private investment—$3.95 million from the Getty and $6 million from the city.
Other contributors and supporters include Friends of Heritage Preservation, the California Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Amigos de Siqueiros.
“América Tropical has been an inspiration to numerous artists, educators, and social activists about the importance of freedom of expression since its unveiling in 1932,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said in a statement.
“This project tells the story of Siqueiros’ incredible artistic talent and his unwavering commitment to people, of censorship during a period of great political upheaval, and of its preservation and enduring presence.”