The Great Women of Muralism in Mexico

There is a diversity of works by Mexican and foreign women who were part of a muralist movement that radically transformed public art in Mexico during the 20th century.

Female muralists in Mexico: Attack on rural teachers (Atentado a las maestras rurales), 1936, by Aurora Reyes.
Female muralists in Mexico: Attack on rural teachers (Atentado a las maestras rurales), 1936, by Aurora Reyes.

A woman with a pleading face is dragged by her hair by a man who at the same time destroys a book in the air. While the woman's body is being energetically pulled, another man, whose face is impossible to see because of the large hat he is wearing, hits her with a rifle butt. The act is observed by a trio of children who take shelter behind a wall, one even seems to hide his face from the impossibility of conceiving this act of violence.

The scene is part of the mural Attack on the rural teachers, painted in 1936 and located in the Centro Escolar Revolución, located south of the Historical Center of Mexico City; it is a work created by Aurora Reyes, considered the first woman muralist in our country. The murals in Mexico done by women are coarse; however, little has been said about it, since muralism in the country has an identity marked by the influence and impact of the work of those who are considered "The three greats of muralism": Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco.

However, beyond this narrative, there is a diverse body of work by Mexican and foreign women who were part of a movement of artists who radically transformed public art in Mexico during the 20th century and whose work reflected the social concern that marked the era and the generation of creators to which they belonged.

Rina Lazo (1923-2019)

Originally from Guatemala and recently deceased, this painter arrived in Mexico in 1946 after winning a scholarship to study painting at the National School of Painting, Sculpture and Engraving La Esmeralda. Lazo's arrival in Mexico came at a time when muralism was already one of the most important cultural activities in the country. She was an assistant to Diego Rivera, with whom she worked on the iconic mural Sueño de una tarde dominical (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon) in the Alameda Central. Rivera would become Lazo's teacher, and this would become an outstanding piece of Mexican muralism.

Some of her murals are El agua, origen de la vida sobre la tierra (1951), located in the Cárcamo de Dolores in Chapultepec; La universidad, la familia y el deporte en México (1952), depicted in the Estadio Olímpico Universitario; El pueblo en demanda de salud (1953), located in the Hospital La Raza; and La gloriosa victoria (1954) in the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura in Guatemala.

Elena Huerta (1908-1997)

This artist is the author of what is considered the largest mural done by a woman in Mexico, it is a 450 square meter work located in Saltillo, Coahuila, the state where most of her work is located. Her murals are located in the Antonio Narro School of Agriculture, the Institute of Science and Arts of Saltillo and the Vito Alessio Robles Cultural Center.

Sisters Marion and Grace Greenwood

In the 1920s, artists from different nations began to arrive in Mexico, attracted by the news that an important artistic movement with social content had been born in the country; that is, Mexican Muralism. Among those artists were sisters Marion and Grace Greenwood, originally from Brooklyn, United States. Both studied at the Art Students League in New York and at the Académie Colarossi in Paris.

Mexican Muralism by Marion Greenwood
Mexican Muralism by Marion Greenwood

Marion Greenwood's approach to muralism was through Pablo O'Higgins, who taught her the technique of fresco; she then passed on these learnings to her sister Grace. Marion's first mural was Mercado en Taxco (1933), located in the Hotel Taxqueño in Guerrero. Later she moved to Morelia, where she carried out various commissions and Grace served as her assistant.

In Morelia, they painted Man and Machine, located in the Museo Regional Michoacan, and Landscape and Economy of Michoacán, located in the Colegio de San Nicolás. Also, in the Abelardo L. Rodríguez Market in Mexico City, Grace Greenwood painted Mining (1935); while Marion Greenwood painted Food and its Distribution through the Canal de la Viga (1935) and Industrialization of the Countryside (1935); both painted the mural Workers of All Countries, Unite (1935).

The works created by these women referred to the struggle of the social classes, the workers' struggle, anti-colonialism and freedom of expression.

Electa Arenal (1935-1969)

In addition to being a poet and sculptor, this Mexican artist worked skillfully on monumental murals; she was trained in this artistic expression by her mother, Elena Huerta, whom she assisted with the frescoes at the Universidad Autónoma Agraria Antonio Narro in Coahuila; she also collaborated with Diego Rivera on the exterior murals of the Ciudad Universitaria Olympic Stadium. Later, he was part of the Siqueiros School Workshop and participated in the creation of the murals at the Polyforum Cultural Siqueiros and the Revolution Room at the National History Museum.

Some of her most famous works can be found in Cuba, where she traveled motivated by the ideals of the Cuban Revolution. Some of her most important works are Canto a la Revolución (1962), Atomos y Niños (1963), Revolución Cubana (1965), Infancia (1963), Maternidad (1964) and Palomas (1965). He died in the late 1960s when he fell from a scaffold while assisting muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros in the making of a mural.

Valetta Swann (1904-1973)

She was an English painter and sculptor who settled in Mexico, where she developed a prolific work, managing to mount several individual exhibitions even at the Palace of Fine Arts. Her works represented scenes of rural life, the countryside, traditions and the daily life of women. Some of her murals are Sinfonía cósmica (1960) and Las delicias (1964), the latter created for the National Museum of Anthropology.

Fanny Rabel (1922-2008)

This artist of Polish origin developed in easel painting, engraving, scenography and mural painting. She was a disciple of Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Frida Kahlo. She studied at La Esmeralda and was part of Los Fridos. Her work moved away from political themes and focused on issues of emotion. Some of his works are Alfabetización (1952), originally located in Coyoacán and currently missing, and Sobrevivencia de un pueblo por su espíritu (1957) located in the Centro Deportivo Israelita in Mexico City.

Aurora Reyes (1908-1985)

She is considered the first woman muralist in Mexico; she was also a writer, political activist, and teacher. Originally from Chihuahua, she migrated to Mexico City, where she entered the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, an institution where she developed a great friendship with Frida Kahlo.

She later studied at the San Carlos Academy, where she developed her artistic skills; however, Reyes was a great self-taught person. Her paintings focused on highlighting the problems of the unprotected and developed her style in portraiture, showing a predilection for female faces.

The first mural that Aurora Reyes painted is in the Centro Escolar Revolución and is entitled Attack on Rural Women Teachers (1936), which reflected some of Reyes' concerns, such as education and the struggle to improve working conditions for working women.

By Mexicanist