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Modern Indigenous Art

by Susanna Kirchberg

Muralist Carlos Merida's art formed the cultural part of the cultural redefinition of post-revolution-ally Mexico. The lineal, rhythmic music of his paintings are almost a visual language, exploring a fusion of modern techniques and ideas with the attitude the indigenous America. His works are permeated with color and movement, reminiscent of folkloric life.
Born on December 2, 1891 in Guatemala that was divided by the "superior class" and the indigenous populous, he a grew up in a city without art galleries and with sub-standard libraries.
As a boy, he studied at the Instituto de Artes y Oficios, there realizing his passion for painting. In 1909, wile living in Guatemala City, he met Jaime Sabarates, Sabarates, friend and personal biographer of Pablo Picasso, convinced Merida of the importance of exploring the art world outside of limited Guatemala. At the young age of 18, he and fellow Guatemalan painter Carlos Valente packed their bags and headed to Paris.
Paris was liked another world. The art and literary scene was flourishing, new ideas and way difficult for Merida's companion. Despondent in the unfamiliar surroundings, Valente committed suicide not long after their arrival in Paris. Distraught by his friend's death, Merida contemplated taking his own life. Painter and next door neighbor Roberto Montenegro convinced him that Mexico needed both him and his art.
During his years in Paris, Merida developed a philosophy which he would carry with him for life He was not a Guatemala, he was an American- of the Americas. He felt there was no difference between Guatemala and Mexico, stating, "It's the same country divided by a river that seldom has water."
Working with other mexican artists in Paris including Diego River, Jorge Encino, and Algel Zarraga, he experimented with Cubism.
After five years of European life, culture, and pre-World War I ideas, Merida sailed to Guatemala in 1914 with feeling of returning ti a new world. He believed firmly in the "cosmic race" of the Americas and the fusion of modern themes with ultra-antique motifs. Between 1915 and 1917 he was a leader in the movement of combining indigenous styles with a modern art. "I am son of the Maya", he stated. "My blood is Maya."
In 1919 Merida married Dalilia Galvez. Together they moved to Mexico City, which he came to consider new home for life.
There, in 1920, he staged his first major exhibit His themes revolved around the indigenous women of Mexico and Guatemala. Throughout the early and mid 1920s he was influenced by the ideas of the post-revolutionary Mexican movement: rights of the indigenous, social awareness, nature vs. industrialism. He staged exhibits in Mexico, Guatemala, New York, and Paris. While is art was well received by other artists, he remained widely unknown. Merida returned to Paris in 1927 to study Surrealism. He continued incorporating indigenous themes with contemporary styles throughout his two two-years stay in Paris.
Returning to Mexico in 1929, he was elected director of the National Theater of Dance. Through the 1930s he painted and worked closely with dance troops. As in his art, love of the primitive and native elements of the Americas where central themes in the theater productions he directed.
The 1940s proved to be a frustrating period for Merida, who was struggling financially, taking work where could. He held odd jobs as an critic, and as an illustrator for various books and publications- -form graphic art to children's books. But request for paintings and commissioned murals were few and far between. He considered giving up art altogether. The discovery of the Mayan murals at Bonampak in 1949 re-inspired Merida. His fading beliefs in he "new inventions of an an antiques race" were reaffirmed.
Through the 1950s Merida's style began to developed distinctly: clean geometric lines, color, the use of indigenous symbols were central themes in his work. Long awaited commissions for both public and private murals began pouring in. Convinced that murals added not only a decorative element to the space, but needed to incorporate the actual architectural design of the building as well, he was a key element in revitalizing and and reorienting the traditional muralist movement,
As Merida began receiving international recognition he continued experimenting with different techniques and medias, personal style developed, be coming more abstract and lineal, yet always with an underlying rhythm of the indigenous. Color played an important an important role in both his murals and canvasses.
An active and prolific artist up until his death on December 21, 1984, Carlos Merida died in Mexico City at the of 93. His work is an important part of the Mexican movement. Dedicating his life to the native soul of his land and people, it's a said irony to note that the largest collections of his works are in private and public collections in the United States.