My amateur analysis of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals

Tuesday, September 24, 2019 - 7:37pm

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Design by Kate Glad and Liz Bigham

It is said that Frida Khalo despised gringolandia, otherwise known as the United States. She was deeply discomforted by what she called the frivolous gringo culture, and passed most of her time in the country feeling isolated and unfulfilled. 

In 1932, during the time she spent in Detroit while her husband, Diego Rivera, painted his famous “Detroit Industry Murals,” she created her “Self Portrait Along the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States.”

The composition shows her at the fringes of two opposing cultures, one grey and grounded on machinery and constant innovation, and the other organic and held by tradition and the elements. It is in this contrast between nature and industry that she expressed her discomfort with the forged and poised gringo culture and favored what seemed natural to her, Mexican tradition.

On one side of the canvas, the Mexico side, Kahlo painted two storming clouds. In one she depicted the moon and, in the other, the sun. They touched in the middle and created a storm, a natural phenomenon that brings both life and destruction. On the American side, she drew no clouds, only a thick fog of emissions that radiated from a Ford factory. In this fog, she painted the American flag.

This idea of exalting a country and its principles at the expense of nature and personal joy was running through my head as I entered the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts. I had been living in the United States for over five years, and thought I had had enough exposure to gringo culture to know that I agreed with Kahlo.

All I could think about as I sat on a bench in the corner of the Rivera Court was my experience as a Mexican in the United States. I recalled the jarring culture shock that came when I was introduced to a society that seemed to only be preoccupied by hard work, on-paper accomplishments and material possessions.

I went through junior high and high school filling out one application after another, constantly trying to prove to my classmates and teachers that I belonged and I was not to be discarded; that I could adjust my way of being to fit their rigid norms of acceptability.

I polished my image and self-expression in accordance to the American code. I practiced, got rid of my accent, dressed in American brands and followed typical American teen rituals. I joined the dance team, dated a football player and mostly spent all of my time trying to do the “right” things to boost my college applications — trying to be a productive and obedient member of the American society because I felt it was the only way to achieve “success.”

Those years made me feel like Kahlo in her self-portrait. I was stuck in the middle of two cultures, not really belonging to either, but striving to assimilate into one and forget the other. I thought a definitive decision had to be made. I was either going to become American, which meant hiding my “Mexicaness,” or I was going to be Mexican, which meant always being labeled as different or incompatible.

It was this perceived rigidity of culture that led me to sacrifice my Mexican mannerisms and traditions, so I made a choice. It was a decision I saw as absolute and necessary at the time. Like Kahlo, I felt like it had to be either-or because they were so different, a clear line separated them.

But when I came to the University of Michigan, traveled to Detroit and inspected the little seed of my culture that was planted there by Diego Rivera in 1933, I realized that I did not completely agree with Kahlo’s depiction of gringo culture. A lot of my ambivalence and feelings of alienation remained, but Rivera managed to make me feel included in his Mexican depiction of an American narrative.

The Detroit Industry Murals were breathtaking. I spent almost all of my time at the museum sitting on that corner bench, looking at every face and detail in each of the 27 frescoes painted by Rivera. 

The North Wall, which contains three of the most famous panels, shows the connections between nature and technology. The story these three panels tell is grounded in a common link, the only thing that is capable of both tradition and innovation: the human mind.

The panel closest to the ceiling shows human hands holding and extracting prime natural resources from the earth. The middle panel shows these natural resources being transformed by heat and funneled into the furnace of the bottom panel, which depicts a Ford factory.

The Ford factory panel, at bottom panel of the North Wall, depicts an echelon of contradictions. At the very top is the burning furnace. It appears small in the background, but it is connected to the rest of the depictions in the panel by snakelike conveyor belts that weave from side to side, separating various situations. 

On the left side, the conveyor belt encases an assembly line of glowing, green men who are seemingly affected by the toxic chemicals they are forced to work in. Automotive parts move in and out of their line through suspended crates, but workers are unaffected. Surrounded by heavy and dangerous looking machinery and toxic chemicals, all they seem to worry about is their work.

There is a clock in the background, near the top right corner. It depicts the passage of time, but nobody seems to be looking at it, as if their time was not their own.

Near the bottom is another assembly line, but this one depicts workers that were drawn by Rivera without sparing any details. They are focused and go on without talking. They pull and push auto parts together, oblivious to any danger and without risking a single, independent thought. 

At the very bottom, Rivera painted a series of grey panels showing small figures in line. He drew lines of people that form as they enter the factory, lines of furnaces emitting clouds of pollution into the air, lines of cars in parking lots and lines of men operating heavy machinery.

This panel depicts the American industry and the success driven Americans who work endlessly to make it  happen. In the back, like a tiny red dot, is the finished product. The process seems to be more important here than the car itself. Through this, and through his multiracial depictions of the workers, Rivera emphasizes gringo culture values as attempting to be diverse and inclusive.

Rivera seemed to be a firm believer of the American Dream — of the Mexican American dream.

The vertical flow that bridges the top panel to the bottom one alludes to a linear narrative that connects nature and industry. The North Wall of Rivera Court looked to me like a hopeful depiction for humanity, one that connects nature to innovation and sees technology as a possible equalizer and an extension of the human brain, and therefore nature.

During the hours I spent looking at each stroke and inspecting each figure, I saw themes of nature, diversity and growth contrasted by images of technology and innovation. I saw human beings using their intellect to create good and evil. I saw snakelike machines that wove through assembly lines of bleary-eyed men working mindlessly next to small frescoes of cells and doctors working on vaccinations. I saw everyone working together and creating technology for the advancement of mankind.

Each panel told a different story, and together they created a more holistic view of Rivera’s ideas of American industry and society.

Unlike Kahlo in her “Self Portrait Along the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States,” Rivera seemed to have a more open-ended perspective of what he observed in Detroit, the pinnacle American industry at the time.

He did not think the cultures lived separated by a definitive line, nor that a choice needed to be made between them. Rather, he used his Mexican eyes to see an American thing, as he saw the innovation and technology as natural and ground breaking.

This made me reconsider my own opinions about my time in the United States. The strokes and lines of the “Detroit Industry Murals” also told a story I felt deeply connected to. They told a story of opportunity and transformation, one of a hopeful future and of a harmonious relationship between tradition, identity and respect. 

After all, I found a way to make gringo culture my own. I found a way to keep my Mexican identity and lifelong traditions, while also respecting my new environment and expecting respect back. I am constantly redrawing and repainting my furnace and the conveyor belts that connect my life, personality and culture to American society. 

I didn’t know it at the time, but I started forging my gringo experience my first day in the United States. 

I made friends with people who were like me, who were bilingual and who were also trying to strike a balance between two identities. People who did not always feel respected or valued by gringo culture, but, like me, were finding ways to demand it. 

I started rebelling against the idea of having to chose a culture and inserted pieces of my childhood, Mexican traditions into American ones. I started connecting with my parents more and realized that there is no right or wrong way to “be Mexican.” I realized that I just had to be myself, and that whoever I became would just be Mexican.

This constant innovation allowed me to keep the aspects of gringo culture that I liked, and discard most of those that did not make me feel like myself. Most importantly, it allowed me to expand and redraw myself.

Gringolandia has pushed me to continuously open myself up to new experiences and people. While working on my “success” as defined by the American code (read high paying job in a competitive field), I also realized I have the agency to accept and discard each part of gringo culture that I do and don’t like.

The American norms of acceptability are the same, but it is me who has changed. I am no longer trying to prove that I belong, because I don’t want to be an obedient member of American society. I moved here to expand and redraw myself, and one of the privileges that came with moving to the United States is the added perspective that it gave me. I can see its traditions from a third-person point of view and decide which ones I want to incorporate into my version of gringo culture.

Whenever I meet someone new, I tell them that my being here at all is a miracle. I never imagined myself as a student of any university in the United States, much less one like U-M. I never thought I would have platforms to express my individuality, much less think of myself as an individual with as much agency as I currently possess.

I think this is why I was so drawn to the “Detroit Industry Murals.” Rivera crafted a hybrid culture in his frescoes. He used his Mexican perspective to paint an American institution, and he didn’t solely focus on its drawbacks.