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The Chihuahua Hill mural was done by Los Angeles artist Carlos Callejo, with input from residents who helped to both develop the images and themes and to paint it.
Cultural identity is the overarching theme driving the current exhibits and series of public programs at the Silver City Museum - Arte Chicano and The Chihuahua Hill History Project. Each offers a unique focal point for taking a deeper dive into local culture, through the study of objects, food, and stories.
After a visit to the museum, one need only look around at the physical environment to see other examples of cultural identity, whether it be the types of structures that exist, their colors, or the materials used in their construction. Or consider the menus at local restaurants and the foods offered, the names and types of local businesses and locally produced products; clothing worn by passersby, even the types of vehicles on the road. All of these things offer an expression of culture.
In terms of place and locality, the Chihuahua Hill Mural Project is one of the best local examples of cultural identity expressed through objects; in this case, public art. The vivid colors and iconic images were developed in collaboration with the local community, neighbors who also helped feed and house the Los Anågeles muralist, Carlos Callejo, who interviewed residents of the Chihuahua Hill neighborhood to learn the themes, histories and stories that were important to them. With their input, Callejo created the mural design, and then invited residents to help paint it.
The colorful depictions of Apache leaders Geronimo and Mangas Colorado, La Virgen de Guadalupe, local “minister of hospitality,” Johnny Banks, the Buffalo Bar, the Kneeling Nun, the Empire Zinc Mining Strike and local union members, all help tell the story of Grant County, this corner of Southwestern New Mexico, and the people who call it home.
The Native and Hispanic images of the Chihuahua community mural tell the Hispanic story of Grant County, a story of gentrification, race and class struggles, workers’ rights, connections to Nature, religion and so much more. It serves as a clear and vivid illustration of place, common values, social struggle and the common good. Filled with Native and Hispanic icons, it tells stories of change, community pride, resilience and diversity.
“The fact that this mural was done in collaboration with community, both with the execution and more importantly, the concept, that’s what makes this mural so significant,” explained Thomas Grant Richardson, a folklorist and consultant, who was contracted by the Silver City Museum to assist with the Chihuahua Hill History Project. “That mural is the very definition of public art - created for the people, of the people and by the people.”
The very use of the public mural art form offers yet another interesting layer of cultural identity. Historically, the mural is an art form of the Latin culture. Callejos is a Mexican-American painter and muralist, and there is a long history of Hispanic muralists who use their art to tell stories and illustrate local history, culture and society. Muralist Diego Rivera, for instance, often illustrated the stories of working class struggles and social strife through his large-scale, vividly colored public art work.
The form beautifully reinforces a Hispanic identity in a Hispanic neighborhood, conceptualized and developed by a Hispanic artist. “The design concept, for instance, would have been radically different had the artist been an Anglo from the Midwest,” Richardson observed. The iconography illustrates the story and culture of the Chihuahua Hill neighborhood, as well as Hispanics from throughout Grant County. The power of the work is also in its hyper-localism, underscoring the importance of place as it relates to cultural identity.
“When I saw the mural for the first time, I didn’t really understand it,” Richardson added. “But Javier Marrufo curator of the Silver City Museum who grew up in that neighborhood narrated all of it for me. It’s a community photo album.”
Iconography is a visual language, a coded language, Richardson continued, and that’s the power of cultural identity. “I do not for a second believe that art is a universal language,” he said. “It’s just a language that communicates, but there’s nothing universal about it. Art is mutually intelligible, that’s part of what makes it interesting.”
Silver City Museum Director Bart Roselli and staff continue to explore ways of recognizing and honoring the diverse cultural identities of Grant County and the region by telling stories of people and place. The Arte Chicano 2022 exhibit opens in the Besse Forward Gallery July 15, offering fresh insights into local Chicano culture as expressed through art. Additionally, the recent exhibit on ranching culture, Voices of the Range, will be available online in late June.
“One of the Silver City Museum’s greatest contributions to our community is to document and provide a public forum for all the diversity of this place we call home,” said Roselli. “Recognizing and honoring the variety of cultures which have enriched Silver City and Grant County helps us better understand and appreciate one another, our shared story and this place we call home.”