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Why have murals been used in social and political movements?

Take a walk through any city, and you are likely to come across a brightly coloured mural. Although these paintings often seem to serve solely as a backdrop for Instagram snapshots, art history professor Minna Valjakka says there are rich traditions and intricate histories that uncover more critical aspects of murals and muralism.

In the 20th century, murals often served socio-political purposes that extended beyond the understanding of art as a primarily aesthetic manifestation. Murals are often religious or political in nature, a famous example being the work by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. ‘His murals are considered as one of the most prominent examples of political muralism, dealing with national identity, culture and heritage.’ 

Part of Diego Rivera's 'El hombre controlador del universo'  (© Xuen Che)
Part of Diego Rivera's 'El hombre controlador del universo' (© Xuen Che)


But why are murals so frequently used in protest movements? According to Valjakka, it is a very accessible method of spreading your message visible on the street: ‘Think about public art and you are probably thinking about statues. That’s an expensive and therefore quite an exclusive form of art. But with murals, you only need a wall and some paint.’ 

While it's a great way to share your art with a wider audience, it can also have a strong impact on the community in which the mural is painted. ‘Take for example minorities in the United States, wholack representation in the public sphere. So, if you want to paint a mural in a minority neighborhood, youask the community what they want to have represented in that mural, that sends an empowering and inclusive message that the community has something to say; that they are seen and heard in public spaces.’

Reclaiming public space

One activist group known for using murals as a form of representation was the Chicano movement in North America. During the 1960s and 1970s, they used murals to advocate for the rights of people of Mexican descent in the United States. ‘Sometimes they depicted key figures from the community, but they also portrayed their traditions. What kind of clothing do we wear? What kind of music do we listen to?’

Mural of George Floyd
Mural of George Floyd

A contemporary movement that draws on the Chicano murals’ advocacy for equal civil rights - as well as other earlier protest movements – is Black Lives Matter. During the movement's height in the summer of 2020, Valjakka was intrigued by the number of murals and other kinds of artistic practices she saw in public spaces. ‘Especially in Europe and North America, people have become accustomed to appreciating the value of public space to voice their concerns with arts to initiate social change.’ 

Murals have a long history and tradition, according to Valjakka. But what is considered a mural and what is not? 'The common definition is that murals are paintings on walls. Whether that is an interior or exterior wall or in the infrastructure does not really matter. To be a mural, however, the method of application is important. It has to be painted with a tool, and that is usually a brush,' explains Valjakka.

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