‘Power to the People’ exhibit in Wichita wallops visitors with radical ideals

December 17, 2022 3:33 am
Power to the People museum exhibit

“Power to the People: Mexican Prints from the Great War to the Cold War” can be seen at the Wichita Art Museum through the end of the year. (Jeromiah Taylor / Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Jeromiah Taylor is a writer born and raised in Wichita.

Ignoring any distractions, I breeze past a painting when an elderly usher stops me.

“At least look at the one behind you. A lot of people miss it,” he says.

Evidently, he believes I am viewing the collection at a breakneck pace.

“Actually,” I reply, “I’m looking for the ‘Power to the People: Mexican Prints from the Great War to the Cold War’ exhibit.”

“Oh. I think that one’s in the basement,” the usher says.

And so it is.

My first distinct impression upon my arrival is of tense irony. The exhibit, which runs at the Wichita Art Museum until Dec. 31, is plastered with names. It was gathered from the collection of James and Virginia Moffett, sponsored by the Downing Family Foundation, and hangs in the Paul Ross, and Scott and Carol Ritchie Gallery.

An exhibit as fiercely gripped by anti-capitalist furor as this one lends special salience to ongoing debates about money in art, the tenability of philanthropy and the nonprofit model. Especially when encountered in such an incongruous environment.

The power, in this case, is only ostensibly with the people.

After snapping a few photos, I began my immersion into the exhibit, which traces the revolutionary print media of early 20th Century Mexico. “Power to The People” represents artists of varying renown. Household name Diego Rivera and well-known artists such as Jose Guadalupe Posada appear. They’re accompanied by more obscure creators such as Fanny Rabel, the German-born, sole female member of Frida Kahlo’s apostles, or “Los Fridos.”

As it turns out, “Power to the People” is aptly named. Never before had I seen such a provenanced and poignant collection of staunchly radical artworks in person.

The images are radical in the truest sense of the word. They uproot the basic presumption of injustice: that the oppressed are undignified. In fact, dignity is a thematic thread of the exhibit. Whether that be the dignity of suffering, the dignity of labor or the indignity of blithe privilege. 

An example of the latter are the now ubiquitous La Calavera Catrina prints by Jose Guadalupe Posada. These grinning, repugnant skeletons, bedecked in finery, and oblivious to their own depravity, were a searing indictment of the conspicuous consumption of the Mexican aristocracy. The dignity of the poor is well represented by “The Peasants of Tlhuac” by Arturo Garcia Bustos. The lithograph, in the words of the exhibit plaque, “emphasizes the workers’ labor and the fruits of their admirable efforts.”

“Power to the People’s” broad message of dignity is conveyed by the artwork’s regional style, and especially by the visibility of indigenous Mexicans. In terms of region, the works are rooted in their time and place, making no attempts at universality. Every topic, theme, setting, and character is particular to 20th Century Mexico. 

The works were easy for their intended audiences to decode and must have felt sharply relevant. As for the portrayal of indigenous Mexicans, much of the work incorporates depictions, often romantic, of their material culture. This especially includes the plight of peasant farmers who represent one member of the revolutionary trinity outlined in the exhibit: farmer, worker, and soldier.

The exhibit’s language is startling. For instance, many of the prints come from the communist newspaper El Machete, named for the weapon used to “reap cane, to clear a path through the underbrush, to kill snakes, end strife, and humble the pride of the impious rich.”

My personal affinity for that sentiment aside, the inner theorist wondered: Are these works of art or propaganda? Certainly each piece was made for provocation and mass appeal. The medium itself was chosen to facilitate widespread distribution and heated slogans feature heavily in many of the pieces.

However, the works are distinguished by their very audacity in that they struggle and collaborate toward a new visual vernacular of Mexican identity. They were the death toll of one mythology and the birth of another.

Inventing a new collective heritage represents an enormous creative achievement.

Yet the legacy of the Mexican Muralist movement, which was adjacent to the work shown in “Power to the People,” is complicated. Much of the radical vernacular innovated by the artists was co-opted by a government-backed mural program to promote mestizaje, the industrial revolution, and capitalism.

This legacy survives to the present in the form of heated debates about indigenous sovereignty in Mexico, what exactly latinidad is, and the identities of the Mexican diaspora in the United States.

It is crucial to note, however, that much of the work in “Power to the People,” is pre-revolutionary, dating from the Porfirio Diaz regime, and would have been genuinely seditious by standards of the time. 

Context aside, the exhibit offers an indelible experience. Viewers will note the surgical precision with which the artworks neuter their targets. They will be inspired by the gleaming counter notes of hope, pride, and generosity. Aesthetically, the compositional swirl of scale and movement capture the energy of a nation on the brink. 

The lilting anguish of “Power to the People” might echo in your ears for days. It did in mine. 

After my departure, certain messages followed me to work. I couldn’t resist the parallels. I live on stolen land in a colonial-settler state at the beginning of a new century. In fact, the conclusion of The Mexican Revolution was just a little more than a century ago, in 1920. 

My culture’s fundamental myths are disintegrating before my eyes. Our self-deluded notion of exceptionalism is leakier than ever, with doubts over electoral integrity and insurrection. Wealth inequality reaches astronomical proportions, and the cocktail of disaffection and rage is palpable.

What are we to do? How do we move forward? How should we behave as individuals, as communities, as Kansans? 

The artists of “Power to the People” recommend courage, solidarity, and vision.

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Jeromiah Taylor
Jeromiah Taylor

Jeromiah Taylor is a writer born and raised in Wichita. His commentary and arts coverage has appeared in Kansas Reflector and other regional news outlets. His literary nonfiction is forthcoming in The New Territory Magazine, and he serves as a staff writer for Fauxmoir Literary Magazine. Get in touch at jeromiahtaylor.com.