The Writing on the Wall: Héctor Duarte’s mural project challenges the borders between Mexico and the U.S.

Hector Duarte's Mural; courtesy of the artist

Hector Duarte's Mural; courtesy of the artist

Bright colors, changing shapes and a dash of surrealism convene in “Unraveling Frontiers,” Héctor Duarte’s latest mural at the National Museum of Mexican Art. Influenced by Impressionist and Surrealist painters, Duarte uses a technique learned from fellow Mexican artist and pioneer of the Mexican Mural Renaissance, David Alfaro Siqueiros, to create works that are both political and poignant.

Covering 150 square feet, Duarte’s mural is striking in its sheer size. An array of vivid colors layered on top of each other works in conjunction with the larger picture to create undertones of hardship and prevailing hope. A menacing fence is painted over a cheery yellow background; gradually, towards the center of the mural, the links of the fence unravel and turn into butterflies. Butterflies appear in several of Duarte’s works as symbols of immigration. Duarte feels that the monarch species especially signifies a pattern of migration and freedom, which he would like to be synonymous for American immigrants.

The right panel of the mural is painted in an ominous red and contains Duarte’s self-portrait: a man with a DNA fingerprint where his face is supposed to be. This image, Duarte explains, represents the discrimination felt by foreigners who suffer persecution for being different from those who fear what they do not know or understand.

“Unraveling Frontiers” is about both the physical and mental boundaries encountered by those who try, like the artist, to assimilate into American culture but are faced with xenophobia. “The frontiers are not easy to cross,” Duarte says. “People feel trapped like in jail, and they are lost.” Duarte cites racial profiling and the barbed wire fences between the United States and Mexico as causes of people’s prejudices against other cultures and colors. “They move the frontiers to their mind and create psychological frontiers between others when we hate what we don’t know.” From this idea, Duarte generates the apex of the mural, a pumping heart wrapped in chains. But there are glimmers of hope: on each side of the heart, metal hands hold chains already broken.

The mural represents the dichotomy of heartfelt optimism and encounters with prejudice through symbolism and surrealism, yielding striking social commentary. The combination of bright and muted colors, large geometric shapes and lattices of colored lines, barbed wire fences, and floating butterflies is a complex one, simultaneously thought-provoking and aesthetically pleasing.

Duarte began the project in early March and the exhibition will continue until June, past the mural’s completion in early May. Unsurprisingly for a political artist, Duarte’s preference for murals stems from a desire to reach a broader audience, so that “people can learn something, and return stronger,” if simply because “people who have connections with art are more human.”

National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W. 19th St. Through June 28. Watch the artist paint on Wednesdays and Saturdays, 10:30am-1:30pm, through May 9. (312)738-1503. Free.

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