Guatemalan artist Rina Lazo put the finishing touches on her mural Xibalbá, the underworld of the Mayans on October 30, 2019. He was turning 96 and in a meeting with family and friends he enthusiastically announced the completion of a work that had taken him about 10 years to complete. Only two days later, on November 1, Lazo would die in his house in the Coyoacán mayor’s office, in Mexico City. He was never able to contemplate this work in its entirety. At the time of completion, the scaffolding he required to paint the top covered more than half of the mural. This work has become a milestone in Mexican art, as it is the first mural made by a woman to be exhibited in the Museum of the Palace of Fine Arts, and although Lazo was never able to admire it, her dream that thousands of people could enjoy it it was fulfilled

Rina García Lazo, daughter of the Guatemalan painter, says that the process of making this mural was long and intermittent. “It took many years because he started and he left it, and he started doing anything else, then months went by without painting the mural, he painted some other things, but he always loved this mural and always said ‘lo I have to finish,’” explains the only daughter of the artist and fellow Mexican muralist Arturo García Bustos. Lazo devoted attention and detail to each of the brushstrokes with which she covered this 2.70 meter high by 5 meter wide canvas. Even at 95 years old, she did not hesitate to climb the scaffolding that she required to reach the highest corners of the frame, and capture elements of Mayan cosmology. “I am sure that my mother gave all her love to this work. She captured everything she wanted about the Mayan culture, and that somehow people could appreciate it. She knew from the bottom of her heart everything that she wanted to print in this work, ”says García Lazo.

Rina Lazo's grandson, Armando Michaus Garcialazo, and her daughter, Rina Garcia Lazo.
Rina Lazo’s grandson, Armando Michaus Garcialazo, and her daughter, Rina Garcia Lazo.Jose Pablo Diaz

The mural is full of references to the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Mayans, as well as different artistic pieces from that same culture, with which Lazo was closely linked since her childhood. Despite its name, this work takes a journey not only through the underworld, but through the entire cosmology of the ancient Mayan world, organized in three planes: the sky, the earth and the underworld. To make it, in addition to spending long periods of time studying, the artist traveled to the caves of La Candelaria, in central Guatemala, to study them and be able to represent them perfectly on canvas.

I am sure that my mother gave all her love to this work. She captured everything she wanted about the Mayan culture

Rina Garcia Lazo

The art historian and conceptual curator of the exhibition, Dina Comisarenco, recalls the details of Lazo’s personality and his extraordinary talent that led her to admire his work and, later, to become one of his followers and students of his work. Since 1994, when Comisarenco arrived in Mexico, she approached Rina Lazo and García Bustos and witnessed, during those 10 years, the path that the mural was taking. “It was an incredible process, I am honored and grateful. It’s not something that happens to us art historians every day,” she says.

the wall Xibalbá, the underworld of the Mayans it is, in part, the culmination of a lifetime of love, dedication, and discipline dedicated to the study of ancient Mayan culture. Already in Lazo’s first works, in Guatemala, his interest in portraying the nature of his land and the influence of the pre-Hispanic was visible in the sculptures, engravings and works that he had made.

Lazo and female muralism

Lazo began his professional studies in the artistic world at the age of 21, when he entered the Guatemalan Academy of Fine Arts. Two years later he won a scholarship to study at the National School of Painting, Sculpture and Engraving, La Esmeralda, in Mexico. There, one of her teachers noticed her talent and invited her to work as an assistant to one of the main representatives of national muralism: Diego Rivera. This is how Comisarenco has related it: “She was very mischievous that the teacher invited her by giving her a little note without anyone noticing, this because everyone wanted to be Rivera’s assistant, despite the fact that he had a reputation for being a great exploiter, that when you worked for him you had him for hours and hours and hours; he had a great capacity for work, and he wanted the same from his assistants”.

Lazo learned from Rivera not only the technical part of how to make a fresco, but also the research in political and social terms that must be carried out to make a mural painting. “Not all women had the same fortune to go to work with one of the great muralists. Diego Rivera has, as you know, a terrible fame in many aspects, but even so, in this field, as a specialist in female muralists, I respect him because he did hire many women as assistants, and that is how many women started in mural painting”, explains Comisarenco.

Although the effervescence of the muralist movement put the name of Mexico on the lips of the entire world in the mid-twentieth century, there are many artists, among whom the female muralists stand out, who were invisible before that explosion, or who became silent witnesses whose works have been rescued many years later. Such is the case of María Izquierdo. In 1945, the Mexican artist was hired by the Government of the Federal District (now Mexico City), to make a mural on a building in the Zócalo of the city. When she had already started work on the play, she was notified that her work would be cancelled. The reason was that a commission made up of the consecrated muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, asked the then regent of the capital, Javier Rojo Gómez, to remove Izquierdo from the commission, arguing that she had no experience in mural painting. “It’s true, she had no experience, but neither did they when they started doing the first murals of her. Those are very sad paradoxes because that deprived us of having some murals that I think would have been extraordinary,” says Comisarenco. From this event, the Mexican artist denounced the existence of a male monopoly on mural painting, something that attracted repudiation and censorship from critics and artists of the time.

The art historian Dina Comisarenco.
The art historian Dina Comisarenco.Jose Pablo Diaz

Comisarenco attributes the scant female presence in Mexican muralism to the general idea that this type of art, being directly linked to the world of politics, requires “a lot of strength” to be able to do it. “In reality they are prejudices. Rina Lazo finished Xibalbá, the underworld of the Mayans when he was 96 years old. She still climbed the scaffold to paint, and she had an extraordinary lucidity to explain what she was doing and to do it in the best way. The history of muralism is a history that has been sadly biased, because to the prejudices of those times, those that come later in the history of art are added, which is often very limited and always speaks of the same three artists”, details the curator.

The exhibition of the mural, at the Museum of the Palace of Fine Arts, is for García Lazo, beyond an achievement for his mother, a turning point in the history of Mexican muralism: “My parents lived in a time when they were overshadowed , in which they could not make murals. Now that neither of them is there anymore, I have found many mural projects that sadly could not be done because the public spaces to capture them were not obtained. They had to live through a time of blockade towards Mexican painting. I am sure that my parents, wherever they are, are truly happy to see that this panorama is changing, and that my mother’s masterpiece is exhibited in a space of such importance as the Palace of Fine Arts”.

The history of muralism is a history that has been sadly biased, because to the prejudices of those times were added those that came later in the history of art

Dina Comisarenco, art historian and conceptual curator

For his part, Comisarenco explains that the exhibition of this mural in Fine Arts is significant “because we are finally beginning to rediscover all this other history that until now has been overshadowed by the other stories that we have always been hearing.” And he concludes: “The museum is not only recognizing the value of Rina Lazo, but it is also offering the people of Mexico and all the people who visit us from all over the world to see a painting that was made for all of them.”

Xibalba, the underworld of the Mayans It will be exhibited at the Palace of Fine Arts until July 24.

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