The Hidden Culture in Art

v i s u a l i z i n g   i m m i g r a n t   P h o e n i x

Cynthia Canez

November 2016


Culture can be extremely important to people in general, but particularly immigrants. Passing down cultural traditions, indirectly, is keeping their home country close even when they are not there physically. Culture can be shown in many ways: foods, celebrations, holidays, and art. Each representation is influenced in different ways, for example food is influenced with spices naturally occurring in the region of origin and celebrations are often based on national history.


With that in mind, even the smallest things that we see every day could be a cultural tradition brought by immigrants. Art is a perfect example of a cultural item that is overlooked.

On November 13, I made a field trip to the 15th annual Mercado de Las Artes at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. This art walk included artist from Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico. Many different types of artwork, including handmade rugs, jewelry, pottery, and paintings, were displayed and sold. While walking through the different artist booths it was easy to see that the artists put their heritage in their artwork, whether that be historical figures, traditions, or religious aspects.

One of the most prominent symbols or styles that appeared in artwork was skeletons or skull art. Although most predominantly seen in Día de los Muertos décor, skull art has long been embedded in Mexican history. The origin of skull art started with the Aztecs, when they carved figures of their gods including Coatlicue, the goddess of earth and death. Because the goddess was depicted as wearing a skull necklace, the skull motif was used in many other pieces of art such as pottery and woven into clothing. When the Spanish invaded, they brought Catholicism with them, thus suppressing the Pagan traditions of skull art. Years after that skull art remained hidden until 1821 when Mexico won independence from Spain and the symbol began to reemerge. You can read more on skull art and its origins in Doug Eichenberg,”Tracing the History of the Human Skull in Art” here. Here are a few pieces of art that feature skeletons and skulls.

Another huge aspect in the art is religion. Mexico is a largely religious country with the large majority of the population, 82.7%, following Roman Catholicism, and another 8% following various Protestant churches. In comparison, America’s largest religious group is Protestant at 46.5%, the next largest group labeled as unaffiliated at 22.8% (source). With how prominent religion is in the Mexican culture, and more specifically Catholicism, it is not a surprise that religious symbols show up in artwork. The most common symbol I saw throughout the market was the Virgin of Guadalupe. In the pictures below the Virgin Mary can be seen in photographs, paintings, statues, and even a dried flower mosaic.

Along with religious icons, cultural icons showed up in the artwork as well, most notably Frida Kalho. Frida was a Mexican painter best known for her self-portraits and incorporating Mexican culture in her paintings. She is also highly celebrated by feminists for her artwork and the depiction of herself and other women. Frida shows up in some of the pictures below as simple portraits, but most interestingly in a piece of artwork by Pez.


This painting depicts Frida holding hands with an angel and demon skeleton. There are angelic babies holding up a banner around them with the word “Paz” on it, which translates to peace. This painting was the most interesting piece of artwork that I encountered that day because of the symbolism and history needed to create it. First it depicts a cultural icon holding hands with religious symbols, that also incorporate a traditional Mexican style of skull art. This single painting in itself shows how diverse and deep Mexican culture can be.

It’s easy to look at a piece of art and appreciate it aesthetically, but when you look further into the background of the artwork you can see the history that comes with it. Without immigrants and their influences, there is no doubt that beauty and symbolism that is incorporated in the art would not be in America today. History, ways of life, and cultural icons often find their way into artwork, truly showing how powerful one’s background can be when presenting their work to the world.