Diego Rivera’s The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on this Continent was painted in front of an audience at the Golden Gate International Exposition, on San Francisco’s Treasure Island, during the summer of 1940. It was Rivera’s last mural in the US and remains one of his most complicated achievements – both a celebration of cultural exchange and a condemnation of what Frida Kahlo called ‘Gringolandia’. It measures 22 feet high and 74 feet wide and weighs almost three tonnes. On the left-hand side Rivera depicted pre-contact Indigenous technologies such as carving and weaving; on the right are the mechanical inventions that had shaped life north of the border – telegrams, tractors, railways. The welter of detail includes distinctive local landscapes and historical figures, including Simón Bolívar and John Brown, making cameos alongside Hitler and Charlie Chaplin.

The fresco was recently moved with great care several miles across town to SFMoMA. It will undergo conservation over the next two years while its usual home, the City College of San Francisco (represented by the diver), is renovated. Commanding the lower gallery, it can be seen from the street and by anyone who walks into the museum. At its centre is Cōātlīcue, the Aztec goddess who gave birth to the moon and the stars. Her figure has been grafted with metal machinery. Is she a harbinger of progress or a melancholy acknowledgement of erased Native spiritualities? Though billed as an optimistic vision of ‘Pan American Unity’, Rivera’s mural has an ominous quality: we can see evidence of imperialism, fascism, the extraction of natural resources. Eighty years on, San Francisco is in the grip of the tech industry, and the rate of destruction in the Americas – natural and cultural – has yet to slow down.

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