Xenophobia in Oklahoma City Threatens Mural

In a story that has been generating some discussion in local circles the past few days, a new mural hanging at the capitol is being threatened with removal by some lawmakers. The piece in question, “Beyond the Centennial” by Oklahoma City native and Mexican immigrant Carlos Tello, depicts the state’s history and future in a vibrant and colorful fresco. As the above video notes, lawmakers have gone out of their way to insist that their displeasure with the work is purely aesthetic and has nothing to do with the painter’s nationality.

While that is certainly an admirable and politically expedient move, it just doesn’t pass muster. After all, this is also state that is going out of its way to prove its xenophobic bona fides, seeking to one-up the recent draconian anti-immigration law in Arizona. Indeed, State Rep. Randy Terrill, noted anti-immigration demagogue and author of previous legislation to strip immigrants of basic health care, would like to mimic Arizona’s law with the added provision of property seizure. In a Republican dominated legislature, his plans may actually come to fruition.

Now it may be that OK lawmakers truly don’t like the mural because it “doesn’t fit in with the other art” at the capitol. Most of the pieces at the building are straight-forward, figurative depictions of Oklahoma’s historical figures. Tello’s more stylized mural is certainly more eye-catching than the others, utilizing not only a bright color palette, but a fracturing of the picture plane and forced perspective that owes much to the Mexican muralists, most notably David Siqueiros. Carlos is a self-taught artist and the work has a style that also brings to mind some of the more detailed and ornate examples of Outsider Art.

Disliking the mural on grounds of taste might be one thing. But the anti-immigrant fever sweeping the nation and some quarters of the capitol is hard to overlook as possible motive. Would the mural be generating the same response had the artist been a native (read: caucasion) Oklahoman? If the politics of Oklahoma were dictated by inclusion and open-mindedness, these unnamed detractors might be forgiven for their artistic ignorance. After all, it is a very intriguing piece and very much sums up the spirit of Oklahoma: unique, spirited, and a little off-kilter. But the xenophobic fog that clouds the mind of Terrill and his cohorts is as myopic as it is disturbing. Rabid anti-immigrant conservatives tend to see the specter of the evil Other around every corner. Given their track records, its difficult to believe that Mr. Tello’s fresco is any exception to their thinly-veiled hatred.

(cross-posted on Examiner.com)

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