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Indigenism [Indigenismo]free

  • Michele Greet

Pan-Latin American intellectual trend that denounced the political and economic exploitation of Native American populations. While directed at Native Americans, indigenism was the brainchild of the urban mestizo and creole elite, who expressed their indignation at the plight of the indigenous masses through literary, artistic, and social projects. While many artists embraced indigenist ideologies, indigenism was most often a label employed by critics rather than a term artists used to refer to themselves. Perceived as an innovative move toward cultural autonomy in the 1920s and 1930s, indigenism became an official discourse of the state in the 1940s, thereby saturating the artistic environment and inspiring a backlash against the trend.

Indigenism was central to constructing a unified national identity in countries with a large Native American population (primarily Mexico and Andean nations) in the early years of the 20th century. Intellectuals asserted that Native Americans, or at the very least Native American heritage, formed a vital part of the nation and that a coherent identity could not exist without incorporating these peoples into national culture. They began to reject the positivist theories of indigenous racial inferiority that had prevailed in the 19th century, maintaining that the roots of Native Americans’ problems were economic and ethical rather than biological. The Mexican Revolution’s emphasis on the reallocation of ancestral lands and the promotion of a nativist ideology served as a model for dealing with the issues facing indigenous communities in the Andes. “This unprecedented interest in indigenous peoples and culture prompted calls for political, legislative and education reform from Mexico to the Andes, which established the context for literary and artistic projects on indigenous subjects” (Greet 2009, 15).

Although indigenist sentiment—a commitment to eliminating the social and economic exploitation of Native Americans—began to emerge in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the word indigenismo did not appear in writings about Native Americans until around 1925. The Peruvian journalist José Carlos Mariátegui (1894–1930) initiated usage of the term indigenism and his writings on the subject shaped notions of the trend well beyond Peruvian borders. He promoted “the Indian” as a symbol of pan-Latin American unity because he felt that Native Americans represented what was unique to the Americas, whereas reference to Spanish heritage conveyed too much of a reliance on Europe. Indigenism, for Mariátegui, was a modern “anticolonial strategy to expunge the lingering adherence to European models in the cultural sphere” (Greet 2009, 10). In his writings, Mariátegui coined the word indigenism, delineating three applications of the term—a literary genre, a political ideology, and a pictorial classification—linked by a shared vision of indigenous culture. He envisioned indigenism as a vanguard trend because it coincided with an activist stance and progressive attitudes toward Native Americans. By the mid-1930s, the terms indigenista and indigenismo had come into common usage in literary, artistic, political, and scientific spheres, although their exact parameters remained a topic of debate. At its height, in the 1930s, differing visions of nationalism, identity, and political activism all contributed to a multifaceted concept of indigenism. In turn, the complexity and diversity of indigenist ideologies permeated visual manifestations of the trend, and artists assumed various pictorial as well as ideological approaches to the subject.

While images of indigenous subjects were prevalent in the 19th century, these images were primarily academic paintings, which idealized or romanticized indigenous peoples as a symbol of a glorious, yet imaginary, Pre-Columbian past, or costumbrista paintings, which attempted to categorize, classify, and thereby contain “exotic” native customs by depicting stereotypes and at times caricatures of local traditions. While indigenism shared certain characteristics with costumbrismo—both trends focus on Native American subject matter—indigenista paintings were usually marked by monumentality and readability, with an emphasis on communicating a social message about the plight of indigenous populations. For many artists working in the 1920s and 1930s, incorporating visual clarity and a social significance into their work was a way to revitalize modern art at a moment when many felt that the experiments of the historical avant-garde were devoid of human sentiment and lacked social purpose.

In the wake of the Mexican Revolution, the Mexican muralists (Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco) established new ways of depicting Native Americans in art. They consciously chose the mural format for its association with Pre-Columbian wall paintings and because it was the ideal vehicle for the creation of publicly viable, socialist art. A condemnation of the exploitation of Native Americans and a glorification of their traditional culture became preferred themes of the muralists. In Peru, Mariátegui prominently featured the work of José Sabogal in his journal Amauta, naming him “the progenitor of pictorial indigenism” (Greet 2009, 76). Sabogal, a teacher at the newly founded Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes in Lima, rejected academic technique and instructed students instead in the use of bold colors, loose brushstrokes, and a deliberately naive style to represent the native inhabitants of Peru. By the mid-1920s a select group of students, including Julia Codesido (1892–1971), Teresa Carvallo (b 1903), Enrique Camino Brent, and Camilo Blas (1903–1985), embraced his teachings and formed a contingent of artists whose work came to be referred to as indigenism. In Ecuador, the most provocative manifestations of the indigenism appeared in alternative spaces such as independent journals, private galleries, and non-government exhibitions. Ecuadorian artists Camilo Egas, Eduardo Kingman, and Oswaldo Guayasamín, among others, tied class-consciousness to images of Ecuador’s native inhabitants as a form of vanguard social activism.

By the 1940s, because of efforts to promote hemispheric solidarity with the onset of World War II, indigenism evolved into a pan-American (including the United States) phenomenon. National governments began to adopt an indigenist ideology, institutionalizing anthropological and cultural projects dealing with the indigenous population to promote a nativist nationalism that coincided with the broader Americanist agenda of unification through “non-Europeanness.” This co-opting of the trend by national governments led artists and intellectuals to begin to disassociate themselves from indigenism. While indigenism had been a controversial vanguard trend in the 1920s and 1930s, it came to be viewed as official government propaganda in the very different circumstances following World War II and was eventually replaced by more abstract styles.


  • Mariátegui, José Carlos. El artista y la época: Pensamiento estético de José Carlos Mariátegui. Obras completas de José Carlos Mariátegui, vol. 6. Lima: Empresa Editora Amauta, 1964.
  • El indigenismo en diálogo: Canarias-América, 1920–1950. Las Palmas de Gran Canaria: Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno, 2001. Exhibition catalog.
  • Greet, Michele. Beyond National Identity: Pictorial Indigenism as a Modernist Strategy in Andean Art, 1920–1960. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009.
  • Anreus, Alejandro and others. Mexican Muralism: A Critical History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.
  • Majluf, Natalia and Wuffarden, Luis Eduardo. Sabogal. Lima: Museo de Arte de Lima, 2013.
  • Olson, Christa J. Constitutive Visions: Indigeneity and Commonplaces of National Identity in Republican Ecuador. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014.