In the midst of the Great Depression Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo went to Detroit, Michigan commissioned by Edsel Ford. CLAS Chair Harley Shaiken provides a personal perspective on their time in the American Midwest and the profound impact it had on the artists and on generations of Detroiters.
The Great Depression was a tough time in Detroit. The city’s unemployment hit 50 percent, twice the national average, and economic collapse translated into fear and desperation. A plaque on the Fort Street Rouge River Bridge, not far from the sprawling Ford River Rouge plant, commemorates a traumatic and defining moment. At a memorial, days later, 60,000 Detroiters marched through the center of the city in grief and solidarity for the five demonstrators who had been killed. A month-and-a-half later, in the midst of a plummeting economy and social upheaval, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo arrived in Detroit, where they would spend the next 11 months. Rivera was 44 years old and a world-famous muralist; Kahlo was 24 and an artist who had yet to make her mark. They would both do great things while in Detroit and be forever changed by the experience.