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San Miguel: A Hidden Museum Of Murals In Santiago, Chile

Picture of Vicky Smith
Vicky Smith
Updated: 18 November 2016
Compared with the Patagonian panoramas, the candy-coloured hillside tumble of Valparaíso, and the verdant vineyards that make Chile one of the world’s greatest producers of wine, Chile’s capital city Santiago can appear a little grey. But, take a little time to peer below the surface and you’ll find surprises in the most unexpected of places. Arguably one of the most fascinating is the street art initiative Museo a Cielo Abierto en San Miguel (Open Air Museum in San Miguel).

The revitalisation of the San Miguel District, one of the city’s less affluent suburbs that is home to an enthusiastic bunch of residents, was the main inspiration behind the four-year project. It now features 37 murals that together form over 2000 square meters of vibrant artworks accessible to all.

Chilean Writers | © Vicky Smith
Chilean Writers | © Vicky Smith

Initially named Población Miguel Munizaga Mossino, San Miguel was inhabited in the 1960s primarily by workers at two local copper manufacturers. Formed of seven concrete blocks of four-storey flats, the unpretentious barrio has retained its working class roots. Although families today are generally smaller than in times past (where four or more children was the norm), there is still a sense of community in the brightly painted play areas and corner shops, where cheery greetings of buenos días can often be heard. Despite the bleak facades and the air of an outer city suburb (where petty crime is not uncommon), this is a place that wears its heart on its sleeve – the ideal candidate for a groundbreaking museum of murals.

Beings of light | © Vicky Smith
Beings of light | © Vicky Smith

David Villarroel and Roberto Hernández dreamed of transforming the neighborhood’s grey reality into a cultural icon, uniting people across the globe through the medium of art. They began realizing it in 2009, bringing together a range of emerging and established artists to express a myriad of topics. The assignment, which turned the apartments along Tristan Matta and Carlos Edwards streets into a dazzling riot of color and form, was headed by renowned muralist Alejandro “Mono” Gonzalez.

Homage to Struggling Workers | © Vicky Smith
Homage to Struggling Workers | © Vicky Smith

Other celebrated artists and contributors included Belgian street artist ROA, French graffiti artist Seth and native artist Jorge Kata Núñez (as well as the aid of local children and adolescents, who were only too happy to get involved). Primarily intended as a celebration of the bicentenary of Chilean independence on September 18th 2010, themes include everything from Chilean literature and Chilote mythology, to internationally relevant political statements.

Horse | © Vicky Smith
Horse | © Vicky Smith

ROA’s Horse, for example, shows the artist’s trademark use of animals to symbolise our lack of respect for the environment and the creatures that inhabit it. Jamberta’s Our Children is suffused with meaning, a commentary on children’s rights. Pobre Pablo’s Beings of Light pays respect to our elderly, the often under-appreciated and marginalized members of society that are full of wisdom and tales of an era when values were very different. Charquipunk and Larobotdemadera’s striking Latin Carnival celebrates the carnival tradition, while Gesak Graffitero’s Chilean Writers represents the rich literary heritage of the country, perhaps best known for poet Pablo Neruda.

Latin Carnival | © Vicky Smith
Latin Carnival | © Vicky Smith

Mario Moreno and Soledad Vargas’ Chilote Mythology is a playful, self explanatory work that brings together Chilean myths and legends in an artistic triumph. 12 Brillos’ Homage to Struggling Workers reflects the hurdles faced by the laborers of the land, who are vital to the country’s survival yet are often penalized by the hierarchies of societal structures.

Meli Wuayra | © Vicky Smith
Meli Wuayra | © Vicky Smith

Meli Wuayra by Aislap, which means “four wind” in the Native American language Aymara, represents the Mapuche ethnic group. The protagonist is a shaman who wears a neckpiece known as a trapelacucha and presides over a ceremonial drum called a cultrun. Other ethnic minorities are also referenced, primarily the Rapa Nui, Polynesian residents of Easter Island, whose ancient monumental Moai stone sculptures have captured the world’s imagination and still present many a mystery.

Our Children | © Vicky Smith
Our Children | © Vicky Smith

La Mano’s Treehouse demonstrates the importance of child’s play and being at one with nature. Indeed, the museum has helped revitalize the area of San Miguel, giving residents a sense of pride in their community and leading to the creation of more sidewalks, play areas and green spaces. These examples are just a taster of the masterpieces that can be seen in San Miguel; visit it yourself to see the variety of works to be marvelled at and interpreted.

Treehouse | © Vicky Smith
Treehouse | © Vicky Smith