Art At The Crossroads: Artists Addressing The U.S./Mexico Border

by Ellen C. Caldwell

With the threat of closing the U.S./Mexico border looming, people whose lives do not intersect with the border on a regular basis are thinking more about the border than usual. But before this recent wave of attention, artists have been drawn to the border and have been drawing attention to the myriad issues it raises through performances, street art, public art, photography, and augmented reality (AR).

Artists Tae Hwang and MR Barnadas have worked with participants in both Tijuana and San Diego to form an arts collective known as Collective Magpie. In a Close(d) Relationship (2017–8) features collaborative work that Hwang and Barnanadas organized and facilitated through seminars titled “Transnational Seminars I & II.” These were “experimental classes” conducted with local college students from both sides of the border. In Transnational Seminar II, for example, students from University of California, San Diego, and Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, Tijuana, came together to produce public street theater in both cities. They formed a parade, wearing handmade costumes dressed as President Trump’s border wall prototypes — serving layered and multiple functions. First these performances brought humor and dialogue to a fraught subject. Second, in wearing the border prototypes on their physical bodies, students’ performative act physically provided an important reminder of the corporeal reality that underlies the topic of the border — human lives.

Ana Teresa Fernández’s Borrando La Frontera

In Borrando La Frontera, or Erasing the Border, Ana Teresa Fernández began painting the border to match the sky behind, consequently appearing to “erase” the border. Of her work and motivation, Jill Holslin writes, “Ana Teresa Fernández’s own journey — crossing the Tijuana-San Diego border to study and build her career — mirrors the route north taken by millions of women who have come from southern and central Mexico to work in the maquiladoras and make a better life for themselves and their families.” In this way, Fernández speaks to the communities and families to whom the border stands as a liminal and Janus-faced being. Her work highlights the complexity of the border — it simultaneously offers opportunities to those who can make it across, while also standing as an authoritarian barrier to entry to many others, a symbol of hard-lined immigration policies that aim to prevent people from migrating to the United States. Fernández’s work is currently on view in JoAnne Northrup and Ed Ruscha’s sweeping exhibit UnSettled: Art on the New Frontier at the Palm Springs Art Museum.

In the fall of 2017, street artist JR erected a monumental photograph of a child just behind the California border fence, looking into Tecate, Mexico. From Tecate, viewers saw a large-scale, black and white photograph of a toddler (named Kikito) appearing to peer over, or perhaps even readying himself to climb over, the wall. After a month’s run, JR and curator Pedro Alonzo ended the installation by organizing a huge picnic on October 8, 2017, with tables on both sides of the border fence forming one massive table across Mexico and the U.S. Though the picnic was just one day and the photograph installation remained for just over a month, images and news of both continue to make the rounds on social media because of its powerful visual message, particularly in contrast to the sitting president’s racist rhetoric fueling ongoing border wall debates. JR said that he was thinking about a child’s perspective particularly about such a politically volatile topic as border walls, “What would any kid think? We know that a one-year-old doesn’t have a political vision, or any political point of view. He doesn’t see walls as we see them.”

The reality is that most people, kids and adults alike, who live near the U.S./Mexico border, do not see the wall (or the fence) as the average American might. Many cross the border on a daily basis. And all of the artists discussed thus far can attest to this. As Ron Nixon writes for the New York Times, “[t]here is a sense of interconnectedness between these borders towns and their Mexican counterparts. Each day, about one million people cross the border from either side for shopping, business and recreation. It’s common to see children coming into the United States from Mexico to go to school, and thousands of United States citizens who live in Mexican border towns commute to work in American cities every day.” Pete Saenz, the mayor of Laredo, Texas, told Nixon that, “[w]e don’t see people across the river as people living in another country. We see them as our family, as part of the same community.”

In fact, many U.S. citizens live in Mexican border towns in order to be with their “deported American” family members. This seemingly contradictory term is explored in a new book looking at first generation immigrants who migrated to the U.S. as children. Their lives are more culturally similar to the children of immigrants because they were socialized and educated in the United States. Commonly referred to as Dreamers, thousands are deported by the U.S. each year. For this population, deportation does not feel like being sent “home.” Rather, it feels like exile or banishment. Their American family members cross the border to visit on the weekends, or, in many cases, move to the Mexican side of the border and cross into the U.S. on a daily basis to go to work and school. For these families, the prospect of a border shutdown is upsetting, because a closed border would separate them from one another.

Beatriz Cortez’s sculpture Tzolk’in, at Bowtie Park, Los Angeles

Utilizing augmented reality to bring attention to the border for just this reason, Beatriz Cortez’s sculpture Tzolk’in can be seen through Nancy Baker Cahill’s much celebrated 4th Wall App in her AR group exhibition, entitled Coordinates. Here, viewers can download the free app and use their phones to view site-specific works of art (locked to GPS coordinates) by six artists, including Cahill and Cortez. An AR version of Cortez’s sculpture, which most recently showed at the Hammer Museum’s Made in L.A. biennial, can be seen from Bowtie Park, California, and by the Rio Grande in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Cortez chose the locations specifically to publicly memorialize Claudia Patricia Gómez González, a 20-year-old indigenous Mayan woman from Guatemala who was shot and killed by a U.S. Border Patrol agent last year. She had crossed in hopes of furthering her education and reuniting with her childhood sweetheart Yosimar Morales, who had migrated to Virginia the year before.

Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Filmmaker and artist Alejandro G. Iñárritu also utilized virtual reality (VR) in his LACMA exhibit Carne y Arena (Virtually Present, Physically Invisible) that ran for a year between July 2017–18. In this immersive exhibit and VR installation, Iñárritu brings viewers on the perilous trek that Latin American migrants make through the desert to cross the U.S. border — with the help of virtual reality goggles, props like pebbled floors and windy rooms, and real-life testimonials that inspired the VR journey. As Carolina A. Miranda wrote for the Los Angeles Times, “Iñárritu takes the abstract issue of undocumented immigration and humanizes it by putting us there, by making us look into the eyes of those who survived their ordeals.”

In Tom Kiefer’s El Sueño Americano (The American Dream), Kiefer puts like items together in photographs, creating a sort of memento mori still life, based on items found when he worked as a janitor at a Customs and Border Protection center in Arizona. As migrants crossed into the U.S., border patrol would confiscate items that were seen as either dangerous or nonessential. Working there for over ten years, Kiefer began to salvage these items that were trashed after confiscation and then he started photographing them in 2007. In one particularly powerful work entitled Billfolds and Wallets (2013), Kiefer has arranged a grid of approximately 90 wallets that were taken and discarded by Border Patrol agents. In his words, “They’d still have their identification in the wallet . . . And credit cards. It was just cruel. They were safe with me, but it didn’t seem right that the janitor could find this. These should be secure.” Through his photographs, Kiefer not only reminds viewers to see the remnants of very human lives, but also questions some of the practices of Customs and Border Patrol. He has multiple exhibits in 2019, including shows at the Fuller Craft Museum and UMBC now.

Cosimo Cavallaro

In contrast, Cosimo Cavallaro is using his art to “Make America Grate Again” by building a wall made of expired cotija cheese. By the end of last month, his cheese wall was already five feet tall and thirty feet long, located just in front of the border wall in Tecate, California. Although the project does bring some humor and levity to a serious topic, Cavallaro has bigger motivations. Through his wall, Cavallaro brings attention to the waste associated with border costs. In visualizing waste using cheese, Cavallaro hopes that people will understand the similar political and monetary waste of the ongoing border wall debates and construction costs. He is collecting donations and selling merchandise with the ultimate goal of making the wall 1000 feet in long.

Through art, all of the artists discussed are using their work to force and ask viewers to physically “see” the border, and the United States’ relationship to it, differently — whether through border performances, humorous interventions, sobering memorials, and reminders of the human lives affected by the wall, artists challenge the public to consider the social relevance of immigration and migration in entirely different and more humane ways.

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