INTERVIEW

Borderlands

Los Angeles

12 October 2017

From 1849 to 1857, the US and Mexico Boundary Commission surveyed the newly defined US-Mexico border by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The treaty, which settled the Mexican-American war in 1848, granted the United States 55 per cent of Mexico’s territories. 55 maps were produced in the process, documenting the natural features of the 2,000-mile borderlands, with varying degrees of precision. Over a century and a half later, the border remains a site that captures the imagination and continues to inspire a rich visual production.

The US-Mexico Border: Place, Imagination, and Possibility, currently on show at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles, presents the work of over 40 contemporary artists who explore the border as a physical reality, a subject, and a site for production and solution. The exhibition – part of Pacific Standard Time: LA / LA, the Getty-initiated programme of Latinx and Chicanx arts – provides alternative narratives about the reality of cross-border lives and identities.

“We were thinking about design across the border,” recalls Lowery Stokes Sims, former curator emerita of the Museum of Art and Design in New York, about the genesis of the show, which she has co-curated with Mexican curator Ana Elena Mallet. “We realised we wanted to look at how design and craft are being used by different practitioners to solve and address problems.”

As Sims and I walk into the gallery space, we are greeted by two cheap-looking pairs of jeans, floating surreally above the staircase. The fabric is adorned by the letters “Migra” (slang for immigration officers) and “No ICE” (a protest against the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in a distinct font, reminiscent of the 1990s. Playing with the language of Naco culture (a term referring to trashy aesthetics, often associated with the working class), Mexican-American artist Hector Dionicio Mendoza juxtaposes politically-charged slogans with manufactured clothing. The piece invokes the maquiladoras (manufacturing plants, often located near the US-Mexico border) and invites reflection on the post-NAFTA labour politics between both countries.

In a similar vein, a series of posters from California-based Chicano artist David Avalos reflects on the politics of labour from within the US context. Showing undocumented workers with the caption “Welcome to America’s Finest Tourist Plantation,” Avalos’ posters were installed across hundreds of San Diego transit buses during the 1988 Super Bowl.

“It was important for us to make a reference to Chicano artists,” explains Sims as we look at the graphic design-inspired painting ¡Cesen Deportación! (1973) by Rupert Garcia. “What a lot of them were doing at the time was not only looking at the border in their art, but also working with migrant communities to make art [in order] to help them find their ways into American society and to help them with legal issues.”

Artist and muralist Judith F. Baca, a significant figure of the Chicano art movement (which was responsible for the Great Wall of Los Angeles murals) is also featured in the show. Her 1993 Pancho Trinity series – three styrofoam sculptures of Mexicans under huge sombreros – gesture towards the Mexican migrant community's struggle to assert an identity for itself beyond the stereotypes that greet them in the US.

From a furniture design perspective, the work of Los Angeles-based designer and artist Tanya Aguñiga (one of the last members of the influential San Diego and Tijuana-based Border Art Workshop) is particularly striking. “Aguñiga moves into design, but she always has a conceptual end to it,” says Sims, recounting the Mexican designer’s experience of crossing the border back and forth with her family as a child. In the chimerical table, chair and lamp set Shadow Trio (2008), the shapes of the steel structures are only complete with their own shadow. “The whole idea is to talk about the US-Mexico dialogue,” explains Sims. “We’re shadows of each other. We need each other to complete each other.”

On the third floor, we encounter an installation by the Los Angeles-born, Guadalajara-based artist Eduardo Sarabia (who also currently enjoys a solo exhibition at the Mistake Room in LA). The piece features a series of traditional talavera blue and white ceramic pottery (a technique dating from the 16th century) emblazoned with contemporary references and sensational motifs, including semi-nude young women, cannabis leaves, and pills.

“I was really involved in researching […] the way that drug war imagery had become such a deeply embedded piece of that culture,” explains Sarabia. “I always describe the ceramics as being something my grandma or my mom could like and easily understand […] but with these more contemporary Mexican images.”

The US-Mexico border zone may be one of the the most publicised now, but the drastic immigration policies recently proposed by president Donald Trump are not the subject of this exhibition. “The show is not a political anti-Trump show,” asserts Sims, who started working on the project in 2014. While Trump’s anti-immigration narratives certainly heighten the relevance of the exhibit, Sims explains that “this show is really about celebrating the creativity of people who live in this kind of strange hybrid existence and how they navigate it, critique it, and understand it.”

Would this show look a lot different if it were made in five years? Sims seems to think so. “First of all, we’d probably have a lot more proposals for the wall!” she laughs, looking at some such models by the art and architecture Studio Rael-San Fratello. The miniature sculptures playfully subvert the border fences and turn them into a community-friendly space with teeter-totters, bike lanes and volley-ball courts crossing both sides.

“He thinks of it as satirical,” says Sims. “But what’s happening is that it’s becoming more and more serious.”