Today's topic is "border art." First, BorderLinks' main educational work is in hosting groups from around the U.S. here on the U.S.-Mexico border to experience different perspectives on immigration, sustainability, and other themes, but from time to time we are also called upon to do workshops for local groups from religious communities, schools, and other organizations. In the middle of March, Margi, Alex, and I set out to Phoenix to visit Paradise Valley Community College (which is the nicest, most sculpted, most tech-savvy community college I've ever seen... Pretty cool place, actually!), where we were asked to give two presentations on border history and one on border art. After weeks of preparation by the three of us and Indira, another awesome co-worker, we were ready to present, with Alex taking the lead on border history, and I on border art.
In prepping for the border art presentation, Margi and I teamed up and felt pretty overwhelmed and initially directionless. What really is "border art"? There were so many ways we could go, but we decided to bring a different aspect of my undergrad life into my work by focusing on the relationship between art and politics. In doing so I hopefully made my two toughest and most amazing profs Al Montero and Silvia Lopez proud! They were the ones from whom I took the majority of my interdisciplinary International Relations and Latin American Studies courses from, and in each class there was some component of critical cultural theory and examination of how artistic and political spheres interact. I'll get more into this later, but pause for now!
I know I'm posting this a bit after the fact, but that is because it ties into something much more immediate. Normally I would write a whole blog post and tie it to an action item at the end, but because this has a deadline in just a few days, I want to put it in here before I lose you to the blog post length! You'll see the name Taller Yonke later and get to read more about their work, but for now, here's the time-sensitive message:
Border Mural Restoration in Need of Funding!
Taller Yonke is an artist collective in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, and again I will write more about them later. BorderLinks sometimes brings groups down to visit with them to hear about their work in the community that has gained them international recognition, including murals and sculptures around the city and positive engagement with youth.
They were the first artists to do art on the actual border wall itself that runs through what used to be called Ambos Nogales (Both Nogales) and blocks Nogales, Arizona from Nogales, Sonora. Much of their work on the wall was commentary on migration, but one mural in particular is a copy of a Zapatista work in southern Mexico depicting how land should be of the people. My dad and I actually witnessed this mural, along with other works on the border wall by Taller Yonke, in 2007 during my first experience with BorderLinks and the U.S.-Mexico border on a delegation with a group from our church, St. Luke! So this mural does hold a special place in our hearts!
My 2007 photo of the mural from our St. Luke delegation.
You can click the link here to learn more, but here is part of the message written by Dan Millis (from Sierra Club Borderlands/BorderLinks board member) about the importance of this project: "Many of my friends from both sides of the border helped paint the colorful, bucolic scene of El Mural de Taniperla with help from arts collectives like Taller Yonke. Before Border Patrol wrecked this wall and built a new one, the mural showed a community at peace, with people, animals, masks and spirits in a landscape as night turns to day.
Border Patrol wanted a taller wall, one that would be harder to climb and easier to see (and shoot) through. In 2011 they got it, and we had to scramble to save the Taniperla mural. Luckily, Congressman Grijalva stepped in, and the mural was cut into 34 pieces and put in storage, where it has been ever since.
Artists at Taller Yonke have secured a new location near the border to display this unique public art, and the border wall relics on which it's painted. Near a highway, a railroad, a bus stop, and the international border crossing, the mural would be seen by thousands every day."
They do need some financial support to make this restoration possible. As of April 11th they are at $390 out of their $1000 goal, and every bit helps. Please consider donating before their April 14th deadline! They will be starting the restoration process on April 19th and hope to get materials before then. Here is the link to learn more and to contribute if you choose to do so: Indiegogo fundraising campaign. Thank you for your consideration!
For fun, here is the group photo from our 2007 St. Luke BorderLinks delegation!
And now switching gears...
To begin my border art presentation, I first wanted to hear a little bit about the drawing class I'd be spending the next hour and a half with, so I asked them their name, their own migration story (whether of their family or what brought them to Arizona and/or that classroom), and their favorite style of visual art to do themselves.
The next line of questioning was a little trickier. I then asked, "How do you visualize the border? When you think of the border, what comes to mind for you? What kind of images?" If you, my readers, would like to follow along with our workshop activities, you can take 5 to draw and/or write how you visualize the border… I also made sure that my classroom participants that day knew they were doing "border art" and encouraged them to keep that in the back of their minds too.
And then the slides began...
Is this what anybody was picturing in their mind’s eye? Phew, the Borderlands can be beautiful, right? This is an aesthetically pleasing work of photography, right? Do you notice what’s on the left of this photo though? The border wall itself... Humanity is interacting with the natural world and has put a physical structure to delineate a space we’ve constructed.
How about this? Without the boots, this would be a simple desert landscape. But with that simple addition of a pair of broken boots left behind by someone migrating through this terrain just outside of Green Valley, a photo that is still aesthetically striking can be analyzed in multiple layers given its political context.
These are all photographs of the border... What thoughts or emotions do these last few images bring out?
Because of the work we at BorderLinks do, educating people about the reality of life in the Borderlands through firsthand experience, the main theme we tried to focus on here is the relationship between the aesthetic and the political in art. In this workshop we wanted to engage with some of the reality of the Borderlands, how national/international politics affect the Borderlands, how what happens in the Borderlands affects the rest of the country (I’m from just a few hours away from the U.S.-Canada border, but I feel much more the effects of U.S.-Mexico border politics with upswings of Latino populations in both Minneapolis/St. Paul and also in small-town Midwest… people from Mexico and Central America are working on farms, in factories, and plenty of other economic pursuits as well), and what does art have to do with all that?
I argue that this region, the Borderlands, is a highly contested space. For a little bit of historical context, since the 1500's, people in political power in this region have included First Nations, Spain, Mexico, and the United States… That affects reality today for people in this region. Black, white, and brown people are all negotiating for claim to this space, to resources, to their heritage and culture, and to power. These days, the Arizona-Mexico border makes the news for immigration issues, drugs, connections to cartels, violence, etc.
Especially in the last 20 years, after the passage of NAFTA, we have seen how economic and political policies have contributed to a new reality on the border where more goods and money are flowing across, but we have invested in infrastructure and enforcement to restrict the movement of people. People are trying to make the space safer so their people can live in peace, and people are also trying to make a living by smuggling others to their better life. And we need to remember that people live in communities on both sides of the border, a line constructed by people, and they relate to these realities and perceptions in different ways.
In the picture above, the border wall outside of Agua Prieta is captured in photography. The first picture was as well actually. We have a wall between two friendly nations. Does that seem strange to anyone? Have you seen the border? Certainly wasn’t always this way, and not all pieces of the U.S.-Mexico border look this way... The wall first started in urban areas - President Clinton started it to “get tough on immigration” and every president since then has expanded it. Clinton began with trying to restrict movement to disappear into the urban space and the movement of people on the other side… And then it expanded outwards, covering longer stretches of the border until the only long stretch only covered by barbed wire and/or vehicle barriers is Arizona-Sonora desert (meanwhile other areas have a 3-layer deep fence), and the political thinking was the desert would be such a deterrent that people would stop trying to cross because it’s such dangerous terrain… But people still cross the border without authorization for economic, political, safety and other reasons (like the gross inadequacy in availability of temporary visas and a years-long wait time for a green card - if you're eligible), and because border enforcement infrastructure is thinnest in the most dangerous terrain, that's where people try to cross.
The Borderlands used to have much more cyclical patterns of migration where people would come north for work, especially on a temporary basis, send money back home, and then maybe go back home after a few months, or maybe they’d come especially for a harvest season when agriculture needs more hands on deck, and then they go back home. But now, if it’s so hard to cross, what about people who are already here? If they came here without proper documentation, or if they overstayed a visa and became an undocumented resident, they’re less likely to go back to their home countries because it would be so hard to come back – people may be separated from their spouses and children, they may not be able to go to their mom’s funeral, they can't visit sick family members, etc.
The reasons for migration haven’t stopped, so has migration? Of course not. It’s just gotten more dangerous as migration routes now have to send people through the most hazardous desert terrain, so people have started dying in the desert. 3000 people have perished in the Arizona desert in the last 15 years. 3000. That we know of. The desert has a way of disappearing remains or at least making them unidentifiable with incredible speed. And in these last few years, even as the number of people crossing has gone down (for various reasons including the U.S.' recession), the number of deaths has remained about the same because of this funnel, meaning there is actually a greater likelihood of death in an attempted crossing.
So now we see people aren’t necessarily deterred (as the U.S. government would have it) by the political policies trying to make it harder for people to cross, but instead they’re facing more danger, and perhaps more likely to try and stay in the U.S. once they get here. This is part of the contested space of the Borderlands, and also part of the current immigration reality as it affects the rest of the U.S. – thinking about growing Latino populations around the country. How may we see this new political reality through art?
To preface the meat of the presentation, I argued understanding political context for “border art” is vital. I also asked because of this notion of a politicized geographic space or region, can we ever completely divorce art from politics? Or is all “border art” by necessity political, or capturing a political reality? I like to think of three categories:
1) Purely aesthetic – art as an expression of creativity created for its aesthetic value
2) Art for its aesthetic value, but perhaps capturing political reality
3) Art as a vehicle for a political message, like protest art or political cartoons
And these categories certainly aren’t cut and dry… So I want you all to think about different approaches to the aesthetic-political relationship and the aforementioned questions.
As we went through a few more images, I began with the actual physical space of the border wall. This piece is done by the artist collective Taller Yonke that I mentioned before, based in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. They do “public art” - they wanted to beautify their city of Nogales, and recognizing there were not many spaces for art like galleries and museums, they wanted to make art accessible to the people. So they started doing murals all over the city and getting contracted to do it, but they gained international recognition with this piece: "Border Dynamics." This photo is from its current installation at the University of Arizona, but it was the first piece to actually go up on the physical border wall.
As I mentioned, we sometimes bring our groups down to talk with Taller Yonke in Nogales, and they talk about the actual wall as a taboo - everybody knew it was there, of course, as it cuts right through the city of Nogales to separate Arizona and Sonora, but people felt like it was untouchable. So the artists wanted to make the wall feel accessible to people on both sides of the border and get people talking about what’s affecting the broader community.
Can you tell what side is the U.S. and what side is Mexico? This is always an interesting question to pose to groups. According to the artists themselves, "On both sides of the wall, down to our muscles, without seeing our brown or white skin, we are just people, and you can’t tell who is trying to put up the wall and who is trying to take it down." Wow.
This is just one example of "border art." I continued on with my presentation, including themes such as protest art, political cartoons, and a sampling of how artists in the Borderlands and beyond attempt to represent the space that is the border region. I hope I gave you some food for thought, and thank you for considering financially supporting art on the border!