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Though the U.S.-Mexico border was a topic of international conversation throughout the year, for many, it remains just a faraway political concept. For the Californians and Mexicans who live near it, however, the border is a very real place — a reality driven home by the artists who used it as a canvas.
You might have heard: President Donald Trump wants to secure the U.S.-Mexico border by building a new wall. He wants to hire 5,000 more Border Patrol agents as soon as possible. He wants immigration to slow dramatically, and for people who are in the United States illegally to return home.
Though Trump’s aggressive border policies provoked an international conversation that lasted throughout 2017, for many of those involved the border remains just a faraway political concept. For the Californians and Mexicans who live near it, however, the border is a very real place. That was driven home throughout the year as local and foreign artists used the border as a canvas on which they expressed opinions about Trump’s policies.
But even with the uptick in interest in immigration policies, many local artists making border art still struggle to get anyone to pay attention to their work.
Meanwhile, when famed French artist JR parachuted in and erected a massive installation featuring a toddler peering over the border fence in Tecate, the world took note.
JR’s installation got more media attention than any piece of border art that came before it. That frustrated local curator and art historian Sara Solaimani, who said local artists “have been talking about these issues for decades in much more critical ways, and frankly aesthetically much better. JR is a bad artist, and his piece was a commodity, just a way for him to get more famous.”
She said Tijuana and San Diego artists who have deep knowledge about the border region are making much better border art, but not enough people are paying attention.
Here are six other works of border art by local artists that happened in 2017.
In November, Trump’s border wall prototypes in Otay Mesa briefly became artistic canvases. Jill Holslin, Andrew Sturm, the Overpass Light Brigade-San Diego and People Over Profits of San Diego projected anti-wall text and images on the prototypes. The artistic intervention did get some traction in the media.
San Diego artist Kate Clark’s Parkeology art project took shape as a series of public events that creatively unearthed some obscure history of Balboa Park. At one point in the park’s history, visitors could hop on a trolley from Balboa Park to Tijuana. The border was once much more fluid. This summer, Clark brought the Border Trolley Tours back. She teamed up with Cog•nate Collective, a local collective made up of Amy Sánchez and Misael Díaz, and through live storytelling and audio recordings, people who took the tour learned about the history of animals, humans and materials that have migrated through the border region.
At the Oceanside Museum of Art earlier this year, Tijuana artist Omar Pimienta set up a mobile consulate office and offered free passports to visitors in exchange for their old passports. Later in the year, artist Marcos Ramirez Erre built a border wall on the facade of the museum. The works are part of curator Alessandra Moctezuma’s “unDocumenta,” a border art exhibition showing at the Oceanside Museum of Art through Jan. 28. The show explores the socioeconomic, historical and cultural impact of the border, and includes work by some of the most important artists making border art today – artists like Erre, Pimienta, Claudia Cano and Ana Teresa Fernández. A panel discussion featuring some of the artists is happening at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 18, at OMA.
Students from San Diego and Tijuana recently marched down Revolución, the main thoroughfare in downtown Tijuana, wearing costumes made to look like the border wall prototypes. The public pageant was designed to provoke conversations about border-crossing and privilege. The project is part of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s “Millennial Engagement” initiative. Funded by a grant from the Irvine Foundation, that initiative set out to get younger people interacting with the museum. The artist duo Collective Magpie used their funding through the initiative to collaborate with students from Universidad Autónoma de Baja California in Tijuana and the University of California, San Diego. Collective Magpie’s Tae Hwang and MR Barnadas worked with the students to create projects to activate public spaces on both sides of the border. The duo calls their project “Street Theatre Borderlands Performances,” and so far student performances have also happened in Balboa Park and other parts of Tijuana.
Last semester, a handful of students at San Diego State dressed as alien astronauts and interviewed other students about where they came from – the same question Latino students and other people of color get asked all the time. Through MCASD’s “Millennial Engagement” initiative, Cog•nate Collective’s Amy Sánchez and Misael Díaz worked with Chicano studies students at SDSU, where they focused on the history and legacy of border art, and worked with them to create an art project and stage public art performances that took place at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, Playas de Tijuana, Border Field State Park, SDSU campus and MCASD. Called “Otro Mundo Nos Espera,” the public performances included audio recordings exploring the students’ personal experiences with migration and the border, plus conversations with other students about immigration and border politics.
Artists Ricardo Dominguez, Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Perry Vasquez are collaborating on a new project with the working title of “Movidas Razquaches.” It’s an art project made to look like a card game that includes 100 cards containing border-crossing solutions and strategies. The deck of cards pulls from well-known tricks and tropes employed by coyotes and migrants to survive the ordeal of crossing the border. Expect to see or hear more about this in-progress piece in 2018.