In the schematics of artists and architects Ronald Rael and Virgina San Fratello's design project, the painful split created by the border wall is envisioned as sutured by productive architecture. Pulled from imagination and deftly put to paper and into models, the wall is reimagined as useful infrastructure for communities affected on both sides of the boundary. Rael and San Fratello do this by proposing libraries and water capture stations as built-in municipal structures. Works such as this one illustrate a dynamism around design on the border, despite the tendency to over-simplify the topic. In the whole of The US-Mexico Border: Place, Imagination, and Possibility, borderlands are explored as much more than a barrier, but as a site of fluidity, exchange, communication and identity-shaping.
This exhibition of about 47 artists working in the 10 states of Mexico and the US that touch the border was first debuted at LA's Craft and Folk Art Museum, but will take up residence at 516 ARTS (516 Central Ave. SW), with expanded content at the Albuquerque Museum (2000 Mountain Rd. NW) for a tenure of about three months, with an opening reception happening on Jan. 27 between 6 and 8pm. The show, designed by Museum of Arts and Design Curator Emerita Lowery Stokes Sims and Mexico City-based independent curator Ana Elena Mallet provocatively addresses, “design across the border, communication across the border,” as Sims explained via phone from her home in New York City.
As Sims and Mallet undertook curatorial research trips to Tijuana, Ensenada, El Paso, Juárez, Calexico and other hubs, they hit upon the intellectual organization of the show. Place, imagination and possibility were approached with great intentionality, enunciating issues around the physical reality of the border, the poetic subject of it and the border as a site of ingenuity and creative solutions. These trips and the structure of the show were developed back in 2015. That it has taken on such potency in light of increased emphasis on so-called “border issues” and increasingly exclusionist policies is happenstance, but it makes the show all the more illuminating, instructive, encouraging.
“As we were creating this exhibition we were really struck by the fact that it became so relevant politically. … [But] as the presidential campaign progressed and the rhetoric about the border increased, all this work had greater relevancy,” Sims said. On a personal level, Sims was struck by the “dynamics of crossing the border. How when you leave the United States going to Mexico, it is a fairly uncomplicated process, but coming back … sort of thinking about the number of people who do that legally everyday and the time commitment it takes going back and forth. The disparity of relative ease going one direction, the relative complication of going the other.” Despite that difficulty of movement for people, the flow of products across those lines runs largely unimpeded. “Tijuana is one of the largest producers of appliances in the world!” Sims pointed out. “We're really reliant on products coming from Mexico that make our lives what they are today,” yet there are so many “assumptions of the origins and authenticities of products that really have nothing to do with where they came from.”
Arising around the flow of humans and products across the border is design illustrating tremendous resiliency and ingenuity. In the work of artist Guillermo Galindo, objects left behind by migrants are used to construct musical instruments. Margarita Cabrera crafts cacti out of border patrol uniforms, embroidered with the dramatic stories of those who have crossed, or tried to do so. These works speak not just to ingenuity, but in persistent cultural exchange and the survival of culture and craft that serves both sides of the wall.
“It was interesting to think about the protocols of design thinking—in other words, that your practice has a direct connection to a community,” Sims said. And moreover, that we are all more bound up with the border than we might guess. “I think borders are prevalent in everyone's experience, more so than we really think … [and] chopping off these avenues of access has real impact,” she explained. Art has a unique capacity to make these ties strikingly apparent. It does so in a “very personal way, as well as an intellectual and visual [one]. Art does it best because art does it without words. Art shows you exactly what it is.”
Through its exploration of the charged division between the US and Mexico in all its complexity, while honoring its history, its culture, its craft and design, one thing becomes defiantly, triumphantly clear—that no wall can stop the flow of people and ideas across the border. “That's pretty much—if you want—the philosophy behind our show,” Sims said. “In a sliver of the world, to demonstrate that the interaction and exchange between cultures is always constant.” The power of creative expression underlines and strengthens that fluidity. “What has always impressed me,” Sims summarized, “is the resiliency of the creative sector all over the world, and the way that they can glean from situations very powerful statements that talk about human conditions, how resilient people can be in solving those problems.”
The US-Mexico Border: Place, Imagination, and Possibility opens on Jan. 27 and will be on display until April 14. On Jan. 27, Lowery Stokes Sims and Ana Elena Mallet discuss the exhibition at the Albuquerque Museum at 1pm. A host of events are happening in conjunction with the exhibition. For all the latest details, check 516 ART’s website at 516arts.org.