Art about the border can feel stale. For the past two decades or so, the art market has been saturated with exhibits and biennials that take on the impossible task of fitting an entropic community of artists under a single banner, with a few overarching and overlapping themes. Yet, even as these exhibits continue to explore similar themes, the generations of artists that have surfaced since border art even became a thing have radically changed. Or rather, their environment has.
Earlier generations of artists – such as Marcos Ramirez Erre, Jaime Ruiz Otis, Ingrid Hernandez to name a few – responded to the burgeoning presence of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and a rapidly shifting geopolitical landscape in the wake of 9/11, channeling a turn-of-the-century anxiety into visceral and highly memorable works. But younger border artists have been left with a befuddling panorama to work with. Not only has every subsequent generation struggled to come out of the enormous shadow cast by the boom generation, they’ve also been left with the bloody aftermath of a futile drug war and increasingly hostile US-Mexico relations.
And yet, the border is perhaps now more prevalent in the bi-national discourse than ever before. The current administration’s predatory approach to immigration has continued to militarize the border, wreaking havoc on the lives of immigrants.
It’s in this context that we get Transborder Biennial, a bi-national effort that focuses its lens on those who permanently inhabit – either by choice or chance – that socio-cultural limbo and make art out of it. Fittingly, then, one half of the show happens in El Paso Museum of Art (EPMA) and the other at the Museo de Arte de Ciudad Juárez (MACJ) in Mexico, the fifth such effort between the two institutions. At first glance, the exhibit appears to perpetuate some of the same tropes that have dominated the conversation on border art since its inception –the outmoded and overused notion of “hybridity” first championed by Néstor García Canclini, a preoccupation with the quotidian rituals of trans-border life, and a colorful collage of signifiers of “Mexican culture” ranging from luchadores to maíz. Yet, a closer inspection of the three dozen or so artists participating in the biennial reveals a much more diverse aesthetic and generational spectrum.
Below, check out a few artists breathing fresh life to the border art genre.
Border Biennial closes on September 16. Learn more here.
María José Crespo
In addition to featuring more established names, the exhibit also includes newer names, such as Tijuana’s María José Crespo. Like Hernandez, Crespo’s work is almost exclusively situated in the Mexican side of the Tijuana-San Diego border. Her photos, centered on explorations of everyday life on the border, veer less closely to a fixation on the border’s idiosyncrasies, and instead look at a sort of ambiguity felt when symbols are stripped of their semantic value.
El Paso photographer Ingrid Leyva seems to reside on the opposite end of the spectrum. Her lens often hones in on the bizarre, the disposable, the sort of curious you can only experience in the border, highlighting kitschy and absurd takes on Americana by way of cheap foam maps of the US and hamfisted takes on Lady Liberty. The humor is offset by the detachment with which such images are handled, signifying both awe and bewilderment, much in the vein of a lot of border art.
Not surprisingly, El Paso is very well represented in the exhibit. José Villalobos’ critique of toxic norteño masculinity has been best exemplified in works like FAG and Los Machos También Lloran. Meanwhile, works like Ni Blanco, Ni Derecho also reveal the dual pressure of hegemony, by having to conform to – or rather confront – American, white male heteronormativity. This calls to mind Tijuana writer Heriberto Yepez’s view of border hybridity not as a best of both worlds, but rather, the worst.
San Diego-based American Paul Turounet is another artist who uses the medium of photography to capture the transience of life at the periphery, and more so than the previously mentioned artists, centers his vision on the stories that unfold before The Wall. Interestingly enough, in works like Estamos Buscando A he attempts to transcend the limitations of the medium by going beyond the flatness of the photograph and presenting the spectator with an entire mileu to contextualize the images, one that is less observed that inhabited.
Much in the same line as Turounet, Spanish artist Ester Partegàs attempts to situate the spectator directly within a physical space in her work. With Invisible Forces, Partegàs co-opts the medium of the flier as a means of questioning our modes of communication and consumer-oriented transactions. Among the many objects presented is a pair of benches handcuffed together and “El Muro”, a red brick rendition of The Wall, which fall in line with some of Partegàs’ other works centering on our consumer habits that favor disposability and ephemerality.
Tijuana-based filmmaker and artist Abraham Avila is perhaps best known for founding – alongside his partner photographer Ingrid Hernandez – Relaciones Inesperadas. The project surfaced as a means of providing essential resources to artists in Tijuana, offering everything from talks and discussions, to workshops and more formal courses that lend budding artists with the tools to achieve a level of professionalism in their work, as well as provide a framework through which artists can collaborate. Though not strictly an artwork, the project perhaps best exemplifies the day to day struggles that artists face in the Mexican-side of the border, that is ironically situated next to one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and yet, is notoriously resource-starved.
Omar Pimienta’s work across various mediums has in great part centered on exploring one of Tijuana’s oldest, most emblematic neighborhoods, Colonia Libertad. One such work, Ciudadano Libres, offers audiences the opportunity to become “citizens” of the neighborhood by exchanging their real passport for one specific to the colonia. In other works, like Lady Libertad, Pimienta delves deep into the neighborhood’s nomenclature, and places it into the greater imaginary of Western Democracy, by invoking the statue of liberty’s pre-Columbian roots. The exploration is all the more telling in a region that appears to have little to no notion of history, amid a rapidly shifting population.