Saturday, August 1, 2009

Luis Ituarte and the cultural promotion of Tijuana

Luis Ituarte's excitement is contagious. After meeting with him at La Casa del Tunel, and going on a brief tour of the Colonia Federale, the neighborhood of La Casa, I became as excited about the art scene in Tijuana, and the cultural movement in the Baja California del Norte-Southern California region. Granted, I was already interested in Tijuana enough that I drove down from San Francisco to check it out, but Ituarte really lit a fire in me for it.

Ituarte is a welcoming and warm man, filled with ideas. He was born and raised in Tijuana, and has lived in Central America, Canada and now splits his time between Los Angeles and Tijuana. He is an artist, but also what he calls an arts and culture promoter, always looking to expand the art scene, affecting people outside of the often close knit art world.
We walked around the gallery together, and talked a bit about the MexiCali Biennial that la Casa was showing. The Biennial is featuring artists from both Mexico and the U.S. and shares some of the same goals as Ituarte and la Casa: to create an arts community and dialogue that permeates the border.

Ituarte is especially excited about the changes happening in Tijuana, "we're moving from one era into another right now," he says of the current growth of arts, the community and new international recognition of Tijuana as more than a scrappy border town but as a center of the arts. This recognition has been a long-looked for validation for the artists and has spurred on more movement and growth.

From Ituarte's perspective, this validation is late in coming to an area that has been rapidly changing over the past ten years, even though he predicts more dramatic change to come. Tijuana, says this third generation Tijanese, is particularly set up for an explosion of art because of its city is lawlessness and lack of "a mother culture. It is a region in which people from all over Mexico congregate, leaving behind the traditional way of life." As each area in Mexico has a distinct traditional lifestyle, no one culture stands out in Tijuana, but all of them blend with each other, and with the Southern California influences, coming together to create something else new. Historically, Tijuana has never been embraced, neither as a city nor as a breeding place of art. That's now changing, Ituarte points out, as the cultural movement, "the artists of Tijuana are putting out the name of Tijuana as a source of pride; these artists are going out into the world and creating goodwill for Tijuana." Ituarte sees his role as a native Tijuanese to promote the city and the art, to promote Tijuana as a place distinctly different from the rest of Mexico, as someplace more closely related to San Diego and LA, than, say, DF or Guadalajara.

Ituarte hopes to make la Colonia Federal, an eight block neighborhood of Tijuana, and home to la Casa del Tunel, the arts center of Tijuana, and la Casa the flagship of it all. Colonia Federal is set off from the rest of Tijuana by the border, el Rio Tijuana, Plaza Viva Tijuana and the highway to the downtown. Ituarte took to me to the roof of Casa del Tunel, from which I can see across the border fence to the parking lot where I left my car, and into Tijuana. The roof sports a bar, a stage (easily seen from the US side), seating and seedlings which will soon form a green roof. They use the roof for parties, cookouts, opening night events and to host literal cross-border concerts and shows. Ituarte jokes that la Casa is the only gallery in Mexico that has a 50,000 parking lot in the U.S. From that parking lot, people can gather, and see and and hear concerts on the rooftop of Casa del Tunel, creating a literal transgression of the border that Ituarte looks to permeate by uniting artists of the border region.

Within Colonia Federal, Ituarte is negotiating with home owners and Colectivo Cuatro, a group of four graffiti artists of unique style, to repaint the houses in a design agreed upon by the owners and the Colectivo. One home is already finished and three more are in the works. Ituarte takes me on a brief tour of the homes, showing my the one that is finished in a fiery design, and the scaffolding going up on another. The graffiti is unique--absent are the tags, the bragadocio and threats characteristic of US graffiti. The finished house sports brilliant pinks and oranges, seeming ripples of fire moving across the building, so appropriate to the hot setting and naturally growing brilliant colors.

On the way back to la Casa del Tunel, Ituarte brings me to his Tijuana home. Plants fill the open courtyard, just above which a ladder ascends to his studio. Everywhere are the brightly colored paintings, from tabletops, to long murals. Iturarte paints in the light and airy studio, continuing a series he began with a table, not suspecting that it would become a 45 foot mural that he paints in sections.

Already, Ituarte's efforts are coming to fruition in the neighborhood. Next door to la Casa, the owner has begun to create his own gallery of sorts, hanging signs, found objects, and drawings along his fence. Across the way, alongside the border fence, he has planted succulents and bougainvillea.

It is truly inspiring to listen to Ituarte's impression of Tijuana now and his vision of the future, especially when set against the incredible amount of negative press about Tijuana, Mexico and other border towns. I, for one, can't wait for the chance to get back to Tijuana, and see what other ideas of Ituarte's have come to fruition.

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