Saturday, November 14, 2009

Dance Narrative: An Immigration Story

In Origenes de Vuelo/Origins of Flight: An Immigration Story, David Herrera tells the story of his mother's youthful journey from Mexico to the U.S.

The dance begins and ends with strong solo dance by Evan Hart Marsh, framing the narrative within the perspective of the son of the immigrant. In the first scene, there is no music, but a voice-over reminiscent of the stale voice of automated messages. On either side of the stage hang two large screens, made up of various pieces of white towels and clothing, upon which play scenes from the San Francisco Mission district.This is the world that the son of an immigrant inhabits: a world between languages and cultures, the experience from which Herrera tries to tell his mother's story.

It is a fascinating story even in its commonness: a young woman, 22 years old and pregnant, makes her way from her small town in Mexico to the U.S. and must navigate the perils of the road. The story itself is rife with material for a dynamic performance, however, the choreography was littered with literal, trite movements that were often over performed and the narrative somehow got lost in the progression of the performance.

Mia Aiko Yamada, playing the part of the immigrant mother, executed her dances spectacularly, having both the technical foundation and compassion necessary to make emotive dance.

The music and the images that played upon the laundry-like screens were reprivals for the weak dancing, providing more dimensions to the performance. Shimomitsu, a music collaborative, created the score specifically for this show, and the music represented the duality of the piece--the struggle to know and understand each culture individually and to blend them seamlessly. Olivia Ting created the background images, working to create an "emotional landscape" for each dance. She layered images and played with movement and repetition and timing to create a viable background for the dance.

None of the dancers are immigrants, and they needed to find ways to connect to the piece. "As dancers, that--emotion--is all we have to give," commented Herrera in the post-performance discussion. In light of this, he concentrated his efforts on getting his dancers to connect to the piece emotionally. Choreographing the piece was a community process, with Herrera giving a fundamental choreography and then giving the dancers room to add to and change it as they saw fit. Marsh spoke of connecting to the piece through this process. "It was how I connected with the story--David tells the story and then we make it our own...I am close with my mother, so the duet was really powerful for me," Hart said. "Initially, I was connected to the giving, learning process but at the end, in her [the mother's] arrival, I understood." If only the audience was carried along in this journey as well--the performance had so much going for it, but it seemed as if it could have used more time in production.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Dia de los Muertos, San Francisco Style

Each year, San Francisco's Mission District hosts a celebration of Dia de los Muertos. The procession winds its way through the barrio, allowing for spectators to become participants, and ends at Garfield Park, at 26th and Harrison. Participants in the procession paint their faces and dress up, some in the traditionsl style of Mexico's Dia de los Muertos, while others throw a distinct San Francisco twist in. Playa dust coats many top hats and cloaks. Artists set up an array of alters at Garlfield Park, and when the procession arrives, musicians are playing at all corners and candles light up the alters.

The celebration has become a full-fledged festival in San Francisco, perhaps one of the strongest indications of border exchange. As la Mision has become the Mission District, the hipster population has embraced aspects of Mexican and Chicano culture (there are always several Frida Khalos in attendance at Garfield Park), and the celebration retains many traditional aspects: alters, sugar skulls, an abundance of marigolds and skeletal makeup, but there are many contemporary alters. Alters that ask for attendants to add to them, such as one that consisted merely of twine strung from tree to tree, allowing people to write their memories on slips of paper and attach them to the criss-crossing lines, like so much laundry fluttering in the wind. A few alters brought artifacts of other cultures together into an extravagant display of people honoring death and the dead. One in particular blended ancient Egyptian and Phoenician figurines, traditional Mexican, Thai, Tibentan and Japanese sculptures and objects, among others, on a tiered alter, with candles and incense.

The air was filled with the smell of burning sage, weed and incessant drumming. I danced and knelt before the alters to add my own rememberances. One alter was built of raw balsm wood, it was like a lace building that had seats inside. Sitting inside, under the intricate ceiling, the boundaries between strangers fell away. Festivals are meant to foster community and San Francisco's Dia de los Muertos celebrations accomplishes it. There is an emotional brightness to the celebration that comes, I think, to people letting go of their quehaceres to remember their lost ones.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Octavio Solis' El Otro

Thick Description brought back Octavio Solis' El Otro, his play that follows a splintered family living on the border in Texas. Two fathers, one mother and the young daughter make their way along and into El Rio Grande as they try and figure out how to continue forward in this broken world.

The play begins with her new stepdad, Ben (Johnny Moreno), arriving to pick her up from her father, Lupe's (Sean San Jose), home. Immediately in the conflict between the two fathers, San Jose dominates the stage with his commanding presence and powerful voice. Also in this scene, Solis introduces the conflicting ideas of Mexican/Mexican-American identity that run through the course of the play.

Both fathers are of Mexican descent, but Lupe speaks Spanish and Ben doesn't, which causes both Lupe and Romy, the daughter (Maria Calendaria) to mock and reject him. As the play continues, this struggle builds force, with characters being defined as Mexican or not according to different sets of criteria. What is a Mexican, especially when being born in the U.S. doesn't promise acceptance into U.S. mainstream culture?

Lupe resists letting Romy leave with Ben and convinces him to come back to his place, the beginning of a wild goose chase after a present for Romy. They stop at a friends house and as Lupe becomes more cagey and manipulative, Ben tries to remain mature but the situation quickly spirals out of his control and he becomes reduced to a sobbing mess caught up in the storm of Lupe.

Romy eats some peyote that she finds and the scenes are often interrupted with her perspective of flickering lights and a quieting of other characters. Through her eyes, the border becomes as fluid as the river that marks it and as volatile as her father, Lupe. Eventually the three make their way to a bar, where we meet El Charro Negro (Rhonnie Washington) who gives Romy advice, seeming to know Lupe from back in the day, and then back and forth over the Rio Grande.

Nina, Romy's mother, sets off in search of the missing three and encounters them on the other side of the river, only to discover that none of them have ever crossed because they'd simply swum across a bend in the rive and set down on the same side.

The play is hugely funny, violent and heartbreaking--much as it must be living alongside the border, and on the outskirts of the culture of the country you live in.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Borderlands/La Frontera

Gloria Anzaldua grew up in the borderlands, a region that seems to her to be often dismissed region, though powerful in its dualities and unhindered mixings of language, culture and people, resulting in the potential for people to create a new way of being.

Borderlands/La Frontera is a sort of auto-history, a text that allows Anzaldua to locate herself and Chicanos within Mexican-U.S. history by rewriting the history of the region. She begins by telling of the mythical Aztec homeland, Aztlan, that existed somewhere in the American Southwest. Aznaldua gives Chicanos an ancient homeland and an ancient claim to the U.S.: Chicanos were here long before the waves of immigration and the founding of the New World.

Anzaldua does the same with history, locating Chicanos within Mexican and U.S. history, retelling it in a manner that rings true, as she aligns Chicano history alongside the gaping holes in mainstream U.S. history. She weaves in the iconography of the Aztecs, and traces the loss of the feminine back to the Aztec departure from the American Southwest. In remembering the once all powerful goddess of creation and destruction, who embodied the life/death dualities, Anzaldua reinstates the feminine power and issues a call to Chicanas to create a new culture.

Among all of this, Anzaldua weaves in poetry, quotes, familial and personal anecdotes, and writes in Spanish, English and Nahautl, the Aztec language. She is unapologetic in her use of languages and genres, throwing the reader into the cultural mix of what it means to be of the border.

Borderlands/La Frontera ends high on hope for the future, for the potential of a positive fusion of cultures.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Lourdes Portillo's documentary, Senorita Extraviada

I heard Lourdes Portillo speak about her experience making Senorita Extraviada long before I saw the documentary. What I remembered most clearly from her talk, was how she said that, even 10 years later, she still hadn't been able to shake the horror of Ciudad Juarez from her. At the time, I couldn't understand the weight of what she said, but after seeing her documentary, I did.

In Portillo's beautifully rendered documentary, the fear the reigns Ciudad Juarez came into my livingroom.

Ciudad Juarez lies just across the border from El Paso, Texas and is one of the many border cities that are filled with the desperation and waiting of people trying to cross north and people coming south where they can acquire all that is illicit. Yet Juarez has come to international attention for the hundreds of unsolved femicides. Women's bodies are found in the desert, mutilated, beaten, burned. Senorita Extraviada begins with the horrific narrative of a woman that was taken by a man out to the desert, yet wasn't killed. In the morning he let her go, saying, if he had been someone else, maybe she wouldn't be so lucky. Years later, her daughter's body was found in the desert.

To introduce us into the missing, Portillo films a search through the desert for bodies, describing how groups of people come out every day to search, and will find bodies in places they had searched the day before. She never shows anything graphic, but humanizes the murders by showing the clothes of the girls and repeating a scene of women painting a black cross on a pink background on a telephone pole. In interviews with family members, we see photos of the dead girls, yet someone its the ownerless clothes and crosses on telephone poles that make me feel the loss of the girls more.

Portillo does an excellent job of balancing out the documentary with a combination of interviews with politicians, police, victims and family members as well as including action scenes, such as the one when they're out searching the desert. Her voice overs give the story of her experience in Juarez, summing up how she has come to believe no one except for the families of victims.

She includes several narratives of people who seem to have come in contact with some of the murderers, and their stories only serve to instill more fear into the film.

A powerful documentary, it is now difficult to find, yet, as the murders continue, I wish that it were more well-known and more accessible, if only to raise awareness and spark some movement towards creating an environment in which women weren't hunted.

Friday, August 7, 2009

the artists speak//Chicana/o Biennial at MACLA again

First Fridays are a monthly gallery walk in downtown San Jose. This Friday, I went to Movimiento de Arte y Culturea Latino Americanan (MACLA) to hear the artists of the Chicana/o Biennial speak about their works. For me, hearing the artist's intention and process usually makes the work more meaningful, especially when they use elements with personal connotations or with significances that I am unfamiliar with.

Of the evening, it was Rio Yanez that most impressed me. His piece, Ask a Chola, references a world that I had hardly considered when I originally saw it, and after hearing his explanation, the simple, boldly colored image became my favorite of the night.

Yanez began by telling of how contemporary mythologies interest him, how people can create alter egos that they can become online. I immediately thought of online games like sims, or second life, but what Yanez was talking about was imminently more interesting. He was talking about people who fully develop other selves and lead that life online through videos, images, blogs. Ask a Chola is his "absolute favorite" of online alter egos. Ask a Chola, as she is known, always sports a green bandana tied around her head to cover her face and protect her off-line, real world identity. It was partly this disguise that prompted Yanez to work with her image, "Of all the identities, hers is the most secret. She never performs without her bandanna. Very little is known about her, and her identity is the most mysterious."

As a way of introducing young artists into the mythology that draws him, Yanez is working on a series of Chicanas/os that create alternative identities. To create the portrait of Ask a Chola, Yanez explained how he "based it on a photo that she sent me. To me, it captured a moment of rhapsody." He then photoshopped the image, making it flat, of broad swaths of color and little shadowing, much like a cartoon, while retained some very realistic characteristics. This delicate blend of real and fantastical precisely capture Ask a Chola's online character: she has a blog, does videos in a "Dear Abby" style, but because she is not part of a show, or anything obviously fictional, the unknown persona that has created Ask a Chola hides her own identity, making the division between real and fictional identity palpable.

Yanez didn't just select Ask a Chola for her mysteriousness, though. "I admire her," he said, "I wanted to giver her an image. One of the things that draws me to her is that she is very political and uses humor to address issues."

Yolanda M. Lopez spoke about her piece, Leather Flowers (pictured above), as well. It is a beautifully painted design, with a border of glitter. Again, a piece that I thought was beautiful, but hearing her speak about it and how she came to create it imbued it with a meaning that had previously eluded me.

She based the design on designs that often decorate leather goods that are sold in touristy areas in Tijuana. Having grown up in San Diego, Lopez recounted people asking her about Mexico, but "I don't know about it, except for tourist arts." She recalled Tijuana as having "a lurid reputation, as a playground for sailors." and told about going to Tijuana, then coming back across and always, the tourist shops along the way. "I picked up on tourist art--because, in a way, it is colonist art. Art modified to sell to the dominant culture, whether its in Tijuana or in Navajo Nation or where ever. Its colonist art."

Lopez' painting, however, is not simply a rendition of leather goods, but "a metaphor of being on the road to Aztlan, and what we take on that road. We bring the gifts of our goodwill, but the dominant US culture doesn't understand our gifts."

In his talk, Gustavo Martinez continued this idea of "what we carry with us." His sculpture, Tren del Este, is a ceramic train, built out of ceramic pots and a ferocious head, that comes out of the wall, where he has sketched in the tail and a hint of landscape. The train sits on a narrow wooden trestle.

Inspired by mesoamerican god, and the idea of living in and connected to nature, Martinez included many mesoamerican symbols. He played with the dualism of earth and sky that, in the image of eagle and serpent, have been part of Aztec lore since the original founding of Mexico City as Tenchiltlan, and became an integral part of Chicano imagery. These symbols well stand in for Martinez' intention of a train "leaving and coming back," as Mexican migration north is often considered to be an Aztec return to the homeland, Atlan. By using ancestral symbols, Martinez ties his sculpture to the past, and "made it in vessal form, of containers, to transport ideas, thoughts, stories.

"It comes from ancestral ways-- spirituality, culture--to the present way of being and shows how to move forward with ancestral past."

I question art a lot. For me, significance is important. For that matter, so is beauty, and a carefully crafted piece always stops me in my tracks. But I need art to be functional or to have a meaning, and while I know that in most pieces, I can read whatever meaning I like, and that we all bring our own histories to each work, when I don't have a handle on where the artist started and why, the work often just seems flat. For this reason, going to hear the artists speak gave new depth to several works that I had originally liked visually and I left refreshed.


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.

Friday, July 31, 2009

MexiCali Biennial

I saw the second MexiCali Biennial at La Casa del Tunel in Tijuana. The Biennial includes artists from both sides of the US-Mexican border and aims to create a cross-border dialogue that replicates the fluidity of culture in the border region of southern California and northern Mexico.

This biennial set forth the theme of economics of exchange that underlie all border interactions for the artists to explore. The art works created approach the idea in a variety of ways, some, like, Ryan Lamb's Subsistance Plan for Starving Artists, take it quite literally.

Lamb tongue in cheek installation piece maps out literal transactions alongside the I5. The wall where his piece is, sports a series of small square pieces of wood, each with a painting of an orange on it. A mesh bag hangs from the ceiling, filled with the small paintings and a sign on the wall gives directions for artists to go from buying a bag of oranges on the freeway (sold by immigrants), painting of each orange, to selling each painting for the cost of the bag of oranges. In this piece, Lamb links immigrant labor and artists, noting that neither easily survive in this world.

Ernesto Rosas' documentary, Skateboarder, also looks at literal border exchanges in his interviews of Mexican skateboarders who have immigrated to the US or Canada in the hopes of making their sport their livelihood. Rosas films in Mexico and in California, documenting the dreams of these skateboarders and all the barriers they face. The film jumps back and forth between skaters, between interviews and shots of their skating skills.

The compassionately rendered documentary examines the relationship between the passion these skaters have for their sport and the reality of making a living from it. Though one skater describes skating as a movement art, these skaters have to struggle to make it in any way at all. Rosas also shows the uneven relationship between the U.S. and Mexico through skating: the money and support for the sport is in the U.S., but the skaters don't want to have to leave Mexico to follow their dreams. Some return, and others don't, but at the end of the film, I hoped that some of these skaters would be the forerunners of a successful skating scene in Mexcio.

Pablo H. Cobian drew out a manual, Manual de Como Quemar un Billeto, or, how to burn a bill. In simple pencil outlines, he depicts two hands taking out a bill, holding it, holding a flame to it, then burning it, and the final framed piece is a shriveled, burnt bill.

Michelle Chong made a website, Find Yourself Here, that slideshows through beautiful landscapes--the desert, a forest, mountain scene, waterfalls and beaches--and then stamped phrases across them, borrowed in the language of tourist pamphlets, like "Funville," "Spa Atmosphere," "Be a Local," making the landscapes a commodity. Find Yourself Here reflects the common attitude that Americans have of Mexico, associating it with vacation, beaches and beautiful resorts. For tourism, it is a land for sale.

All of these pieces play with the back and forth movement across the borders, making the border seem insignificant against the fluidity of movement of people, culture, economy.

Casa del Tunel, Tijuana

I haven't been so inspired as I was by Casa del Tunel and its founder, Luis Ituarte, in a long time. Casa del Tunel: Art Center sits just feet away from the border, in a neighborhood of Tijuana called Colonia Federal and is so named for the the tunnel that inhabitants of the building had dug from one corner of the building, under the border and up into the U.S. The tunnel is now filled with cement and the building has be renovated and turned into an art gallery.

Ituarte, a third generation Tijuanese, splits his time between Pasadena, CA and Tijuana. Ituarte took the time last Friday to show me around la Casa, and the neighborhood. He has the most positive understanding of Tijuana that I've yet encounted: "We're living in a really very exciting time. We're really moving from one era into another right now. Tijuana. We have no mother culture to protect; no mother tradition that says you can't do this, you can't do that. There are so many nationalities here, so many people from all over; we can do anything. We have all the potential to create anything."With a perception such as this, no wonder Ituarte aims to do so much with Casa del Tunel.

Casa del Tunel is part of Consejo Fronteriza de Arte y Cultura/the Border Council of Arts and Culture, which has its base in Pasadena. In terms of culture and artistic production, Ituarte sees the entire area of southern California and Baja California Norte as one great, raw region that defies the political border. For this, COFAC aims to support greater cultural and artisitc integration in the area. Casa del Tunel's committments are to support the community at large and the immediate community of Colonia Federal; to address border issues and to be environmentally responisble.

Ituarte would like to see Colonia Federal, an eight block area partitioned off by the Rio Tijuana, the border and by a plaza, become the artistic center of Tijuana and the Casa del Tunel to be its flagship. To this end, he has grafitti artists working with home owners in the area to paint the houses with murals and hosts parties on the soon to be green roof.

Already, Casa del Tunel has hosted cross-border fandangos. From the roof, you can see a parking lot on the U.S. side. Bands or performers set up on the roof of the Casa and play to people on both sides of the border, or play a call and response style to a band on the U.S. side.

Leaving Ituarte and the Casa del Tunel behind as I returned to San Diego, I wished that I lived closer to the border so that I could watch this artist community sprout up. With the raw enery of the city and Ituarte's focus and drive, I have no doubt that in a few years, Tijuana will be more broadly recognized as an artistic center.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A visit with Becky Guttin

Today I had the chance to meet with Becky Guttin at her studio in San Diego. Having just renovated it, she was in the midst of organizing her space in an industrial park, that, with open doors, is filled with natural light and an array of materials, sculptures, photographs, pieces at various stages of progress and a sitting area.

The warm and energetic artist is originally from DF, Mexico, and left with her family after a series of break ins and threatening incidents convinced her that it was time to join her parents in San Diego. She has participated in several international biennials, has her work included in several museum's permanent collections, and exhibited her art around the world.

I asked her about her art and how moving to the U.S. had affected it. I was interested in knowing whether she was always conscious of the nearby border.

In response, she pointed to a small sculpture, a series of metates on a piece of varnished wood, one filled with bits of red tortilla, another with green tortilla and the last one with little metal scraps.

"My pieces are all autobiographical, they are what I experience, what I know, what I feel. When I was living in Mexico, we always have tortillas and I never saw a tortilla in another color than a natural color. Then I was in the U.S. and I saw green tortillas near Saint Patrick's day and red on Valentine's Day, and I kept seeing colored tortillas; I even saw purple at one time.

"Before I start to work, I need to smell and touch and feel this place that I live in and I was looking at all these elements and I decided to make this piece with original metates but with green and red tortillas. I wanted to keep the original elements but with something never in all my life do I see in Mexico.

"In Mexico, a woman makes mesa by hand, but here, it is industrial, so I put in the metal to show the different process. So you see, this piece, it is about migration, about how here in the U.S. you take things and change them, make them something else. I included another element," and she pointed to several bronzed twigs and seed pods that lay on the tablets between the metates, "I wanted to take something natural and make it cold and unnatural."

For Guttin, the border is a nearby contrast of cultures, and with her immigration experience she often sees things that she knew of in Mexico, and then finds them in San Diego with the same fundamental function, but the material changed. She plays with the natural and industrial contrast often in her work, and as she shows me around her studio, her understanding of the two neighboring countries becomes clear. The interesting thing is that her interpretation lacks judgement, that as she weaves together metal and fiber, the natural and industrial elements, she seems to offer a both a clear insight into the character of both countries while allowing for the two to intermingle but never declares that one way is right and the other wrong.

She showed me her "Encyclopedias" next, a series of book shapes made out of crushed metal pipes that are mounted on the wall, orientated as they would be if they were books on a shelf. In the center of each "book," is a space filled by one, two or three sacates, a small bundle of roots folded in half and held around the center with a tie that are used to scrub dishes.

"I rescued from my culture the elements that I remember, but that don't exist here, because everything has become the same. What we use here to scrub with are metal bundles and I didn't want to forget the sacates, that have the same use, but are natural so I use the contrast of the natural with industrial.

"And these, here, I take cocotes, natural plant and then I fuse the inside of it with telephone cable so that again, there is the closeness and contrast of the natural with the industrial."

These gourds are among my favorite pieces of her that I've seen. She takes the dried gourds and slices them so that pieces peel away, almost as if they are flowering, and then fuses metal to the inside, with what looks like a thick layer of beading. Some she mounts on stands, others are large sculptures, taller than she. With the fusion of natural and unnatural, the gourds and metal become something quite different than they were before, even though they retain all their original qualities, much in the way that the contrast and contact of two cultures at the border create something else entirely.

As she talks about the contrast at the border, the theme of home/house or hogar/casa rises, as is natural for any immigrant. "I think about where is my house, what is my home? Is it where I was born, where I plant a tree, where I was educated or raised? Is it where I live today, where my children were born?

"Like me, I am in American today, and there is the same sky above, and you take where you are with you: you are what you are. You carry your culture with you, but what do you carry with you when you leave? you have a suitcase, but what do you take with you?"

She takes me upstairs, to pull a heavy metal box off of a shelf, which originally held her father's paints. "What do you take when you leave? Its horrible, heavy, but I thought, I'm taking this with me. I wouldn't leave this behind." She blows the dust off and then opens it up. Inside she has placed letters and photos; a blouse; telegrams; her Grandmother's address book; her mother's baby booties and any other sentimental object of her family that she wouldn't give up, that she packed and took with her to the U.S.

She pulls another box off of a shelf, this time a beautifully crafted wood box, stained a deep brown. Inside it contains a woven husk mat, punctured with pins that poke straight up. "It is Always Painful," (pictured above) is Guttin's meditation on the difficulties and pain of being a migrant. "Inside, this is a metate, it covers floors in poor areas in Mexico. People do everything they do on them. People sleep, eat on them, children make their homework on them; this is where they make love. But this piece, it is all pins and everything you do there, is painful. It is because it is not easy to move, it is always painful."

In this carefully wrought piece, the simplicity of it reveals the hardship of leaving behind everything you know to go towards an ever unceratain and unstable future. For me, I saw depth of what people risk when they leave their home to try their luck elsewhere.

I mention this, and Guttin replies, "I don't want to send a message--not consciously, I do what I feel, I make what I need to, and whatever people see in them, they do." Near us, in the upstairs loft where Guttin stores many of her older pieces hang several woven sacks, the ones used to package rice. These, though, havel shiny metal strips woven into them. Again, they are the juxtaposition of plant fibers and industrially wrought metal. Guttin leads me back downstairs, to where a photograph hangs on the wall. It is a picture of these same sacks, but on one side, a sack without any metal woven through, the folds of the casually drapped sack resembling hilly terrain. The folds transition across the photograph into sack heavily woven with metal, with terrain in the middle that has some metal woven through. On the photograph, Guttin had mounted small houses that she had made out of metal. On the side with no metal, they have corroded, and are haphazardly placed, while across the way, the houses are shiny and neatly lined up in rows. It is here depiction of the border, but "I am not saying what is nice or not, it is a free lecture [to be interpreted however one wants]. I just do what I need to express, and whatever people can read into it, they can."


becky guttin's website:

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

More images from Chicana/o Biennial

Here are more images from MACLA's Chicana/o Biennial. I wrote about the Biennial and all the pieces here in the previous post, Chicana/o Biennial at MACLA. Enjoy! -Michelle

Ask a Chola, Rio Yanez

untitled, Vivian Paredes

Sun Raid, Ester Hernandez

Citlali, La Chicana Super Hero, Deborah Kuetzpalin Vasquez

Yellow Backpack, Margarita Cabrera

U.S. Triangle, Consuelo Jimenz Underwood

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Chicana/o Biennial at MACLA

Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana has a small gallery in its downtown San Jose location. Every two years the Latin cultural center hosts a juried exhibition on Chicana/o art. Each time, they make an effort to showcase a balance between genders and among artists at various stages of their careers, from emerging to famous in order to watch Chicana/o art evolve from its highly political inception in the 60s.

At this year's Biennial, about half of the pieces were driven by border issues, and many referred to Aztlan, the ancestral land of the Mexica and Maya, and therefore Chicanos, that is now the Southwestern US.

Consuelo Jimenez Underwood most directly drew out the tension between the US and Mexican border and land rights. He made an elongated triangle of a flag, using materials in red, white and blue to mimic the US flag, but embroidered flowers that symbolize different tribes to reference Aztlan. The symbols of the two countries overlay each other in the same space of the triangular flag, mimicking the way the US lies over the same area that Aztlan does. Can the same region be considered different places, different nationalities peacefully? This question about what space political borders carve out versus what people know that space as is not unique to the Mexican-American border tension, however, Underwood's piece artfully carves the tension out that underlies many of the other pieces in the Biennial.

Margarita Cabrea, for instance, created two sculptures that directly deal with the border itself. Nopal with tunas, a large prickely pear cactus made out of Border Patrol uniforms, and set in a terra cotta planter, makes the point that Border Patrol agents--and all the markers of increased surveillance and attempts to make to border impenetrable--are as much a part of the landscape now as are cacti. Cabrea addresses the other side of the border with Yellow Backpack. When would-be immigrants are caught by the Border Patrol, the Patrol takes their belongings from them, often nothing more than a backpack. In this sculpture, Cabrea makes an unsturdy backpack out of thin, gauzy material that is transparent. Inside is a rosary, made--like the other contents spread out on the table--out of a thick, leather-like material. All in all, the backpack contains garlic, a water bottle, a can of tuna, a breast pump, a first aid kit. Each piece is sewn, but the thread isn't tied off, so long strands of thread hang from each of the meager contents, leaving them unfinished. Yellow Backpack reveals what little one can survive on and the desperate hope that drives people to cross the border with no promise that life will be better on the other side. The rosary and breast pump together make the faith that drives women across tangible. A rosary by itself would leave a sort of abstract sense of blind faith, but the addition of the breast pump shows that this nursing mother fully believes that she will be reunited with her baby soon, and is determined to keep lactating as shes crosses over.

With Deborah Kuetzpalin Vasquez's Citali, La Chicana Super Hero, we get a different view of women on the border than the faith of the owner of Yellow Backpack. This print feature a militaristic, defiant woman wearing a bandanna, braids, and bullet belt. She is young, strong and angry, and, in a Kahlo-esque move, holds her heart literally in her hand. Her heart is the center of the piece, its bright red sends the dull background into gloom, and is almost the size of this woman's head. Its vena cava extends back from her hand into the massive hole in her chest. The background features the double wall of the border fence, and a Border Patrol car coming towards her. Across the top, this poster, reminiscent of the highly politicized posters from the 1970's, reads: Nigun ser humano es ilegal (No human being is illegal) and then, in lettering that matches her heart: NO to the Mexican-US Border Wall. Vasquez bypasses any ancestral claim to land to make a her statement simple and powerful. Her message is twofold: that the land belongs to all, everyone should have a chance to move about at their will and that people will always continue to try and cross the border.

Ester Hernandez also made a political poster, but she specifically addressed the results of NAFTA, which went into effect in 1993, and has arguably had positive results for the elite in all three countries and an overall negative effect on Mexican farmers and laborers, as well as having contributed to the increased economic inequality between the US and Mexico. Hernandez's poster, SunRaid, is a recreation of the Sun Made raisin box, but here, against the bright red background, a smiling skeleton dressed in the peasant outfit of the Sun Made maid holds the basket of grapes. The poster claims: "Un-natural harvest of Sun Raid Raisins" and "Hecho en Mexico/Mad in the USA." The power of this poster comes in its framing of an ubiquitous image of a commonly seen food, making the viewer question where does our food come from? Whose hands touch it? How are they treated?

Viviana Paredes also sculpted in response to changes in our food chain; her untitled piece consists of small, blown glass bowels filled with different varieties of dried corn kernels and then mounted on a long piece of wood. One origin myth of Mexicans is that people were born from corn, indeed, corn was a wildly cultivated staple crop of the Americas, pounded into mesa, from which tortillas are made. In the past twenty years, genetically modified corn has cross pollinated with the heirloom strains of corn. By placing corn kernels behind glass, Paredes interjects the possibility that these varietals may be completely replaced by the genetically modified corn.


Friday, June 26, 2009

Images from Cerca de la Cerca

Cerca de la Cerca, a photography exhibition by Maria Teresa Fernandez, showed at USC earlier this year. I blogged about it in April. Fernandez recently sent me some photographs to include. Enjoy!

Children from Tijuana looking across the border
Caressing her Grandson
Banner: Crosses on the US Map
Alter for Day of the Dead
Three Fences--Friendship Park is Closed
Two Crosses with Offerings of Flowers
Immigrants waiting to cross

Notes from Maria Teresa Fernandez

Since viewing Maria Teresa Fernandez's photo exhibit, Cerca de la Cerca, we've been trading e-mails, she has shared some of her thoughts on her work and her experiences.

Fernandez grew up in San Luis Potsi, Mexico, but now lives in San Diego, where the border fence looms large for her. She has photographed it from both sides, and documented its transformation from a single fence to a heavily guarded, well-lit dual walls. She immigrated to San Diego with her family in 1991, and from that date, she has never ceased to tell her children that they must value the huge opportunity that they had and to try to keep the best of both worlds in their lives.

Fernandez has studies Art History as well as photography and has shown her work in Oaxaca., Gudalajara, Mexicali, Tijuana, San Diego, L.A., and New York, among others.

In the small town that she grew up in, Fenandez was aware of the natural borders of the surrounding desert and imposing mountains, yet was always aware of how people's imaginations went far beyond these geographical limits. In the same way, when she encountered the man-made border that divides the U.S. from Mexico, she saw how it traverses across the lives of people living on the border, and was intrigued with how inhabitants have turned the southern side into a canvass upon which they can paint their hopes, dreams, despairs and angers.

For Fernandez, photography gives her a way to describe through light and color, and she began to photograph the border fence in 2000, inspired by the necessarily creative way of life of Tijuana inhabitants. She photographed houses made of materials discarded by North Americans and maquiladoras, and discovered homes made of refrigerator doors, garage doors, aluminum siding, old cartons, tires, packaging, and whatever else could be salvaged to create walls and roofs.

Fernandez began this project in black and white, which resulted in very dramatic artistic shots, but she soon realized that she needed to work in color, if she wanted to show the depth of color, the variety of textures and the subtle differences from one material to the next in the construction materials of the houses. She also decided to work in color when she began documenting the artist works being constructed on the border wall, as well as to distinguish between the different paints peeling off the fence and the general disintegration of the wall: the corrosion, the oxidation, the yellowing color that is, to Fernandez, the very color of Tijuana earth that, at some points, covered the fence. In these places, the fence seemed to become a part of the earth, mixed in with the land as if it were only a simple scar.

This has changed in the past years as U.S. national security has increased, but Fernandez has continued her work documenting the the reconstruction and installation of a new wall across the Tijuana-San Diego border. "This double fence is a profanity to the countryside, it has changed the way people think: without respect to nature of the most difficult and dangerous goal of would-be immigrants. In a certain manner, the fence has been successful. Each day I encounter people who wish to cross, not only those from the south, but those who have been deported for their efforts to cross. I always feel a great affinity to each person. I share what they feel and it makes me very sad that I have no power to do anything for them. In seeing them close to the fence, shadowed by it, waiting for the opportune moment to cross, I think on each individual history, and what they have left behind in their town or city.

"Migration is a natural phenomena, and it has been converted into a huge problem in many countries in the world. We need to understand the situation and the powerful countries need to give a hand to those that need it: everybody needs to help out everybody.

"And this is how nine years of following both projects have gone, always giving me more information to continue with them. Both projects grow and develop, reproducing and I hope that over all of the fence, I am able to document its fall and to watch it die."

Playa de Tijuana

Thursday, June 18, 2009


BorderOUT, a collaborative of queer immigrant artists, performed at SOMArts as part of the National Queer Arts Festival. Collectively, the serise of individual performances challenged the constraints of the traditions and cultures that these immigrants carried into the US. While some of the performances were original works and others were traditional, each of them questioned both how to break open the restraints of the original culture while honoring it, and remake the traditions into something new.

Maria Machetes, a singer from Uruapan, Mexico, sang Los Mandados, a ranchera famously sung by Vicent Fernandez. Los Mandados tells the story of a Mexican migrant that keeps attempting to cross the border, getting caught by la migra and sent back to Mexico. The song honors many of the famous crossing points and paired cities that straddle the border and the tenacious spirit of the migrant.

Machetes sang a cappella, in front of a screening of an International Workers' Day protest march that took place earlier this year in San Francisco. The march brought the lyrics, which ran in English translation along the bottom of the screen, to life by humanizing the people that attempt to cross the border and the workers that do make it across.

Machetes used the sheer range of her voice to imbue Los Mandados with the desperate struggle metered by tenacious hope of migrants.

While Machetes kept her performance to the border crossing, other artists played more with the intangible borders of culture, gender and sexual identity.

Colombian Soul performed a folkloric scene in which the men and women have clearly defined roles and dress. In the BorderOUT rendition though, some men dressed as women and played the female roles and women as men, playing their roles. It gave the sense that the individuals chose the roles that they would like to play. By doing this, Colombian Soul clearly challenged traditional gender roles even while performing traditionally.

Las Krudas Cubensi do in real life what Colombian Soul did onstage. These female hiphop artists could hardly find an audience in the male-dominated Cuban music scene but have a strong following here. The trio have taken many of the staple traditions of rap, hophop and reaggaeton and made them their own. One of the most successful acts of the nights, Las Krudas brought the audience to its feet with their infectious energy.


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

For the Mesa Eleven

Beginning on February 2, 2009, when a woman found a bone sticking out of the ground on a mesa in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the remains of women keep being found. As of yet, no one has come to any answers about how many women were killed, why these women were killed and how they came to be buried in the desert.

Mica Valdez, an Oakland based writer, remembers the women with her poem, ¨Take these Flowers.¨

half circle brick wall Albuquerque sky

              red headbands tied around foreheads

            color of life

      childhood teddy bears gold

      cardboard framed photos

      with marker

      plastic pink flowers shake


      stinging wet eyes

      tears fall

        down lined red-earth cheeks

        a father wearing flannel long sleeve mourns

        behind black mirrors

            smoking copal rises

              from lacquer stone

      boy blows conch toward Las Sandias

        names are called out

      Michelle Valdez

      Cinnamon Elk

            eleven lost Indias

      found in the desert Mesa

        prayer songs and petals lift up and around

          Recibe estas flores

          Con gusto y anhelo

          que son escalones

que llegan al cielo

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Jumping Fences

Papo Colo spent a year jumping fences and photographing his transgressions. Galeria de la Raza and Exit Art (of NYC) bring his lyrical and photography exhibition, Jumping the Fences, to San Francisco.

In jumping fences, Colo brings out the dualities of borders and fences. Fences are ubiquitous, whether in rural or urban locations, to the point that we hardly think on them. In Jumping the Fences, though, the nature of them becomes clear, that they keep out and keep in; protect and isolate; divide and unify. Jumping a fence is a transgression, one made all the more clear by Colo, who masks himself in each of his jumps. With his face hidden, he becomes anonymous, one of any number of people who don´t belong climbing over a fence, who, by doing so, undermines why the fence is there: the mark off property, to keep people out according to the discretion of the owner.

Even though each photo captures essentially the same image: a masked man climbing over a fence, the images are all drastically different in lighting, background, setting. They capture different phases of climbing and jumping, from hoisting himself up, hauling himself over, to jumping off, vaulting over, climbing up or descending. The foist is the same, each works to undermine the point of these fences, subverting their authority to say, ¨keep out.¨

In each image, from a myriad of locations around the world, the fence or wall is always angular, a rectangular form in contrast to which Colo´s body bends and morphs from one position to another. The malleable, movable body over the inertia of the walls revels in its empowerment in these photographs. There is not much the walls can do to stop anyone from climbing them.

This empowerment is exactly what Colo catches in the poetry paired with the images and action of jumping fences. It is not poetry that clamors to get over or despairs at being locked down on one side, but is full of possibility, and the discovery of freedom and potential in himself.

March 07:

To jump is to understand the impossible
maintaing myself in nothingness
the space that you break
is the air you pass through
in that instant you understand freedom

Colo´s project had him jumping fences around the world, passing through borders and always unlimiting himself by penetrating boundaries and his poetry reflects the potential imbued in movement and transgression: ¨me and my body jumping/inside any freedom possible¨(Feb 07). Colo surmounts staid impossibility with the possibility of movement.

Papo Colo, Jumping the Fences at Galeria de la Raza, 2857 24th St, San Francisco, Ca 94110 April 18, 2009 through May 31, 2009

Monday, April 13, 2009

Cerca de la Cerca

In Cerca de la Cerca, the border fence that divides Mexico and the United States is at the center. Maria Teresa Fernandez, a Mexican photographer now living in San Diego, photographed the fence over. Through her work, the function of the fence in people's lives becomes clear: its a obstacle to overcome to those for whom the American Dream pulls at; an ever more fortified barrier to stanch the flow of people coming in; a divider of people.

At UCSC, Cerca de la Cerca exhibition covers the walls of two rooms. Fernandez has been careful to capture all aspects of the fence, and organized the exhibition accordingly.

The first groupings of untitled photographs capture the fence alone: first as a long corroded metal fence that extends into the Pacific ocean, a close up of the corrosion of the fence and through a hole in it, a landscape of San Diego to the other side, and then a series of images in which it is unclear from which side we look over or through or at the fence from, but in each, the texture and colors of metal striping away are tangible.

With the introduction of heightened surveillance to reduce border crossings with Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, migrants have been forced to cross the border through the harsh desert to the east and many more people die in their attempt. In response, along the Mexican side of the border fence, alters crop up like nightmarish blooms. The alters are made in the tradition of Dia de los Muertos alters, yet these are replenished year round. They yearn for the missing and gone, or list the dead found and never identified, they commemorate those who have died and seem to beg the fence itself for relief. In these alters, the struggle, the tragedy, the hope and desperation and powerlessness literally hang off the fence in alters colored like celebration. These photographs explode with brilliant colors and are full of roses, marigolds, giant tissue paper flowers and wreaths.

Murals intersperse the alters along the southern side of the border fence. This art encourages people across, with statements like, "Bienvenidos al sueno americana" or painted silhouettes of men climbing over, even while others make a clear statement to the death threat the new wall is to those who would cross over. Painted blood seeps across a landscape in one mural; in another, Death stands at a gate between the US and Mexico.

It appears that people live right up alongside the border fence in Mexico: it is a barrier to turn into a weeping wall, a protest wall, a wall to hang your hopes and anger and desperation on, yes, but Fernandez has also presented images of trash blown up in piles along the wall and towns that abruptly stop in the presence of the wall. The collection of images from the Mexican side of the border reveal a vitality that is hemmed in only physically by the fence.

In contrast, the images of the U.S. side of the border fence are spare. Urban development can be seen in the distance, but they stop well north of the fence. The hilly, arid terrain stops shy of the second barrier fence by a dirt road that runs along the fence. In one photograph, the double fence, outfitted with spotlights and lookout towers, seem to race along the curving landscape.

After establishing the lay of the land, Fernandez introduces the people that live on and near the border and reveals the delicate nature of the relationships that often straddle the border. Before Friendship Park (in San Diego, a point where people could visit across the border fence) was closed down, Fernandez photographed a series of meetings. In one, family and friends picnic, but they sit separated by the fence, and talk through slats. In another, a father and daughter visit their family, who are obscured by the fence. People kiss, children are lifted through, adults reach their hands through to touch the people on the other side. In this series, the sacrifices that people make to cross the border reveal the intensity of the desire to try and make a better life.

Against this, Fernandez posits the U.S. Military personnel patrolling the border. The men are completely outfited with goggles, helmets vests and guns as they work to shore up the permeability of the fence. At work, these men give U.S. policy an unforgiving and inflexible face, especially when the next grouping of images are of people climbing over the fence. One man uses and alter as a ladder and carries little else but the ragged shirt and pants he wears. He is no threat to the Border Patrol.

With Cerca de la Cerca, Fernandez highlights the permeability and mortality of the fence by focusing on the corroded holes and barnacles growing on it and then mirroring this disintegration in the photographs of Mexican murals depicting men tearing down the fence. She creates compassion and humanity on the Mexican side of the fence, while making out the US side to be desolate, a effect heightened by the brilliant colors of the fence art against the drab military colors of both the uniforms and land of the US.

Alejandro Murguia

Alejendro Murgia is a master storyteller. An invited speaker at May´s Lunada, Murgia hid out in a far corner of the galeria until he was called onstage.

He walked to the front carrying stacks of papers and a thick book, then put them down, saying, "But I´m not going to do that; I'm going to see what's in the jukebox," meaning, see what bubbles up in his memory.

He kept his audience completely enchanted and engaged throughout his performance by staying unpredictable--following a war story with love poetry, singing verses or adding a percusive beat to his poetry. It shouldn't be suprising how easily Murguia captivated his audience--from teaching Raza studies at SF State, he has a committed following, and the audience was filled with many of his students. Murguia has a rich history from which to draw from as well. California born and Mexico City raised, the chicano writer helped define the begining of the Chicano movement in the 1970s. He volunteered during the Nicaraguan Revolution in 1979 and was a founder and original director of the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts. Through it all, he has been writing, so you see, when he says, lets see what's in the jukebox, there's a lot there to be pulled up.

Murguia began by recounting the time he spent two days hiking to Che Guevara's camp and of the huge fogata he and his friends had the night the he saw Che's desk, a moment that inspired the first poem he shared with us, "There is no Santo on my alter." In a deep, rough voice, Murguia told his poem as if in conversation with Guevara himself, says that Guevara was "right about love and revolution/ and wrong about everything else." The power of Murguia's spoken poetry is that he doesn't recite; he tells it fresh, as if the poem at that instant of telling, welled up from some deep spring within him. With "Tango Roto," Murguia added percusive beats in, using his heels, clicking his tongue, blending the sounds into his lyrical tale to give it dimension.

Recently, Murguia re-encountered Mexican postcards from the 1920s, and is working on two new works, The Violent Lense: Photo Postcards of the Mexican Revolution and A Little Bit of Mexico: A Story Told in Postcards. He brought some postcards with him to La Galeria and shared them with us, and how postcards hold a bit of history.

At times he threw the minibooks (two inch squares containing a single poem each) out into the audience and finished off with a reading from one of them, "16th and Valencia:"

I saw Jack Michelie reciting Skinny Dynamite
on the corner of 16th / Valencia
and he was angry
and the next day he was dead on the last BART train to Concord
and maybe that´s why he was angry
I met Harold Norse shuffling around in a beaten world
his pockets stuffed with poems only hipsters read
It´s a cesspool out here he sighed
before retreating to hi room in the Albion Hotel
where angels honeycomb the walls with dreams
and the rent is paid with angry poems
I heard Oscar Zeta Acosta´s brown buffalo footsteps
pounding the Valencia Corridor
and he was shouting poetry at the sick junkies
nodding with their wasted whores
in the lobby of the Hotel Royan ¨The Mission´s finest¨
and even the furniture was angry
I joined the waiters at the bus stop
the waitresses the norteƱos trios the flowers sellers
the blind guitarist wailing boleros at a purple sky
the shirtless vagrant vagabond ranting at a parking meter
the spray paint visionary setting fire to the word
and I knew this was the last call
We were tired of livign from the scraps of others
We were tired of dying for our own chunk of nothing
And I saw this barrio as a Freight train
a crazy Mexican bus careening out of control
a mutiny aboard a battleship
and every porthole filled with angrer
And we were going to stay angry
And we were not leavign
Not ever leaving
El corazon del corazon de La Mision
El Camino Real ends here
-Alejandro Murguia

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Interview with Ana Teresa Fernandez

I sat down recently with Ana Teresa Fernandez to talk to her about her art. An excerpt of the interview follows.

MW: Have you always been artistic?
AF: It chose me, then I chose it. I started with sculpture in community college, and I liked it, and then the San Francisco Art Institute came down to San Diego, recruiting, and I went by but I didn't know to bring a portfolio or anything, I just came with snapshots of my work and they (the SF Art Inst. recruiters) looked at me like I was crazy. I paint mostly, but I returned to sculpture for Ecdisis.
MW: What inspired you to make Ecdisis?
AF: I like things that straddle, that aren't one or the other or have properties of one thing. I'm drawn to that--I don't consciously choose that. Like in Ecdisis, I used glass because its beautiful and dangerous. It could be right or it could be wrong, depending on perspective.
Like how people choose to see women, either whorish or sexy, mother or pure. Why can't we be it all? I've been working with the tango (in her painting) for a few years, painting women in this very erotic dance, and sexy dresses but doing ordinary chores. I'll keep doing it until the conflict stops for me.
MW: You spent time in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico when you were preparing to make Ecdisis. Are people there on edge all the time?
AF: You have this heightened awareness--the women tell me that they are always expecting something to happen, but you still have to live.
I lived in San Diego and I'd go to Tijuana and party over the border. I was always aware of it, but you live with it and just hope that it doesn't happen to you even though its always happening near you.
MW: How was it growing up straddling the border like that?
AF: I had friends in Tijuana, I went back and forth, I went to Tijuana to socialize. But your language merges into this weird weaving of words and expressions. Thats just a global border thing, though.
MW: Tell me about your painting.
AF: I am constantly reminded of gender. If I paint a female figure, I'm immediately thrown into women's shows, called a feminist. If men paint themselves, they're not immediately called macho, but women--she is always called feminist.

I keep humor in my work. The work takes itself seriously, the hangling of pain is serious.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Border Film Project, organized by Brett Huneycutt, Victoria Criado and Rudy Adler, three Southwesterners obsessed with border issues and the problem of portraying the border in a new light, passed out disposable cameras to migrants on the Mexican side and minute men on the U.S. side. They then took the photos from the cameras they recieved back and created slide shows on their website,

Though the three began the project in 2005, the collection of images remain quite relevant today. As the economy remains unstable, and migrants continue to pass over, Americans continue to fret about the effect of illegals on job opportunities. The escalating drug wars, fought largely on the Mexican side, raise concerns of violence following migrants over the border. Increased border control in California and Texas has changed the stakes of migrating across, diverting foot traffic around and through the more trecherous terrain of Arizona/Sonora desert region.

The Broder Film Project provides a intimate perspective of both Minute Men and migrants, personalizing hotly debated topics. The cameras came in from many different journies and experiences that had nothing to do with each other, and the array of images resist order. Each photograph provides a glimpse into the transitory life across--a picture of brutally bruised and blistered feet, say, or of several people resting in the underbrush. What is striking is how very little migrants carry across, and how: in bags tied with twine, fastened across shoulders with ropes, or in small day packs. They carry so little with them, crossing makeshift bridges and rickety trestles, pushing through the thick brush at night, rolling under barbed wire fences and waiting along the bleak side of the road, that it become undeniably apparent that they carry more hope than anything else with them.

The terrain figures highly in each set of photographs, fitting, as the geography determines these peoples' lives. The land is rugged, and even in the minimal abilities of disposable cameras, the broad expanse of wild land is clear. The violent beauty of the land and sky come through in both sets of photos, giving a dramatic backdrop against which the border drama plays out.

The minute men's photos are stationary in comparassion to the migrants. The photos show established posts, whether seated beneath trees, being a look out from a high boulder, makeshift outposts, or along the side of the road, they are waiting for the migrants to come through.

The Project's beauty lies in the simplicity of photographs, illustrating the unimaginable daily life of people along the border so lending an intimacy to a debate that is more often than not about numbers, not people.


Sunday, February 1, 2009

Art to bring about change

Lourdes Portillo recently came to at Galeria de la Raza in San Francisco to discuss the power of art, her creative process and her experiences in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, MX.

Portillo, a writer, director, producer, began her journey to making Senorita Extraviada (Missing Young Woman) when she came across an article about murdered women in Juarez over 20 years ago. She was struck by how the women were "stabbed casually and dismissed readily." Having spent time in Juarez, the tragic situation captured her attention: how is it, she asks, that women can disappear and no one knows to where?

She went as a documentarian to begin investigating making a film, which became a long and harrowing experience because, as she says, "It is difficult to make art out of tragedy, because you can't make representational film because people don't want to see dead bodies. They don't want to see the horror of it, so I made a lyrical film so people can feel it, and dream."

In order to choose elements of the film, Lourdes "understood that people didn't know, that there was no solution nor blame, but there were many givens. I knew that I needed to do a film where the audience would need to rest, to digest the product. Film is a powerful medium; I need to be careful with how I presented it--people can't stand horror.

"My idea was to evoke a passion so that you will act; that you will go forward and make change...that you will open your heart to bring about a little bit of change. At least, at the very least, awareness."

Lourdes Portillo's website:

Ecdisis at Galeria de la Raza

Ana Teresa Fernadez recently exhibited Ecdisis at Galeria de la Raza in San Francisco's Mission District. Ecdisis was an overwhelmingly forlorn exhibition; the gallery space was largely left open, and the walls, bare, except for one, which she covered in lush red velvet and then hung with milagros (literally, miracles, but milagro also refers to charm-like offerings to a particular saint to keep the petitioner's need in mind) all over it.

Fernandez began Ecdisis to respond to the murders and continued disappearances of the women of Ciudad Juarez, the border town that sits opposite El Paso, Texas, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. After spending time in Juarez, Fernandez wanted not to replicate the continuing atrocities there, but to create something alluring. For her subject, she chose the orphans left behind.

Fernandez worked with orphaned girls both in San Francsico and Juarez to create her exhibition. She first made plaster casts of their bodies from which she made a mold to cast the final resin form of the sculptures. While the resin was still soft, Fernandez she pressed broken glass into the forms of the girls, delineating the fall of hair and folds of their clothes. She chose to use broken glass because she wanted to use something from the urban environment from where these girls come from, where broken glass lines the streets. "I let the terrain influence my work. There is a beauty and preciousness of glass but it is untouchable...I wanted to give the girls protection," Fernandez said.

The resulting figures are untouchable, but less from the sharp edges of the broken glass than the ethereal quality given them by the backlighting that light up their little bodies and reflect off the shards of glass. Fernandez situated the glowing figures around the gallery so that each seemed very much alone. In the end, the figures seem like the loneliest angelitas ever.