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.