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Art at an international border is inherently political.
Much of it — the stuff people remember anyway — is outright protest art that boldly tackles themes like immigration, human rights and binational policies.
Even the fence itself has become a canvas for powerful paintings and installations, but other border art uses the wall and the people who cross it as a concept, creating performance pieces or other multimedia works meant to challenge perceptions of it.
Regardless of your politics, border art provokes strong emotional reactions.
There’s been an uptick in border art now that President Donald Trump is in office. His plans to build a wall and step up immigration enforcement has brought the U.S.-Mexico border back into sharp focus.
With so much attention on the border right now, it’s worth taking a quick look at some of the art that’s attempted to tackle the prickly issues surrounding it. In no particular order, here are 20 instances of gutsy, often controversial art that has explored the border.
The Border Battle Made Visceral
Wheeling a giant Trojan Horse sculpture through the lines of traffic at the busy San Ysidro Port of Entry is an act of politically charged border art that isn’t easy to forget. In 1997, Tijuana artist Marcos Ramírez Erre navigated a 33-foot, two-headed wooden horse sculpture through vehicle traffic at the border, eventually parking it so it straddled the international border.
The piece, “Toy-an Horse,” quickly became an iconic and visceral image of immigration. The work was commissioned by inSite, an ambitious but now defunct art project that happened five times between 1992 and 2005.
More recently in 2014, Erre teamed up with photographer David Taylor and installed 47 obelisks along the historical 1821 border that was drawn up in a treaty between Mexico and the United States. It, and a resulting museum exhibition, serve as a reminder that the international border has itself evolved over time.
For Full Impact, Use a Cannon
I will never, ever forget witnessing a man climb into a cannon in Tijuana and get shot over the border fence into a net set up in the U.S. The human cannonball stunt was actually an art piece called “One Flew Over the Void,” the brainchild of Venezuelan artist Javier Téllez. His defiant act intended to bring attention to the hardships faced by many Mexicans and Central Americans who cross the border illegally in search of work and a better life.
Téllez was also commissioned by inSite, which produced dozens of interesting site-specific public art projects in the San Diego-Tijuana border region, but the cannonball and Erre’s horse are the two most memorable.
What Ginormous Border Fence?
Ana Teresa Fernández’s piece “Erasing the Border” cleverly makes the border fence look like it’s disappearing.
Using paint to match the landscape, she creates an optical illusion that makes it seem from a distance that a portion of the fence has vanished. Fernández has painted away chunks of the San Diego-Tijuana fence and portions of the wall in other border regions. When she paints the fence, she wears dresses and high heels to bring attention to the millions of ladies whose lives have been affected by the international border.
Border Art You Can Use to Survive
How do you get commentators like Glenn Beck to pay attention to art? Make something like the Transborder Immigrant Tool, a cell phone equipped with navigational software meant to help people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border find water.
Created by a group of professors and lecturers at UC San Diego, the Transborder Immigrant Tool also came loaded with poetry, which helped plant the piece more firmly in the art world. The artists behind the piece — Micha Cárdenas, Amy Sara Carroll, Ricardo Dominguez, Elle Mehrmand and Brett Stalbaum — made prototypes of it in 2007, but years later Vice and other big media outlets got wind of the story and it went viral, causing a backlash that led UCSD to launch an investigation into whether public money was used to aid illegal immigration. The investigation found no wrongdoing.
Money for Border Jumpers
Perhaps the most controversial border art ever was “Art Rebate,” a performance piece in which artists Elizabeth Sisco, Louis Hock and David Avalos handed out $10 bills to undocumented immigrants who’d just crossed the border.
Former San Diego Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham led the Republican outrage over the act, and the backlash caused the National Endowment for the Arts to pull its funding.
Promoting the No-Border Vibe
There have been many artistic interpretations over the years of the traffic sign that warns freeway drivers to look out for immigrants running across the freeway. But for San Diegans, one of the most iconic images was by artists Perry Vasquez and Victor Payan. The duo’s “Keep on Crossin’” image was printed on thousands of posters and made into small, cheap ceramic sculptures like the ones you find in the shape of Sponge Bob and other pop culture characters at the border.
Deportees Phone Home
When I lived in Tijuana, I rented an apartment down the hall from the now-closed Lui Velazquez Gallery, an experimental art space run by UCSD students. Our building was steps away from where deportees got dropped off, so those of us who lived there often encountered bewildered-looking people, many who asked passersby for money so they could call family or friends in Mexico. The Lui Velazquez crew at the time wanted to help draw attention to the problem, so they launched an art project called “Freephone” and temporarily installed a phone that recently deported immigrants could use for free.
Repurposing the Fence
Last year, Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar ripped off metal from the actual border fence and reshaped it into a ladder. The artist then installed the ladder in Juarez, Mexico, within view of the border. He’s called the piece a “monument to the global issue of migration” and a direct response to Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric.
Art at the Front Line
Launched last year, AMBOS, which stands for Art Made Between Opposite Sides, is an art project that uses one of the vacant storefronts in the middle of the lines of traffic on the Tijuana side of the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Artists from Mexico and the U.S. use the store as an art space to show films, art exhibitions and other events to demonstrate a “greater sense of interconnectedness in the border region” while also documenting the border’s artisan marketplace, which is scheduled for demolition.
Friendship Park as a Canvas
Daniel Watman and the Friends of Friendship Park might not think of themselves as artists, but they should. Over the years, the coalition has organized many events like kite-flying, yoga and singing that happen simultaneously at Friendship Park, an Imperial Beach park along the border fence, and across the fence in Playas de Tijuana. It’s hard not to see the poetic gestures of these binational events.
Friendship Park and Playas de Tijuana have served as the backdrop for many temporary, ephemeral instances of border art. Artists who are part of San Diego’s Public Address collective, including Debby Kline, Larry Kline, Robin, Nicki Sucec Grenier, Gerda Govine, Luis Ituarte, Wick Alexander, Petar Perisic and others once built tank sculptures they could fit into, then took them to Friendship Park for a spin.
Cruising the Line
Cognate Collective once turned a Chevy station wagon into a piece of performance art. The group drove the artsy car through the traffic at the San Ysidro Port of Entry while broadcasting live on 87.9 FM a discussion of the 20-year anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement, human rights and other border-related topics.
Cognate Collective has also used a storefront in the artisan market on the Tijuana side of the San Ysidro Port of Entry as an experimental arts space to foster binational cultural collaborations.
Conferring With Art
The Political Equator project, organized by Teddy Cruz, Oscar Romo and Andrea Skorepa, is part art, part mobile conference that takes attendees to locations on both sides of the border, educating them about border issues along the way. At one of the past Political Equator events, people were taken from San Diego to Tijuana through a culvert at Smuggler’s Gulch, a canyon near the border fence.
The Politics of Border Fashion
Ten artists in San Diego and 10 artists in Tijuana created original T-shirt designs that were printed just twice. The two identical T-shirts were then displayed at The Front gallery in San Ysidro and La Casa del Tunel Gallery in Tijuana as part of a past Art San Diego Contemporary Art Fair. The shirts were auctioned off simultaneously on each side of the border at events connected via a live video broadcast. Called “Twins in Twain,” the project was spearheaded by San Diego artist and filmmaker Omar Lopex to remind people of the importance of binational commerce and connections.
A Door at the Border
Way back in 1988, artist Richard Lou mounted a door at the U.S.-Mexico border near the Tijuana International Airport. Save for a broken-down barbed-wire fence, there wasn’t much of a border wall at the time, but the symbol was still powerful and provocative.
Art About Border Artists
Photographer Stefan Falke has for years been photographing dozens of artists who live and work along the U.S.-Mexico border. Recently, his photos were blown up, printed on banners and hung at the border crossing in San Ysidro.
Setting the Standard for Border Art
Border Art Workshops, a group of mostly San Diego-based artists including David Avalos, Victor Ochoa and Guillermo Gómez-Peña did many border art projects — too many to mention here. The group is even credited with making border work a recognized art genre. Here’s a shot of one of the group’s “Border Actions” that happened at Border Field State Park and Playas de Tijuana in 1985. Two of the group’s founders even held their wedding at the border.
A Big Binational Balloon
Magpie Collective holds participatory workshops and enrolls the help of the community in making their art. The collective, made up of artists Tae Hwang and MR Barnadas, is currently working on “Globos,” in which they’ve been building giant balloons with the help of folks who attend their workshops in Tijuana and San Diego. The project will end with the launch of the balloons from both Tijuana and San Ysidro this spring.
Notes From Two Nations
Separated by the border fence, musicians from the San Diego Symphony and La Orquesta de Baja California once held a joint concert at Friendship Park on the U.S. side and Playas de Tijuana in Mexico.
A Photographic Guide to Crossing
Photographer and educator Paul Turounet made a migrant safety guide book using his photos and text and illustrations by Tim Schafer. It was designed as a safety guide for people crossing the border illegally.
An Epic Painting Project
This article was originally published on Voice of San Diego.
Top image: Ana Teresa Fernandez, "Erasing the Border," 2016. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco