Tapestries that mend the divisions between Mexico and the United States

Installation view of Craftsmanship and care at the Museum of Arts and Design with “Crafta Weave” (2015) centered (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

There is already a wall along the border between the United States and Mexico. It stretches about 580 miles from El Paso, Texas to the Pacific Ocean at Tijuana, where the watershed line between nations is patrolled by military boats. Yet this barrier is rarely mentioned in American news or national conversations about immigration. After all, it’s easy to forget anything that isn’t part of everyday life, even a wall. Out of sight, out of mind.

But for Tanya Aguiñiga, this wall was never far from sight and therefore the border was always present. As a child, she went from the brightly colored crafts of Tijuana’s markets to the cold, industrial minimalism of San Diego on her way to school. As an artist, activist and designer, Aguiñiga continues to cross this boundary both physically and through her practice. In doing so, she became like the shuttle of a loom, weaving together on either side of a rented piece of land. Craftsmanship and carecurrently on display at the Museum of Arts and Design, showcases the work that results from a lifetime of creating a tapestry from broken threads.

Written in bold black letters on the stairs leading to the exhibition’s second-floor gallery, visitors are confronted with antipodal sets of questions alternately posed to privileged citizens of the developed world and migrants from the global south.

View of the staircase, part of the exhibition Craftsmanship and care (all photos by Jenna Bascom and courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design, unless otherwise noted)

The first set of stairs asks questions such as “What is the purpose of your journey?” This archetypal inquiry elicits at least two typical responses, both steeped in wealth and privilege: business or pleasure. Often asked of those arriving from Mexico and Central America when they arrive at the United States border, the questions on the second staircase take on a much more interrogative tone: “Has anyone in your family been convicted or committed a crime?” and “Have you ever belonged to a political or social group?”

Juxtaposed, these questions shed light on the different ways in which members of opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum experience crossing borders. For the privileged, it’s the small annoyances of security lines and delayed planes, offset by the certainty that you’re free to roam both the cabin and the world. For members from the Global South, breaking, climbing and digging are inherent in the business, as are the possibilities of failure, detention and death.

Once in the gallery, the cold black is replaced by bold pinks, deep blues, bright whites and soft grays. The effect is intentionally shocking, as Aguiñiga notes: “I wanted people to understand that they were entering a different space and to be open to receiving this information.”

Indeed, the information presented is not always easy to digest. “Border Quipu / Quipu Fronterizo” (2016-2018) for example, contains the harsh realities of borders in surprisingly vibrant hues. To create this participatory artwork, Aguiñiga and her team walked from car to car through 18 border checkpoints in California, Arizona and Texas, inviting passengers to tie a knot in recycled bikinis and suspenders. clothing as proof of their crossing.

The result is a curved row of textiles that descends from the ceiling in flexible columns. Using the quipu, an ancient Andean form of measuring time, each knot represents an individual experience and each textile the amalgamation of hours and days spent traversing the liminal space that exists at border crossings between the United States and Mexico.

Detailed view of “Border Quipu / Quipu Fronterizo” by Tanya Aguiñiga (2016-2018)

Participants were also invited to share their experiences on the border in postcards that often express the boredom, melancholy and fear associated with transitioning from one state to another. Together, these elements form a larger project called “Art Made Between Opposite Sides”, AMBOS (2016-present). This ongoing project is an effort to document and express the emotions and trauma aroused by the repeated act of being searched and questioning one’s identity when crossing national borders.

Occupying the entire back wall of the gallery, “Crafta Weave” (2015) refers to another type of border crossing — that of goods and capital. Comprised of 75 deconstructed serapes loosely woven with the neon hues of cheap beach towels and blankets, the work blends organic and manufactured tones, plush and rough textures, traditional and commercial design. Although all of the textiles used in this work were purchased from markets on the Tijuana side of the San Ysidro port of entry, none were made in Mexico. Instead, the basic materials of “Crafta” were made in China.

As such, “Crafta Weave” becomes “a commentary on the goods that are sold at the border” as Aguiñiga puts it, and “the infiltration of globalization into the world of traditional crafts and art” . It is also a record of the continued separation of objects from their history. In Aguiñiga’s words, the meanings of these handcrafted works are “lost in translation”, when they are produced by machine rather than by hand. Thus, these objects supposed to function as signifiers of a rich tradition rather become the proof of its absence.

Detailed view of “Crafta Weave” by Tanya Aguiñiga (2015)

The pain of breaking up is also explored in Aguiñiga’s performance piece “Grapple” (2018) documented on video. Dressed in a raw linen shirt, Aguiñiga wraps her body around the iron pillars of the border that jut out from the sand at the edge of the ocean and stretch beyond the camera frame, signaling that even the sky is Split. The tide rises and falls, the sun goes down. Aguiñiga shivers as she continues to cling to the border. Displayed alongside the video, the shirt she wears throughout the performance is bisected by a patch of dull orange rust, a mark that implies the body wearing it is also bisected.

Tanya Aguiñiga “Grapnel”, (2018)

The recently adopted US policy of snatching children away from their asylum-seeking parents is all too easily hinted at when looking at this article. Ideas of personal fissures and forcefully implanted partitions between individual family members, separating them from each other, become concrete. Even reunited, the deep psychological gash of border reality will remain.

But the exhibit doesn’t just document a forced separation, it also shows how these gashes can be repaired, or at least sutured. As curator Shannon Stratton notes, “Aguiñiga’s creative practices are processes that apply to the social and the political” and create a “unique approach to problem-solving, community-building, and coping strategies.” communications”.

“Felt Me Suit” (2013) and “Hand in Hand” (2015) are two such tracks. Created in five hours, “Felt Me Suit” is the physical product of a participatory play in which volunteers were asked to continuously rub light gray wool fibers all over Aguiñiga’s body, creating a shell of his shape. . At the end of the process, Aguiñiga had to be removed from the wraparound work. This self-effigy that now sits on a bright pink shelf in the exhibit is a reification of this act of community care and creation. Above is “Hand in Hand,” another performance piece in which participants felt the left arm of the person in front of them while their left arm was felted by the person behind them. The resulting gentle sculptures of hands and arms are a reminder of the difficult and time-consuming task of creating community comfort.

“Felt Me Suit” (2013) and “Hand in Hand” (2015) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Both performances created space for attention, trust and vulnerability. But perhaps even more powerfully, the sculptural works made during these performances are unmistakable marks of individual and communal presence that resist attempts at erasure such as ICE’s alleged plans to begin shredding evidence of the abuse of detained children.

While the extreme escalation of border tensions and mistreatment of asylum seekers in the United States could not have been anticipated, Stratton told me that Aguiñiga’s invitation “was intentionally made in relation to the current policies that are developing around the Mexico-US border”. that the opening of Craftsmanship and care coincided with the unprecedented increase in detention and the deterioration in the treatment of migrants is troubling.

Corn Craftsmanship and care is not the accusing finger that an exhibit dealing with United States immigration policy could very easily be. Instead, its vibrant colors and soft textures are an incentive to practice radical empathy. His documentary work pushes us towards a recognition of current border policies not as an aberration, but as the continuation of long-established precedents. His participatory pieces form a compassionate pedagogy suggesting that it is not fear and exclusion, but rather a course of invitation and envelopment that can lead more directly to the common goals of safety and freedom for all.

Tanya Aguiñiga, “Border Quipu / Quipu Fronterizo” (2016-2018)

Given the ongoing human rights abuses at the U.S.-Mexico border, the continued separation of immigrant children from their families, and the escalation of extralegal activities by ICE, Aguiñiga’s vision to bridge that divide growing up with the soft, colorful threads of what remains may be the best we deserve.

Craftsmanship and care continues at the Museum of Arts and Design (2 Columbus Circle, Midtown, Manhattan) until October 2.

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