Jan Lundberg, A List Photos
By Robin Wander
In May, The Bill Lane Center for the American West presented the final symposium in its 2017-18 ArtsWest series. The symposium, titled “Art and Culture on the US-Mexico Border: 2,000 Miles of Imagination that Unite and Divide Us,” was moderated by Ana Raquel Minian, assistant professor of history in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University. It focused on how art and music are shaping social, cultural and political identity in the U.S.-Mexico border region.
The four panelists were Enrique Chagoya, artist and professor of art and art history in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University; Anna Indych-Lopez, associate professor of art history at CUNY Graduate Center; Alejandro L. Madrid, professor of music at Cornell University; and Chon A. Noriega, art curator and professor of film at UCLA.
“This event brings to a close a year of stellar ArtsWest programming that explored marginalized communities in Western American arts ranging from Chinese exclusion as seen through historical portrait photography in San Francisco’s Chinatown to prospects for women artists on the West Coast to cross-border art movements shaping the Southwest,” said Marc A. Levin, ArtsWest coordinator and scholar. “This symposium synthesized the muses of art, music, cinema and street murals to link social movements and cultural expression that bridges the divides of bi-national identity and border politics.”
The symposium was also the culmination of Borderlands Now, a yearlong series of events sponsored by the American Studies Program to mark the 30th anniversary of the publication of Gloria Anzaldúa’s book Borderlands/La Frontera and to explore the range of issues her work engages. “This event highlighted the ways in which the border is both un herida abierta, an open wound, as Anzaldúa puts it, and a site of vibrant creativity,” said Shelley Fisher Fishkin, the Joseph S. Atha Professor of Humanities and professor of English and director of Stanford's American Studies Program.
The leitmotif that emerged during the symposium was the idea of borders in our heads and how we cross them. “Borders are mostly about imagination; us, them, other. They are less about geography,” Noriega said during his discussion of Chicano cinema as a lens for understanding media and culture, sociology and mass communications, and ethnicity and gender that merge art with populist politics in film.
Noriega also talked about his role in curating the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s groundbreaking art exhibition, Home-So Different, So Appealing (2017-18), which showed over 100 works exploring the themes of immigration and political repression, dislocation and diaspora, and personal memory and utopian ideals found in Latinx and Latin American art. The exhibition was part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, an exploration of Latinx and Latin American art in dialogue with Los Angeles led by the J. Paul Getty Museum.
Chagoya presented a slideshow of his socio-political paintings that depict matters of war, borders and immigration, religious and cultural differences, global politics and the plight of migrants as Mesoamerican symbols of invasion, suffering and the blurring of borders. He explained that some of his work is an attempt to reverse the displacement of people from their lands, citing the 1847 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo when Mexicans became U.S. citizens when their border changed overnight. “Now, the borders are in our heads and within us. Social, religious, gender, economic and class borders are hard to cross,” he said.
Another corrective art form related to the border is the community mural, according to Indych-López. She talked about how the participatory community mural can counter a community’s feeling of invisibility. The process and the product allow a community to construct its own history. Citing her recently released scholarly monograph on Chicana public artist and muralist Judith F. Baca and Baca’s internationally famous mural The Great Wall of Los Angeles, Indych- López also discussed projects deeper into border region territory in El Paso, Texas, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, that address Latinx art production that contends with border culture, transnational diversity, immigration and dislocation, historical ruptures, and the visual construction of racial, ethnic, gender and class identities.
The art form that crosses borders most easily is music, according to musicologist Madrid. He spoke about the trans-border musical traditions that blend classical, popular and folk music that transcends place, history, geography, politics and the intersection of globalization, ethnic identity and border culture. He shared remembrances of growing up a “border kid” in the 1970s, and how easy it was to come and go to visit relatives on either side of the border, or simply go grocery shopping across la línea. He laments that now those porous lines have disappeared and only music can cross borders without paperwork.
The discussion that followed the individual presentations allowed for a lively exchange among the presenters, the moderator and audience members. Reflecting on the event, Noriega said of the discussion portion, "It's where the issues of artistic and cultural expression that were explored in the presentations were put into direct dialogue with the political turmoil now defining the U.S.-Mexico border. What was most striking was the diverse personal experiences in the room, and how these helped move the discussion toward a more nuanced and humane understanding of the fluid and overlapping boundaries between the two countries."
Fishkin added, “The fecund imaginative vision of the artists and musicians discussed at the symposium underlined the fascinating complexity of the border as a dynamic, complicated place — one both fueled and torn by the multiple cultures that collide there.”
In support of the symposium, Alexandra “Mac” Taylor, ArtsWest research assistant, compiled an annotated bibliography of over 40 sources detailing art and artists that are emerging around the U.S.-Mexico border. She also produced a 12-minute podcast, “Emerging Border Art,” that is a look at visual art exploring the border and borderlands between the U.S. and Mexico and includes an interview with Chagoya.