A penitentiary sits at the bottom of Bedel Tiscareno’s painting, “Justice.” It represents 52 Mexican nationals on death row in the United States who don’t have access to counsel from the Mexican government.
A portrait of George Bush is at the top, but labeled Malinche, who was a concubine to Spanish conqueror Hernando Cortes and considered a traitor to her country. Layers of other images fill the painting – a church, a teepee, all themes of Mexican-American identity.
U.S./Mexican border art is a movement that began in the 1980s and grew as immigration policies tightened and the artists received higher media attention. Now, increasing numbers of people are continuing to make names for themselves with their art, many hoping to make social change and increase awareness. And dozens are already producing work opposing Arizona’s new law, SB1070, which allows officials to question the legal status of anyone they believe to be an immigrant.
“Border artists all have different styles and work with different media,” said Shtromberg. “They all deal with ephemerality of the border. The border’s an unstable unit. It’s constantly shifting because of notions of identity and of political notions, such as the militarization of it. A lot of them question its territoriality.”
“A lot of border artists see themselves as bi-national or bicultural so they can navigate both terrains, the U.S. and the Mexican terrain,” she added. “They see the border space as an in-between, a liminal space that isn’t easily identifiable.”
The Border Arts Workshop marked the beginning of the movement in the 1980s, and its goals were to deal with militarization of the border, deaths of undocumented immigrants, and the rough conditions crossing the border, through art and political discussions, said Shtromberg. They had installations and performances but broke apart in the 1990s due to internal conflicts. Insite, a biennial art fair in both Tijuana and San Diego specifically about border issues, took place about four or five times until 2005, and was written up in art magazines and journals.
Now, Alto Arizona, an online campaign launched in protest of SB1070 in Arizona, is using art to get its message across. Countless artists have already submitted images. Christian Gerstheimer, curator at the El Paso Museum of Art, expects to see more.
“There’s going to be a lot of work about this,” he said. “It’s really dividing the line about what should be done about the issue more strongly than ever.”
The El Paso Museum of Art and Museo de Arte de Ciudad Juarez are hosting Border Art 2010, their second biennial, with one Mexican juror and one from the U.S. Hundreds applied, and each chosen artist will put one piece into each museum. The submission deadline was before the bill passed on April 23, but the works still reflect immigration issues.
“The artists show what’s happening along the border on both sides,” said Gerstheimer.
“There seems to be more of a collaborative or group effort (in Mexico) to speak about these issues,” he said. “In the U.S., it’s more the artists working on their own as a single individual artist. They don’t want to share the limelight.”
“The artists in the U.S. are taking the political side,” he added. “They want to speak out about the stereotypes of violence occurring and who is to blame. They’re also mocking what’s going on, too.”
Tiscareno, 38, tends to focus on incorporating the two cultures, the heavy violence, and struggles along the border into his art – he grew up in Las Vegas, spent summers in Juarez, Mexico (just across the border) and now lives in New York City.
“It’s very much about these two groups coming together and being forced into one sphere, and the friction that comes from that,” he said. “The artwork for me became a vehicle to address a lot of issues, in terms of identity, in terms of the social and political.”
Tiscareno combines media in his paintings – oil paint, remnants of black velvet, Venetian plaster, metallic surfaces, fabric, on top of canvas over masonite layered in gobs of paint. His work includes layers of materials, themes and stories, often a mesh of events in history. He exhibits at art shows and gives artist talks.
But he’s going to law school in the fall. The recent bill made him want to understand if there’s any recourse for the law. He felt that his artwork wasn’t reaching enough people.
“At a certain point I felt that my efforts in the studio were for naught. They were somehow unfulfilled,” he said. “The audience I was sharing the work with wasn’t in a position to do anything about the transgressions I saw.”
But despite Tiscareno’s doubts, the art movement seems to be growing. There’s an El Paso/Juarez Collective, and a Border Artists group in New Mexico, plus countless other groups and individual artists. Shtromberg’s classes on border art keep filling up.
Shtromberg believes many artists still believe they can make a difference.
“A lot of border artists see themselves as engaged in community work. They grew out of the Chicano art movement, which was politicized and about changing society,” she said. “They still carry that legacy. A lot of them are in some ways wanting to effect a social outcome.”
Watch Bedel Tiscareno describe his work: