Observant visitors to the Museum of Arts and Design, in New York, will notice a series of questions printed on the stairs between the lobby and the first floor: “What is your name?” “Where are you going?” “What is the purpose of your trip?”
These seemingly benign queries will be familiar to international travelers. Then, all of a sudden, they flip to an interrogational tenor: “Has anyone in your family been convicted of a crime?” “Do you fear torture if you go back to your home country?” These are questions border patrol agents ask people detained for illegally crossing between Mexico and the United States.
Los Angeles-based artist and designer Tanya Aguiñiga has crossed the border between the United States and Mexico countless times, first as a child growing up in Tijuana and going to school in San Diego (she crossed daily for 14 years) and now in her professional work. To prepare visitors for her new solo exhibition at MAD, “Tanya Aguiñiga: Craft & Care,” which features craft- and performance-driven pieces that explore life along the border, she wanted to translate what it’s like to physically inhabit this liminal space.
“I wanted to put people in an emotional space where they would be open to receiving a lot of heavy information,” Aguiñiga says.
For the past few years, the United States-Mexico border has been a flashpoint in American politics, due in no small part to the Trump Administration’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids in Sanctuary Cities, new policies that separate families who cross illegally, and, or course, Trump’s “big, beautiful wall.” Artists across the country have responded, prolifically, creating work about the border and about immigration that are designed to elicit strong reactions no matter where you fall on the political spectrum. But Aguiñiga’s work is different. She doesn’t just create art about the border; she makes it with the border.
Aguiñiga has been in a continual conversation with the border throughout her career, first in the 1990s with the Border Arts Workshop—an organization founded in 1984 that addressed transculturality and worked with migrants and indigenous women—and now as part of her socially driven project, Art Made Between Opposite Sides (AMBOS), an ongoing investigation about what it means to cross the border and what it means to live with or adjacent to it.
One of the defining elements of AMBOS is the Border Quipu, a collection of vibrantly colored knots that symbolize individuals who have crossed the border. Aguiñiga and her assistants are spending time at each port of entry between the United States and Mexico. Working eastward from Tijuana to Brownsville, Texas, they’re inviting people—those crossing the border by foot or in cars as well as taxi drivers and vendors who sell snacks and goods to the people waiting—to write their thoughts and emotions about the crossing on a postcard and tie a simple knot using two strands of fabric to record their presence and to symbolize the relationship between the United States and Mexico.
This simple craft-based technique helps Aguiñiga and her team connect with the people they talk to and democratize the making process for the project. It doesn’t prize one person’s contributions over another’s because of skill or ability. More importantly, anyone can participate.
At MAD, bundles of knots—one knot for each person crossing the border—cascade from the ceiling. So far, the AMBOS team has spoken with 7,000 individuals and are about halfway through the project. In June, they’ll commence on the next leg of the project: traveling from El Paso to Brownsville.
“Engaging with different people that congregate at the border helps tell the full story of what it’s like,” Aguiñiga says.
For example, Aguiñiga discovered how significant vendors were to the experience of crossing the border. (“They humanize the experience of crossing the border,” she says. “They’re the only ones that say ‘good morning,’ the only ones that smile at you. The border is their entire existence.”)
On the comment postcards, Mexicans lamented the horrible names Trump called them. They also expressed stereotype-busting sentiments about why they’re making the journey. Many crossers said that they didn’t want to go to the United States to live or to work, they just wanted to visit their family or go shopping and they questioned why policy was making it harder for them to spend money and help the U.S. economy.
“There’s a defensive feeling about the way we’re treated, but also a lot of sadness and a lot of people feeling impotent on both sides,” Aguiñiga says.
Other parts of the AMBOS project include performative pieces staged at the border, recordings of which are also on view at MAD. For one piece, named Tensión, Aguiñiga sat on one side of the border fence and Jackie Amézquita, an AMBOS member from Guatemala, sat on the other. The two used their bodies to create a backstrap loom and weaving. For another piece, Aguiñiga dyed a garment by hugging the fence for an hour so its rust would leave an imprint.
“During this piece, a woman comes up who has just been deported and she was talking to [people who were watching me],” Aguiñiga says. “She told them she just likes to go there to look at the U.S. and think about the way she was separated [from her family]. Her son is still on the U.S. side. For her, there’s deep context and meaning [about being at the border]. We [as artists working at the border] see all of that, but it’s always hard to communicate everything.”
Nurturing a human connection through artwork drives the AMBOS project, as well as Aguiniga’s own sensibility. That’s why she works with craft and why she’s develops interactive pieces. One of her monumental works “Crafta Weave” is part of the installation and is made from 70 serapes and San Marcos blankets cut up and knotted together.
“I like the the way craft connects a lot of us beyond identity and socio-economic class and gender,” Aguiñiga says. “I totally believe we have an intuitive body knowledge...I believe in listening to our hands.”
Aguiñiga believes that speaking directly with people who encounter the border regularly is essential to creating meaningful artwork about it—and is an element that’s missing from some of the other recent work out there. For instance, Aguiñiga and her team struggled to find artists in cities along the U.S. side of the border who were actually speaking with people affected by the border when they developed their work. Aguiñiga argues that the artwork that emerges without direct input from those with firsthand experience yield false representations about life along the border.
“We need to see more work out there by the people [the border] affects and the people whose story it is or else all we’re doing is replicating the history of having specific class of people tell the stories of the marginalized, which is never right,” she says.
It’s precisely for this reason that the “Craft & Care” installation offers a nuanced perspective about what the border means in this day and age—you’re seeing it filtered through the eyes of people who live it every day, not through the perspectives of outsiders.
“Tanya Aguiñiga: Craft & Care” is on view at the Museum of Arts & Design until October 2, 2018. Visit madmuseum.org for more.
Correction: A previous edition incorrectly stated Aguiñiga’s backstrap weaving partner in the piece Tensión. She’s Jackie Amézquita.