The New World Border traveling exhibit was originally organized in 2011 by three artists from the San Francisco Bay area of Northern California, Francisco Dominquez, Art Hazelwood, and Doug Minkler. The exhibit is comprised of prints created by thirty artists from around the U.S. who are opposed to the construction of a giant “security” wall along the U.S./Mexico border. The collection of linoleum cuts, silk-screens, monoprints, offset and digital prints has so far been exhibited in 9 states across the U.S. in sixteen different venues.
The exhibit premiered at the La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, California, where it ran from March 3rd to April 30, 2011, and it concluded a run at its sixteenth venue, La Casa del Túnel: Art Center in Tijuana, México, for the month of September, 2013.
Included in the exhibit is Mokhtar Paki’s digital graphic, No Border Wall, an anthropomorphic depiction of the barrier that scars the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico. The artist portrayed the wall as having been transformed into a goliath police force automaton.
Created from inanimate materials - concrete, barbed wire, and a closed-circuit television spy camera for an eye - the creature has been endowed with life by the national security state in an attempt to keep humanity divided. The concrete slabs that form the monster’s head also allude to the so-called “Security Fence” Israel has constructed around the Palestinian West Bank.
However, since its creation, Paki’s artwork has been given another layer of meaning. President Obama’s NSA surveillance program is currently spying on every American that sends an e-mail, views a webpage, posts a photo to social media, or uses a cell phone.
I am not a fan of “appropriation” in postmodern art. Too often the methodology is employed in such a way that the “repurposing” of another artist’s work not only leads to a facile style that does not require much imagination and even less skill, it also strips history from our collective consciousness. As a rule such works offer little more than cynicism and a supposed “ironic” view of life, concomitantly avoiding any substantive critique of the social order.
An accepted practice with today’s elite art establishment and its stables of revolting art stars, “appropriation art” is a far cry from its origins, the radically subversive “détournement” that members of the late 1950s Situationist International (SI) advanced. For those revolutionists, it was a method of “turning expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself.”
That being said, Nancy Hom’s digital print, Catalina’s World, is an example of how appropriation works best in visual art. Hom is counting on the viewer being familiar with the famous 1948 painting by Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World, since her print would be meaningless without foreknowledge of Wyeth’s tour de force. Hom re-imagined Wyeth’s realist painting as a hard-edged, silkscreen-like image, and in the process transformed Wyeth’s magnum opus into a depiction of the sad realities now occurring at the U.S., Mexico border.
Wyeth painted a portrait of his neighbor Christina, a woman incapacitated by polio whose courage and will to live was not at all stricken; as Wyeth put it, she was “limited physically but by no means spiritually.” Somehow the depiction of the woman crawling through a parched field of tall grass towards a hilltop wooden farmhouse conveys a great sense of optimism; Wyeth’s brilliant treatment of sunlight and open space suggests, not a world of pain, but one of boundless freedom. Christina is an enchanted being that makes her way through a dreamlike realm where all things are possible. Wyeth’s celebration of mystery and the indomitable human spirit can easily be categorized as “magical realism,” a genre that today is most often associated with the artists of Latin America; here we begin to slip into Nancy Hom’s vision.
In Hom’s print, Christina has metamorphosized into Catalina, an archetypical Latina. As an “everywoman” figure, Catalina also displays bravery and the will to persevere, but instead of finding herself in a sunny dreamland where hope imbues every blade of grass, she is trapped in the nightmare world of the border region. As she treads wearily towards the promised land of El Norte, the very earth she crawls upon becomes death itself - a morbid reminder of the thousands who have perished from thirst or violence in failed attempts to cross the border over the years.
Fernando Marti’s Quetzal is a dazzling poster, for its message as well as its technical virtuosity; the print is a combination of linoleum cut, monoprint, and hand-painted watercolor.
The simple black and white linoleum cut of the border security fence is convincing in its minimalism, as is the rocky barren landscape it divides. Soaring above the scene is a magnificent Quetzal, the bird most closely associated with Central America; sacred to the indigenous people of the region, the bird is a symbol of freedom to many.
The pre-Columbian border design and the “speech glyph” emanating from the bird, allude to the role the Quetzal played in the ancient Maya and Aztec civilizations. The Quetzal flies freely over the fence, complying only with the laws of nature and ignoring the false divides imposed by nation states.
My own No Human Being is Illegal poster is included in the show. First published as a bilingual street poster in 1988, its title eventually became a catchphrase for today’s defenders of immigrants’ rights. The poster’s axiom is an emphatic affirmation of the inherent rights possessed by humankind. It cautions that when individuals are stripped of humanity and designated as “illegal,” then even worse abuses cannot be far behind. Not so long ago it used to be said that a child born to unmarried parents was “illegitimate.” I am hopeful that in the future, the opinion that some people are “illegal aliens” will also become an archaic expression.
No Human Being is Illegal was original published in conjunction with a 1988 drive conducted by the Los Angeles based Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), to secure the rights of undocumented Central American war refugees in the U.S. During the 1980s Central America was convulsed by revolution and murderous state repression. Seeking to escape the carnage, hundreds of thousands of people furtively entered the U.S., only to find themselves targeted for arrest and deportation back to the killing fields.
Welcome to the Land of Your Dreams by Jos Sances, takes a scatological approach to the issue at hand. Grimly sarcastic, the land of milk and honey resembles nothing so much as an enormous dung-heap, a foul pile made from the detritus of empire. Composed of discarded refrigerators, cars, TVs, disposable consumer products of all kinds… and human bodies, the enormous lopsided rubbish mound is perilously close to falling over from its own weight. The fetid mass is protected by a razor wire topped cyclone fence, the vehicle of an armed security patrol parked at the ready alongside the security fence.
At the pinnacle of the mountain of crap sits an amusement park carousel ride, except that the merry-go-round’s painted wooden horses have been replaced with grotesqueries; sitting atop the carnival ride’s rooftop is the logo for the American International Group (AIG). Formerly one of the world’s biggest insurers, AIG collapsed in 2008, was then bailed out by the U.S. government using taxpayer dollars - $182 billion worth - after which AIG used around $1.2 billion of the bailout funds to pay their CEOs lavish bonuses. The dung-heap must be maintained.
Adding a surrealist touch to the miserablist landscape, a gargantuan housefly buzzes over the rotten panorama like a converted crop duster towing an aerial advertising banner; flapping in the wind, the streamer is emblazoned with a mock advertising jingle, which also serves as the title of the print… “Welcome to the Land of Your Dreams.”
On the face of it New World Border has a single focus, the border between Mexico and the U.S, but the exhibit provides an opportunity to look closer at a very complex situation; modern Mexico is in a tailspin, and U.S. governmental policy has much to do with it. Mexico is tormented by a vicious “Drug War” that has taken the lives of some 70,000 people, workers in Mexico and the U.S. have suffered immense setbacks under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the Mexico government is run by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), a corrupt political party that has held power almost continuously for 71 years. While not directly addressed in the New World Border, these facts form a backdrop for a deeper understanding of the exhibit.
A quick look at Mexico’s humble corn tortilla reveals much. The domestication of corn began in Mexico some 9,000 years ago, and it became the foundation of the great Olmec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations. Corn went on to become a main food crop and staple in Mexico’s centuries old village-based corn economy, with the corn tortilla still reigning supreme. Then came NAFTA. Signed into law by President Clinton, Canadian Prime Minister Mulroney, and Mexican President Carlos Salinas of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the supposed goal of NAFTA was the abolition of trade barriers between the capitalists of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.
One result of NAFTA was that Mexico was flooded with inexpensive U.S. corn imports produced by American corporate agribusiness, so much that Mexico’s farmers had no chance to sell their corn at competitive prices. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican campesinos stopped growing corn, can no longer maintain their farms, and have lost their land and livelihoods. Today Mexico imports more corn from the U.S. than it grows; the corn tortilla in Mexico is more likely made of cheap GMO corn from the U.S. than from a Mexican farmer. To think, the Aztecs used to worship “the Lord of Maize.” As Mexico’s corn economy continues to collapse, the country’s farmers and agricultural laborers migrate to the U.S. in search of work.
Despite promises from President Clinton that “NAFTA means jobs, American jobs, and good-paying jobs,” the results of NAFTA have been the deindustrialization of the U.S. and the exportation of hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs to the Maquiladora “Free Trade Zone” of Mexico. Mexican workers labor in those U.S. owned plants for as little as $50 for a 60-hour work week. Largely composed of women, the work force suffers from severe exploitation, miserable working conditions, a total lack of union representation, grinding poverty, and environmental hazards. U.S. and Mexican elites have made off like bandits, while workers on both sides of the border have suffered nothing but losses.
The “Drug War” fought in Mexico since 2006 has taken the lives of 57,449 Mexicans as reported in late 2012 by the Monterrey de Milenio newspaper. Let us put that statistic in context. U.S. soldiers fought in Vietnam from 1955 to 1975, and during those twenty years 58,209 U.S. soldiers died in combat. In Aug. of 2012, the Mexican non-governmental citizens action group, Movement for Peace With Justice and Dignity, put the drug war death toll at 70,000 - so far. As the Mexican government supposedly combats groups like the Sinaloa and Los Zetas drug cartels, the well armed cartels battle each other for control of turf and profits. The war is exceedingly brutal, as this photo essay in The Atlantic attests. Mass killings, torture, and beheadings committed by cartel gunmen are routine; it is all done to feed the drug habits of North Americans.
Much has been made of arms purchased in U.S. gun stores ending up in the hands of Mexican drug gangs. But the weapons seized by Mexican authorities often include the same type of weapons the Pentagon supplies the Mexican military. The U.S. has provided $2 billion in military aid to Mexico’s police and armed forces since 2009. Leftover rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, and fully automatic AK47 rifles from Central America’s civil wars are also available on the black market. It should be apparent that corrupt members of the Mexican government, military, and police run a pipeline of arms to the cartels.
The Obama administration claims that it tried to smash cartel arms traffickers in 2009 with Operation Fast & Furious. Agents of the ATF allowed criminals working with the cartels to purchase guns in the U.S., then tracked the arms as they were brought into Mexico. It is alleged that the operation was to meant to identify and arrest the drug lords receiving the guns. However, the weapons were never traced to their end users, they disappeared into the cartel underground; no cartel boss was ever arrested as a result of the “sting.” The operation started to unravel when U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed in 2010 near the Arizona-Mexico border by gunmen using two AK47 rifles traced to Fast & Furious. Since then hundreds of Mexican civilians have been killed by guns traced to the operation. Of the over 2,000 guns Fast & Furious brought into Mexico, 710 have been found at crime scenes or otherwise “recovered,” the rest remain in the hands of the cartels.
Then there is Mexico’s rigged general election of July 1, 2012. The contest was between Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI, and Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the “left” social democratic Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).
Massive vote rigging swept Nieto and the PRI into power; reports of fraud, vote buying and tampering with ballots were rife. The AP reported that the PRI distributed untold thousands of pre-paid “gift cards” in poor neighborhoods in exchange for votes.
The Sydney Morning Herald of Australia quoted Eduardo Huchim of the Civic Alliance, which is funded by the United Nations Development Program; ”It was neither a clean nor fair election, it was perhaps the biggest operation of vote-buying and coercion in the county’s history.”
Latinos Post quoted an electrician and trade unionist, Heliodoro Maciel; “Yes, the PRI has experience. They know how to steal. They know how to make pacts with drug cartels. And they know how to kill.”
President Obama telephoned Enrique Peña Nieto in the aftermath of the sham election to congratulate Nieto for winning a “free, fair, and clear” election. Nieto’s reign will not be any different than that of his crooked PRI predecessors; historically the PRI has been the party of oligarchy, repression, and naked reaction.
In 1938 left-leaning President Lázaro Cárdenas nationalized Mexico’s oil at a time when U.S. and British oil companies completely dominated Mexico’s oilfields, taking the lion’s share of the profits. Cárdenas’ nationalization of the country’s oil has long been a wellspring of national pride for Mexicans. But Nieto wants to privatize sectors of Mexico’s Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the state-owned oil company. El Presidente wants the nation’s oil resources sold to the highest bidding foreign oil companies - which is the real reason he received a heartfelt “congrats” from Mr. Obama.
On Sept. 8, 2013, over 40,000 people gathered in Mexico’s capital beneath a gigantic banner that read, “No To The Robbery Of All Time,” in opposition to Nieto’s privatizing the oil industry. Just 3 days before Mexico’s Independence Day (celebrated each Sept. 16th), President Nieto ordered 3,000 riot police to forcibly remove tens of thousands of striking Mexican teachers who were protesting in the capital’s central plaza. Prior to seeing Nieto shout “¡Viva México!” from the balcony of the National Palace in the annual commemoration of the revolution against the Spanish Empire, the nation got to witness riot cops tear-gassing, and bludgeoning teachers.
Stories more revealing of Mexico’s excrescent ruling elite could not be told.
The New World Border exhibit has been shown at venues from Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, to exhibit spaces in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Missouri. At the end of 2012 an entire suite of prints from the show was acquired by the U.S. Library of Congress for that body’s impressive permanent collection. In mid-October 2013, a PowerPoint display of New World Border prints was presented at the Borders, Walls and Security international conference held at the University of Quebec at Montreal, Quebec, Canada, bringing the exhibit to three countries.
New World Border is also scheduled to be shown from November 2013 to March 2014 at the main library of City College of San Francisco in San Francisco, California. In addition, a full set of New World Border posters will be donated to the collection of Cal State University at Sacramento, California, were a future exhibition of the prints is currently being scheduled.