There already is a wall along the border of the United States and Mexico. It extends some 580 miles from El Paso, Texas all the way into the Pacific Ocean at Tijuana, where the watery divide between nations is patrolled by military boats. Still, this barrier is rarely brought up in the US news or national conversations about immigration. After all, it’s easy to forget anything that’s not part of one’s everyday life — even a wall. Out of sight, out of mind.
But for Tanya Aguiñiga, this wall was never far from view and thus the border was always present. As a child, she crossed over from the brightly colored crafts of Tijuana’s markets to the cold, industrial minimalism of San Diego on her way to and from school. As an artist, activist, and designer, Aguiñiga continues to traverse this boundary both physically and through her practice. In so doing, she has become like a loom’s shuttle, weaving together either side of a rent land. Craft & Care, currently on view at the Museum of Arts and Design, features the work that results from a lifetime of creating a tapestry from broken threads.
Written in bold, black lettering on the stairs leading up to the exhibition’s second floor gallery, visitors are confronted with antipodal sets of questions alternatively posed to privileged citizens of the developed world and migrants from the global south.
The first set of stairs ask questions such as, “What is the purpose of your trip?” This archetypal inquiry prompts at least two typical answers, both of which are drenched in wealth and privilege: business or pleasure. Often posed to those arriving from the Mexico and Central American when arriving at the US’s edge, the questions on the second set of stairs assume a much more interrogatory tone: “Has anyone in your family been convicted or a crime?” and “Have you ever been part of a political or social group?”
Juxtaposed, these questions illuminate the differing ways in which members from opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum experience border crossing. For the privileged it is a matter of the petty inconveniences of security lines and delayed planes, offset by the knowledge that you are free to move both about the cabin and the world. For the members of the global south, breaking, climbing, and digging are inherent to the endeavor, as are the possibilities of failure, detainment, and death.
Once in the gallery, cold black is exchanged for bold pinks, deep blues, bright whites, and soft grays. The effect is intentionally jarring as Aguiñiga notes, “I wanted people to understand they were entering into a different space and be open to receiving this information.”
Indeed, the information presented is not always easy to digest. “Border Quipu / Quipu Fronterizo” (2016–2018) for instance, contains the difficult realities of borders within startlingly vibrant hues. To create this participatory work, Aguiñiga and her team walked from car to car on either side of 18 border checkpoints in California, Arizona, and Texas, inviting passengers to tie a knot in upcycled bikini and dress straps as evidence of their crossing.
The result is a curved row of textiles that descends from the ceiling in soft columns. Using quipu, an ancient Andean form of time keeping, each knot represents an individual experience and each textile the amalgamation of hours and days spent traversing the liminal space that exists at the border crossings between the United States and Mexico.
Participants were also asked to share their experiences at the border on postcards that often convey the tedium, melancholy, and the 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 elicited from the repeated act of having one’s person searched and identity questioned while crossing national borders.
Occupying the gallery’s entire back wall, “Crafta Weave” (2015) references a different kind of border crossing — that of goods and capital. Composed of 75 deconstructed serapes loosely woven together with the neon tints of cheap beach towels and blankets, the work blends organic and manufactured tones, plush and rough textures, traditional and commercial design. Though 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 manufactured in Mexico. Instead, the source materials for “Crafta” were made in China.
As such, “Crafta Weave” becomes “a comment on the goods that are sold at the border” as Aguiñiga puts it, and the “infiltration of globalization into the world of craft and traditional art.” It is also a record of the continued separation of objects from their history. In Aguiñiga’s words, the meanings of these crafted works are “lost in translation,” when produced by machine rather than hand. As such, these objects meant to function as signifiers of a rich tradition instead become evidence of its absence.
The pain of rupture is also explored in Aguiñiga’s performance piece “Grapple,” (2018) documented on video. Wearing a raw linen shirt, Aguiñiga wraps her body around the iron pillars of the border that emerge from the sand at the ocean’s edge and stretch beyond the frame of the camera, signaling that even the sky is divided. The tide rolls in and out, the sun sets. Aguiñiga shivers as she continues to cling to the boundary. Displayed alongside the video, the shirt she wears throughout the performance is split in two by a dull orange rust stain, a mark that implies the body that wore it is divided as well.
The recently enacted United States policy of tearing children away from parents who are seeking asylum is all too readily brought to mind when looking at this piece. The ideas of personal fissure and partitions forcefully implanted between individual family members, separating them from each other becomes concrete. Even if reunited, the deep psychological gash of the border’s reality will remain.
But the exhibition not only documents forceful separation, it also models how these gashes might be mended, or at least sutured. As exhibition curator Shannon Stratton notes, Aguiñiga’s “creative practices are processes that apply to the social and political” and create a unique “approach to problem solving, community building, and communication strategies.”
“Felt Me Suit” (2013) and “Hand in Hand” (2015) are two such pieces. Created over the course of five hours, “Felt Me Suit” is the physical product of a participatory piece in which volunteers were asked to continually rub light grey wool fibers over Aguiñiga’s entire body, thereby creating a shell of her form. At the end of the process, Aguiñiga had to be cut out of the enveloping work. This self-effigy that now lies on a bright pink shelf in the exhibition is a reification of this act of communal care and creation. Above it is “Hand in Hand,” another performative work in which participants felted the left arm of the person in front of them while their left arm was felted by the person behind them. The resultant soft sculptures of hands and arms are a reminder of the difficult and time-consuming task of creating the comfort of community.
Both performances created the space for care, trust, and vulnerability. But perhaps even more powerfully, the sculptural works made during these performances are undeniable marks of individual and communal presence that resists attempts at erasure such as ICE’s purported plans to start shredding evidence of the abuse of detained children.
While the extreme escalation of tensions at the border and mistreatment of those seeking asylum in the United States could not have been anticipated, Stratton told me Aguiñiga’s invitation “was intentionally done in relationship to the current policies developing around the Mexico-US border.” That the opening of Craft & Care coincided with the unprecedented increase in detainment and the deterioration of treatment of migrants is uncanny.
But Craft & Care is not the accusatory finger that an exhibition addressing US immigration policy could very easily be. Instead, its vibrant colors and soft textures are an enticement to practice radical empathy. Its works of documentation nudge us toward a recognition of current border policies not as an aberration, but as the continuation of long-established precedents. Its participatory pieces form a compassionate pedagogy suggesting that not fear and exclusion, but rather a course of invitation and envelopment may lead more directly lead to the common goals of safety, security, and liberty for all.
Given the ongoing human rights violations at the US-Mexico border, the continued separation of immigrant children from their families, and the escalation of ICE’s extralegal activities, Aguiñiga’s vision of suturing this widening divide with the soft and colorful threads of what remains is perhaps better than we deserve.