January 2, 2014
by Laura Tillman
MATAMOROS, Mexico — The artist Patricia Ruiz-Bayón recently met with three migrants in a shelter in this ravaged border city and invited them to take part in one of her performance works. The piece, “70+2...,” commemorated an act of extreme brutality that continues to traumatize the region: a 2010 massacre of 72 migrants in nearby San Fernando that the Mexican authorities say was carried out by the Zetas criminal gang.
Like the slain migrants, who were pulled from buses and shot, Ms. Ruiz-Bayón’s art volunteers were on a treacherous journey north toward the United States. On the day of the performance, barefoot and dressed in white, the participants, two men and a woman, walked slowly through soil that Ms. Ruiz-Bayón had transported from a San Fernando cornfield, evoking a mass grave but also hope and renewal. Then they walked along an infinity symbol that had been carved into the dirt, signifying the eternal path of migration.
The performance was the first in a series called “Todos Somos Victimas y Culpables, We Are All Victims and Culpable,” a deeply serious message in a part of Mexico that continues to be rattled by clashes between rival gangs and the police.
Ms. Ruiz-Bayón’s work is part of a growing art movement in the Rio Grande Valley exploring immigration politics and a rise in drug violence in the region over the past four years. Although the artists’ circumstances and their audiences vary, depending on where they live, they see themselves as part of a transnational community that is artificially divided.
The 18-foot-high border fence, ever-present in the artists’ work, is a ready symbol for the dissonance between the local understanding of the region as a unified one with strong cultural and economic ties, and policy prescriptions from Washington aimed at controlling the area and dividing it into discrete parts. As a new immigration bill presents the likelihood of new fencing and increased surveillance, the artists are determined to highlight the discord and societal hierarchy that the fence represents to many here. In their work, they also conjure an alternative situation.
For Mexican artists in Matamoros and Reynosa, where the local news media has been largely silenced, their artwork, often urgent and somber, fills a void.
Artists on the American side of the border tend to take a more ironic approach. David Freeman of McAllen, Tex., designs piñatas in the shape of border guards, presumably waiting to be thrashed to bits, and meticulously made “trophies” for gang leaders composed of tiny machine guns, marijuana leaves and other objects covered in gold spray paint. He also integrates found objects into his work, like the wood-plank ladders the migrants used to climb the multibillion-dollar security fence and clothing and ID cards that they leave by the river.
Mr. Freeman moved to the region nine years ago, just as McAllen was beginning to pump civic funds into the arts. Since then, new galleries have sprung up on Main Street along with a monthly “art walk” and low-cost studio space. Not long ago, his studio was packed with work for a solo show at Texas A&M University at Commerce. Photographs of the border fence shared space with paintings in which he had daintily etched the fence into foreign landscapes. Mr. Freeman said he hopes his work will gain exposure beyond Texas and have a greater impact. Most galleries and museums in the Rio Grande Valley favor more conventional abstract and landscape paintings over political work.
The classically trained painter Rigoberto Alonso Gonzalez relies on an altogether different strategy to pierce what he says is the indifference of some Americans to the region’s drug war, painting Baroque-style scenes of violence in a dark palette. Some of his paintings show decapitated heads; other, larger tableaus depict gang members torturing victims or families discovering the bodies of their dead loved ones after shootouts.
Mr. Gonzalez, who was born in Reynosa, Mexico, and now lives across the river in Harlingen, Tex., left the Rio Grande Valley to study at the New York Academy of Art in 2002. When he returned, he quickly recognized the parallels between the gang narratives and historical paintings about biblical violence, like Caravaggio’s “Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.” He calls attention to the demand for drugs and cheap labor in the United States, which contributes to the drug war, by recreating real events in a style of painting that viewers are more accustomed to seeing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art than on CNN.
“If you depict it in a way that’s too raw, people are going to be turned off by it,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “You have to do it in a way that they’re drawn in, and then slowly they realize what it is that they’re looking at.”
His paintings have been collected and exhibited by museums in Texas and New Mexico, although some museums in the Rio Grande Valley are reluctant to show more graphic violence, he said. “It really doesn’t compare to what’s actually happening,” Mr. Gonzalez said of his stylized work.
While artists like Mr. Gonzalez and Mr. Freeman have the freedom to speak out about politics in their work, the risks are higher for artists across the border.
After Reynosa was taken over by violence, the artist Tochiro Gallegos abandoned street photography, mindful that taking a picture of someone who didn’t want to be photographed could cost him his life. He moved into the studio and now makes portraits that speak metaphorically about the violence. Some of his subjects are shown with belts of bullets across their mouths — “a way to express everything we see, the way that we have to be quiet,” Mr. Gallegos said.
Ms. Ruiz-Bayón’s work, which extends beyond performance to sculpture and mixed media, also relies on metaphor to talk about migration, gender and violence.
In 2010, the same year as the massacre in San Fernando, a wave of gang violence pushed into Matamoros. Traumatized, Ms. Ruiz-Bayón said, she could not bring herself to make any artwork for an entire year.
In “70+2...,” she sought catharsis. “I’m so sick of guns, I’m so sick of blood,“ she said. “I wanted to make something that would make people think deeper and ask: ‘O.K., this is happening to me. How can I feel a little relief?’ ”
She visited San Fernando and tracked down on the Internet videos of the family members of the murdered migrants and a survivor. She spent time with migrants from Honduras and Guatemala, who also participated in her piece, and learned about the poverty they fled, the families they left behind and their journeys north.
“I had urgency to heal myself,” Ms. Ruiz-Bayón said. “And hopefully, in the process, it was a healing piece for the people.”
The prospect of performing in Matamoros last August initially made her anxious. Few murders are solved there, and she was concerned about the safety of the volunteers in the work. But the pieces finally fell into place, and she scheduled the performance at a secure private building, her concerns allayed. “I thought, if the migrants are brave enough to take this long, long, dangerous journey, why shouldn’t I?” she said.
The victims of the 2010 massacre have also been memorialized by journalists and novelists who created a website, 72migrantes.com, with profiles and photographs evoking each of the dead.
George Flaherty, an assistant professor of art history at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in Latin American art, said terror is a major theme for artists who set out to document scores of anonymous deaths. “It’s about creating alternative archives and alternate ways of recognizing that which has been forgotten or willfully ignored,” he said.
The art is also about rectifying the way the border region is perceived from afar. The photographer Stefan Falke has been documenting artists in the region since 2008 in an project titled “La Frontera: Artists Along the U.S.-Mexico Border.” Having grown up in a divided Germany, Mr. Falke said, he was suspicious about the mainstream portrayal of the border area as a dangerous place without much to offer. He said he wanted to convey that the border is not a space of absence, but one of creativity and life.
To that end, he has photographed 180 artists from Brownsville to Tijuana. An exhibition of works from “La Frontera” is to open at the International Museum of Art and Science in McAllen on Jan. 23.
“You hear about tens of thousands of killings, and it’s natural to think, ‘Why would people want to live there?’ ” he said. “Then you go there, and you find everyone you meet doesn’t want to leave. They just love their city.”
Ms. Ruiz-Bayón, who has lived and worked in both the United States and Mexico, declined to identify her birthplace, saying she does not believe she belongs to one country or the other. “For me, the border is like a parentheses that is neither Mexico nor the United States,” she said. “It’s a place of its own.”
While such sentiments are common along the border, they are a striking counterpoint to discussions of immigration reform in Congress that take the necessity of enforced border security and hundreds of miles of hard fencing for granted.
Some artists have used the fence itself as an exhibition site. After construction crews built a new section less than a block from Galeria 409 in Brownsville, its owner, the artist Mark Clark, asked artists to bring their work to the fence and hang it on its metal beams. Included in the show, “Art Against the Wall,” was Mr. Clark’s painting of a voluptuous woman in a bikini floating down the Rio Grande in an inner tube, extending “Saludos desde el otro lado,” or “Greetings from the other side.”
Mr. Flaherty said that artists who seek to upend the way the border is usually viewed are trying to inspire a broader international conversation.
“They’re very much challenging the understanding of the border as a checkpoint and geopolitical boundary or zone,” he said, “and bringing to our attention that the border is malleable, it’s figurative, it’s poetic.”