The exhibit “Making Communities: Art & The Border,” opened March 3 at University Art Gallery (UAG) on UC San Diego campus, and turned out to be a delightful surprise. Although the premise is serious and hotly controversial, the exhibit’s personalities and playfulness, along with their deep insights on opening night, made for an exciting evening.
Curator Tatiana Sizonenko gathered some of the best examples of art associated with the San Diego/Mexico border, which will remain on exhibit through April 13. Collectively, the show brings back many memories.
Victor Ochoa, aka Mr. Mural, who was lead artist on the colorful murals under the Coronado Bay Bridge in Chicano Park, brought in a collection of small paintings depicting Chicano cultural icons, like “Vato” or “La Migra.” Louis Hock, contributed thermal, night vision photographs taken over the shoulders of Border Patrol officers. David Avalos, who helped establish the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park, in addition to co-founding the Border Art Workshop, offered a memorial piece.
Debra Small created a beautiful exhibit of medical plants used on both sides of the border by Native Americans. Elizabeth Cisco’s oversized photographs of “La Migra” (Immigration) chasing immigrants loomed menacingly overhead. The notorious Las Comadres had me running after them through the gallery trying to snap their photos during an improvised Keystone Cops performance piece.
Near the end of the evening, reflections by San Diego State University (SDSU) art professor Richard Keely, brought everything together in a light of understanding and appreciation.
The exhibit is a retrospective of the last 50 years, with 20 artists each imagining a more just and interconnected world. At the time the works originated, they were powerful and provocative, and they brought out the ire of some people, but have since become accepted and “mainstream.”
Perhaps the most famous artist at the opening was Ochoa. He told the group he was born in LA and sent back to Tijuana with his family as an illegal immigrant when he was 7 years old. He said he was constantly hassled by police and Caltrans when he began painting the world-famous Chicano Park murals. “Nowadays, however, Caltrans claims that they were responsible for putting the murals up!” Ochoa remarked with a chuckle.
Ochoa said that he did not receive compensation for painting the murals, but did end up getting about $1 million for the technical manual used for their upkeep and restoration. “I tried to spread the money out to all who were involved,” he said.
Ochoa pointed out that he didn’t have to worry about graffiti artists painting over his mural work because he set up an organization, based on mutual respect, to help them with their artwork and to give them space for their painting. He added because of his work on the Chicano Park murals, he’s been invited to speak and work all over the world. “I’ve been painting murals in Cuba for the past 15 years and the IRA invited me to Belfast to help them do some murals supporting their cause,” he said.
Avalos, who in 1990 received a MFA degree from UCSD Visual Arts, is a member of the Committee on Chicano Rights, and professor in the School of Arts at CSU San Marcos. He explained that his work in the show has been sitting in a cardboard box for many years. It’s a colorful, scale model of the old donkey carts that lined Revolution Avenue in Tijuana. Tourists would don sombreros and have their pictures taken while sitting on the carts as a souvenir of their visit.
As Avalos explained, “the people who took the photographs of the tourists developed their pictures in little boxes on the spot. They painted the donkeys with zebra stripes so the donkeys would show up better in the photographs, which were sometimes a little washed out.
“But on a more serious note, this sculpture is actually a tribute to Francisco Sanchez, who was shot to death at age 40, on Dec. 8, 1980, by the Border Patrol.”
Avalos said he helped start the Border Art Workshop with the aim of educating border artists and bringing up the standard of their work.
“Our most important accomplishment was the art show we put on at Galeria de la Raza, which is located in the Mission District of San Francisco. The thing I remember most about the show was meeting artist Robert Crumb, world famous for the Zap Comic Book series of the San Francisco hippie era,” he said.
Three of the 15 original members of Las Comadres, a feminist art group concerned with the rights of immigrants, also attended the opening — Ruth Wallen, Emily Hicks and Anna O’Cain. Las Comadres spun off from the Border Art Workshop because of what they perceived to be a sexist attitude on the part of the men in the workshop.
At the Carmel Mountain Nature Preserve in Del Mar, Wallen helped design and install signage that explains the life cycle of vernal pools and their inhabitants — the endangered freshwater fairy shrimp.
Hicks is a performance artist who teaches both Chicano Studies and Comparative Literature at SDSU. One of Las Comadres’ projects was filming Hicks getting married at the border fence! She said the work of Las Comadres and the Border Art Workshop were included in a book that came out in France titled, “Geoesthetique.” She also mentioned being in an art show at Wisteria Cottage in La Jolla, which was sponsored by the La Jolla Historical Society.
O’Cain, who is married to SDSU professor Keely, said in 1989, Las Comadres hired a small plane to trail a banner through the sky with a poetic response to all the people who lined up and were shining their car headlights on the border fence to protest growing illegal immigration. The banner read: “A Thousand Points of Fear: Another Berlin Wall.”
Keely called the exhibit “important and vital,” explaining, “I remember going to all the events for this artwork when they were happening for real. Those were very exciting times, but things are different now. Rather than having a socio-political agenda, like back then, these artworks now offer a historical perspective to help educate new students.”
IF YOU GO: UAG is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Thursdays. Additional border art work can be found at the SME Gallery on the UCSD campus, open 2:30-6 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Friday. Admission is free. Catch a performance by Cog*nate Collective exploring tension at the border, 6 p.m. Thursday, April 6 in Room 149 of the Visual Arts Presentation Lab at SME. uag.ucsd.edu