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Expanding the Borders of Art: Creative Collaborations with the MexiCali Biennial

(The following is a guest post by April Lillard-Gomez and Dr. Rosalía Romero, members of the MexiCali Biennial curatorial team, in consultation with the Hispanic Reading Room staff.)

On the morning of January 30th, 2010, two groups of local high school students gathered on a deserted dirt field roughly one mile west of the international port of entry between Calexico, CA (US) and Mexicali, Baja (MX). Upon arrival, these young men were greeted by a circling helicopter and patrolling U.S. Customs and Border agents. Under heavy surveillance, the students, dressed in soccer uniforms, began to set up goal posts, one on each side of the US/Mexico border. On the midfield line of the soccer field lay the border fence, composed of rusted metal sheeting, a remnant of U.S. helicopter landing pads used during the Vietnam War, which obstructed the players’ views of any activity on the opposite side. Spectators, cheering and waving flags, gathered on scaffolds or peered through small holes in the fencing, vying for a good vantage point. This “happening”, titled Transborder Game” and conceived by the Guadalajara-based art collective “Homeless, was enacted to address political, economic and social encounters between the two countries in an amusing way. The performance was part of the second MexiCali Biennial (MB) a visual arts organization that hosts events and promotes the California (U.S.) and Baja California (Mexico) border region as an area of esthetic production.

A soccer game being held over a border with two groups of players on each side of the border.

Cristian Franco and Felipe Manzano, members of Homeless art collective, produced “Transborder Game, 2010,” creating screened t-shirts and soccer performances, as shown here, for the 2009/2010 MexiCali Biennial, Calexico, CA and Mexicali, MX. Photo credit: Odette Barajas.

During the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown of 2020-2021, the Hispanic Reading Room (HRR) staff invited the MexiCali Biennial curatorial team – Ed Gomez, Luis G. Hernandez, Dr. Rosalía Romero, Enid Baxter Ryce, and April Lillard-Gomez – to interact virtually with the Library’s collections. As a result of this joint initiative, the MexiCali Biennial curatorial team and HRR librarians will launch new research guides on the art, history and culture of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands or la frontera. We look forward to exploring connections between past, present and future MexiCali Biennials and the rich collections of the Library of Congress.

MexiCali Biennial 

Since 2006, the MexiCali Biennial has organized large-scale arts programs and exhibitions in museums, cultural centers, alternative art galleries, and community-serving spaces in Los Angeles (U.S.), Calexico (U.S.), Mexicali (Mexico), and Tijuana (Mexico). The MB was founded as an artist-directed biennial to challenge the profusion of global art biennials and the practice of importing art and artists from major cultural capitals to peripheral border regions, a framework which reinforces the marginalization of border communities. In the art world, a biennial is traditionally an expansive international or regional showcase of art that occurs every two years. Two notable examples are the São Paulo Biennial and the Havana Biennial. The MB’s model spearheaded a grassroots approach to curating binational events at venues located on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, with nomadic programming as a subversive way to question non-inclusive biennial traditions. MB exhibitions are designed to be held anywhere and any time, often occurring simultaneously in venues on both sides of the border.

The name “MexiCali Biennial” was chosen to represent the area as a portmanteau, a blending of two words to create another. “MexiCali” also refers to the original locations of the biennial in the conjoined border cities of Mexicali (Mexico) and Calexico (U.S.). The MB curatorial team perceives the border as a region in flux, a unique liminal space where the cultural hybridity between two countries reveals itself in the arts and culture produced in the area.

Overview of MexiCali Biennial Border Exhibitions

A life-size artwork composed of FedEx boxes, tape and castaway video, in front of a one-floor building.

Skylar Haskard created “Untitled, 2006″ (ongoing), composed of FedEx boxes, tape, castaway video and participants. Photo credit: Ed Gomez.

An artwork composed of large water jars, a bucket, a stool, electricity cords and water.

Luis G. Hernandez exhibited “Fuera de Contexto/Untitled (fountain)” from the series “El Santito” of 2009/2010, using containers, a fountain pump, and water. Photo credit: Joshua White / JWPictures.com.

A mural near a border wall with a phrase in Spanish.

Susana Rodriguez’s “Monopoly, 2009,” mural near the border wall in Casa del Tunel, Tijuana, MX. The phrase states “Salga de la cárcel gratis” (Get Out of Jail Free), recalling the game card in Monopoly. Photo credit: Ed Gomez.

In 2006 and 2009/2010, the MexiCali Biennial launched two inaugural programs, curated by Gomez, Hernandez, Pilar Tompkins-Rivas (2006) and Dr. Amy Marie Converse (2009/2010), featuring local border artists and highlighting the theme of the “readymade” – a conceptual art practice of repurposing found objects. Applying these concepts to the region, the first MB challenged viewers to consider both the U.S.-Mexico border and art biennials as readymade objects and ideas, whose assumed function could be adapted by artists. Artists Skylar Haskard’s “Untitled” installation of FedEx boxes, Hernandez’s Untitled #12″ (fountain), and Susana Rodriguez’s “Monopoly” are reflective of conceptual border art practices, while Ed Gomez’s Air Mail, 100 letters,” Mike Rogers’ “Telephone/Teléfono,” and the aforementioned “Transborder Game” traversed ephemeral, non-object based art.

A collage of two pictures showing a man releasing two balloons with letters.

Ed Gomez’s performance “Air Mail, 100 Letters from Mexicali to Los Angeles, 2006” at Casa de la Tia Tina, Mexicali, MX, includes envelopes, paper, postage, and helium balloons. Photo credit, April Lillard-Gomez.

A collage of two photographs showing two men using a ladder, string and a paper cup in an art performance.

Mike Rogers used a ladder, string, and a paper cup in the performance and border intervention “Telephone/Teléfono, 2006.” Photo Credit: MexiCali Biennial and Ed Gomez.

In 2013, the third iteration of the MexiCali Biennial took place at the Vincent Price Art Museum (Los Angeles), the Mexicali Rose Centro de Arte/Medios (Mexicali), and the art gallery at Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, UABC (Mexicali). The exhibition program, titled Cannibalism in the New World,” curated by Converse, Gomez and Hernandez was inspired by the writings of the Brazilian modernist Oswald de Andrade and his 1928 Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibalistic Manifesto). Among the featured artworks were Veronica Duarte’s Red Flag/Bandera Roja,” which consists of an elongated flag of Mexico whose red fabric pools onto the floor, symbolizing the desensitization of narco-violence, and Marycarmen Arroyo Macias’ Tomad y Comed (Take This and Eat It),” a wall text installation “painted” with blood and meat, referencing the consecration of bread and wine in Catholicism, something the artist views as spiritual cannibalism.

A flag as artwork hanging on a pole on the wall.

Veronica Duarte’s “Red Flag/Bandera Roja, 2013,” offers a hand-painted fabric and flagpole. Photo credit: Ed Gomez.

Text written in Spanish on white background.

Marycarmen Arroyo Macias’ “Tomad y Comed (Take this and Eat It), 2012/2019,” references the words spoken at consecration during Catholic Mass, which translates to “Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my Body…” Photo credit: Luis G. Hernandez.

Curators Gomez, Hernandez, Daniela Lieja Quintanar and April Lillard-Gomez organized the fourth MB, Calafia: Manifesting the Terrestrial Paradise” (2018-2020), which was exhibited at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE, Hollywood), the Armory Center for the Arts (Pasadena), the Robert and Frances Fullerton Museum of Art (San Bernardino), Steppling Gallery at San Diego State University, Imperial Valley (Calexico) and the Instituto de Investigaciones Culturales IIC-Museo (Mexicali). The exhibitions and programs centered on the mythical origins of California. Among the works featured in this biennial were Sandy Rodriguez’s Study for Mapa de la Región Fronteriza de Alta y BajaCalifas,” a painted map made from natural pigments referencing Pre-Columbian codices, Carmina Escobar’s Rituals of Propagation,” a sound-activated performance that used voices to symbolize free migration, and Edna Avalos’s Baile, Liberación, Resistencia” that used Latin American music and dance to create a new ritual for the decolonization of the body.

An artwork that resembles the border region of northern and southern Califas.

Sandy Rodriguez’s “Study for Mapa de la Region Fronteriza de Alta y Baja Califas (Study for map of the border region of northern and southern Califas), 2017-2018,” offers a hand-processed map of watercolor on paper. Photo credit: Ed Gomez.

A group of people holding a large megaphone.

Carmina Escobar’s “Rituals of Propagation, 2020” was a megaphone performance on the border part of the 2018/20 MexiCali Biennial. Photo credit Ed Gomez.

A woman kneeling in front of a circle of candles with the image of campfire behind her and some people watching her.

Edna Avalos’ performance “Baile, Liberación, Resistencia (Dance, Liberación, Resístanse), 2018,” took place at the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, LACE, Los Angeles, CA for the 2018/20 MexiCali Biennial. Photo Credit: Lydia Espinoza.

The upcoming 2022-2023 MexiCali Biennial, titled The Land of Milk and Honey,” will explore cultural histories, sciences and systems of agriculture. Artists will be invited to explore food traditions, food scarcity and (in)justice, environmental impacts, and migrant labor in both Californias. Inspired by John Steinbeck’s seminal works on California and Mexico, focusing on the concept of California as a corrupted Eden. The Library’s collections offer an abundance of research material related to these series of topics. For the upcoming exhibitions, the MB curatorial team will mine the Library’s collection for sources about the Bracero program, the United Farm Workers, the WPA Federal Art Project, the Dust Bowl, the Okie migration, Chicana/o art, agricultural landscapes and much more.

Borderlands Research Initiative

With the opportunity to study and explore the Library’s vast collections on Latin America and the U.S.-Latinx diaspora, the MB aims to creatively connect past and future biennial concepts to the Library’s historical reservoir. Under the guidance of the HRR librarians, the MB hopes to contextualize its biennial programs and participating artist works within the broader art historical canon of American, Latin American, and Latinx art and draw attention to the bi-national artist communities of Alta and Baja California.

The joint research initiative will culminate in a series of “Borderlands” projects, beginning with aResearch Guide to Alta and Baja California, focusing on art, film & literature, and environmental studies. The second project will be a StoryMap based on the upcoming MB program, titled “The Land of Milk and Honey.” The story map will feature artworks, an illustrated map, and interviews with artists and curators. For the third project, writers of the U.S.-Mexico border region will record readings of their works for the PALABRA Archive.

And, if you’re wondering which team won the transborder soccer match, it was Team Mexico.

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