Crisis to Creativity: Up Close with All the Art Inspired by the Border Debate

border art JR installation crisis creativity BELatina
JR’s new work, along the border fence in the Mexican city of Tecate, will remain in place until October 2nd.Photograph by John Francis Peters / NYT via Redux

The German philosopher Theodor Adorno famously said that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” I don’t believe that he meant to put the arts down, even in the face of an atrocity like the Holocaust. Rather, he was pointing out the insufficiency of language to describe this previously unseen horror, even when said language can resort to extreme expressions like hyperbole and metaphor. The magnitude of this systematized genocide was so great that it exceeds language’s capacity to contain it.

If anything, art and beauty make the ugly underbelly of being human on this earth an inspiring, bearable proposition. There is no shortage of art born from the pain of the artist who creates it, and I’ve personally met quite a few who credit their success to their ability to turn a difficult life experience into something worth sharing. The process of creation is cathartic for the artist and can be therapeutic for the audience.

Just like an artist might be moved to create an object of art in order to process or release personal trauma, so, too, are artists sometimes inspired to create the kind of art that can help a whole community bear the weight of their experience. Such is the case on the border between the United States and Mexico, a 1,954-mile long encounter that has always been fraught, though significantly more so in the last two years.

Even before the current administration took office, there has always been tension at the border and art inspired by it. An imaginary line divides the U.S. from Mexico and Central American countries to the south, but the differences in the opportunities on either side of it are quite real. For this reason, hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans flee their country annually, risking their lives and families to attempt to get to the side where they might stand a chance. 

Though the life they’re escaping is often hopeless and dangerous, the passage for these immigrants isn’t easy either. Even in the best of cases, when the trip itself does not include starvation, exhaustion, exposure, and abuse, the immigrant is still in a tough situation. In the new country, there is a new language, a system to be figured out. Few of the people who make it across arrive with much money and even fewer with their whole family. Countless have died in the attempt; many more have struggled to survive even after they’ve thought, with false relief, that they finally arrived.

This trauma that exists at the level of entire cultures, in which Latin immigrants must make a “Sophie’s choice” among their family members, cash out life savings to pay the coyotes for facilitating the trip, and risk being raped and beaten on both sides of the equation, has long inspired its own breed of art, rooted in the border debate. 

In an effort to slow the rate of undocumented immigration (or prevent it altogether, as the current administration dreams of doing), the U.S. government has implemented measures, from the preventative to the punitive, all in vain. Without a recourse to legally immigrate, many people who, in a reasonable world, would qualify for asylum protection are turned away. This leaves many without any real choices except the one between risking a border crossing and what all-too often results in sure death if they stay. 

These days, when the situation has only worsened under the watch of a racist, ignorant instigator who builds walls and detention centers for children along an uncontainable line that was once only drawn in the sand, Adorno’s failure of language begins to set in. After generations of Americans have forgotten just how much of the Southwest was once México and generations of community-minded immigrants have settled along border towns and deeper into the unknown, individualistic land, art might be the only language to describe this crisis. 

In 1988, Richard Lou, an artist born of two immigrants, created a minimalist installation with maximum impact. Border Door was inspired by his parent’s experience as well as his wife’s, who was deported while they were still courting. Lou placed frame between the fallen stakes that once secured a barbed-wire fence, with its door permanently ajar. He considered it a subversive invitation to the immigrant and a welcome for migrant workers who, even 30 years ago, were humiliated into crossing through sewage and drain pipes. 

On the México side of the border, in the heat of the Sonoran desert, three artists created a colorful mural entitled Paseo de la humanidad (Parade of Humanity), depicting the ideal exchange between borders. Guadalupe Serrano, Alberto Morackis, and Alfred Quiroz placed some of their figures in a southbound route, bearing the symbols of freedom and progress, such as appliances and Lady Liberty; the northbound families are dressed in traditional indigenous garb, carrying little by way of belongings, their arms supporting each other, their babies, and their dead. 

In Tijuana, Alberto Caro also painted a parade along the wall border, but his is devoted to those who didn’t make it on their northbound journey. Border Coffins represent the missing bodies, those who died as a result of the trials of this difficult passage. Though the numbers in the early years of the installations were already exorbitant, subsequent years, especially those that featured deterrence programs by the government, are particularly shocking. Just last year, it is thought that more than 6,000 people died while crossing. 

Whenever Ana Teresa Fernández intended to relax at beachside border between Tijuana and San Diego, she and others on the Mexican side were faced upon arrival by a towering, metallic border gate that resembles prison bars. In 2011 she decided to erase it. Matching her paint to the sky, Fernández climbed a ladder and painted each bar, essentially blending them into the background so that the landscape once again resembles what it used to look like before any of these aggressive walls were installed. 

Teresa Fernandez erases the border with art

The French artist who goes by the initials JR began scouting locations for his piece in 2017, as the news of the border crisis was mounting. He installed a scaffolding that faced north, in the shape and semblance of a young child peering over the monolithic bard of the fence, as if she were in her crib figuring out how to go into the world. JR’s was a not-so-subtle reminder that “caravans” that the administration continues to prepare against include the most vulnerable members of society. 

The architecture firm, Rael San Fratello, along with architecture professors from UC Berkeley and San Jose State, created a short-lived but much-hyped installation along the border wall this past summer. Teeter-Totter Wall featured extra-long, colorful see-saws, their fulcrum the wall itself, their riders, children from either side. Future iterations include a “burrito wall”, designed to serve food on both sides, and nature-viewing wall. 

Artist Cosimo Cavalero decided to give the government a hand with the portion of the wall that would separate Tecate, California from México. But rather than brick, he constructed the six by eight foot wall out of expired cotija cheese blocks. His point: to utilize a material that quickly biodegrades, resulting in a wall that now you see, now you don’t. Hopefully something similar will happen with the very idea of building one. 

Crisis Creativity Border Family BELatina border art

Focusing on detainees along the border with Texas, illustrator Molly Crabapple decided to document the plight of detainees in these camps, the best way she knows how. She traveled to the border with her pencils and sketch pad, and even though she spent five days sketching during a moment when family separation wasn’t being actively practiced, what she saw during these “normal times” left her equally speechless. The situations she observed, even in the best scenarios in which detainees were released to family members in the U.S. to await asylum review, ranged from very difficult to inhuman; the rules placed on her and other artists and media wishing to document them, onerous. When words fail, a well-drawn image can say it all.