At Frieze L.A., BIPOC Exchange is Making Space for Social Justice 

After a year-long hiatus, Frieze Los Angeles opened on Thursday, offering the usual mix of international galleries and local spaces alongside less expected programming, such as a dedicated space for social justice. As part of a collaboration with artist Tanya Aguiñiga, ten BIPOC-led art and advocacy organizations from across the city gathered at the fair for a BIPOC Exchange, a program of performance, installation, and education that will span the run of the fair, which closes on Sunday. “Visitors will be expecting a certain kind of art, and instead find us,” Aguiñiga said in an interview.

When Aguiñiga spoke with ARTnews, she was en route to the Wilshire Garden inside the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where the BIPOC Exchange is located. The space comprises booths and an area for performances designated by a stage of flowers—which the artists believes make the space more accessible than a raised platform, she said. Trees transplanted from a nearby nursery are scattered throughout. The flowers she picked up from florists herself, temporarily transforming her car into a movable meadow.

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Aguiñiga, who grew up in Tijuana and crossed the border into San Diego to attend school, is the founder of Art Made Between Opposite Sides (AMBO), a collaborative project for binational artists working on issues of migration. Her interdisciplinary practice centers the U.S.-Mexico border, considering the violence of its maintenance as well as the psychological toll of commuting. For her 2020 performance Metabolizing the Border, Aguiñiga created a bodysuit from blown glass embedded with border fence fragments and then wore it while walking a section of the wall.

At Frieze L.A., AMBO is be joined by initiatives such as the Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project, a resource for the Indigenous migrant communities in California’s Central Coast; the Los Angeles Poverty Department, which creates artworks that reflect the experience of people who live and work in L.A.’s Skid Row; and Contra-Tiempo, an activist dance theater company centered on the Afro-Latinx community.

To hear more about the BIPOC Exchange, ARTnews spoke with Aguiñiga ahead of the fair’s opening. The conversation follows below.

How did you get involved with Frieze?

I had done a BIPOC craft fair in my studio in November to get a lot of people to know the work of my friend Porfirio Gutiérrez, an Indigenous Oaxacan weaver. I wanted young people of color to get inspired by the virtuosity of what he does. It ended up being 35 BIPOC artists selling their artwork at the studio. Frieze found out about it, and they really liked the idea of me organizing something similar for the L.A. fair. I thought it would be cool to use the platform to bring attention to BIPOC artist-led projects around L.A. that are changing our community for the better. And we can introduce all sorts of mediums and disciplines this way.

Art fairs are not typically accessible events—it can be expensive go, and expensive to participate. How does the BIPOC Exchange respond to this reality?

The galleries coming from out of town don’t usually get a sense of the communities they’re stepping into, or to learn about the issues these communities face. It’s important for the galleries participating in the main Frieze show to be exposed to artists who are using art as a tool for social justice. And it’s good for people from L.A. who aren’t expecting work they can see themselves mirrored in. It’s super important for us to show that anyone can participate in art, not just people that have the money to buy blue-chip [art]. You can support small communities that are trying to make a living, or artists outside the traditional career path. So many of the people served by these organizations may not necessarily be learning how to make art in college. We’re talking about people that are unhoused or formerly incarcerated people, or people with disabilities.

How did art become such an important vehicle for self-care for you?

For around 25 years, I’ve been working on learning how to affect change and heal my own trauma. I just got back from doing the last leg of the border project which started when family separation had just begun. Being a witness to these families lined up at the border—I hadn’t dealt with what it does to you, to constantly see atrocities at our border and to live with the constant reminder of its events. Art came from the question of: How do I make it visible? How do I remind people that it’s ongoing? To me, a lot of performance is figuring out how to enter these painful spaces and then let people bear witness to that experience.

How are you making sure the artists at Frieze will feel safe exploring their traumas in such a public venue?

I wanted to set up the space to build community with each other. I don’t want this to be an extractive process, where we’re tokenized as the BIPOC section. I wanted us to take advantage of us being in one space because so much of our work is intersectional. I want us to be true allies in reshaping our city in ways we want, not with what politicians or capitalism decides for us. The space is laid out in a big circle so that we’re facing each other. Instead of walls, I used the money we had to buy trees, which will be decorated and help designate the different booths.

In the end the organizations can choose to take them home, or one of the organizations, Classroom of Compassion, can take them for one of their projects, a free community space for mourning and ceremonies. It’s a way better alternative than going to some contractor who would use them to build a wall or throw them away. I wanted this to be a nurturing space without divisions, where we can watch over each other’s booths and performances.

What would you say to the VIPs who may have resistance to engaging with issues of equity and social justice?

It’s everyone’s choice whether to engage or not to engage. I just think some people don’t know how. In that case, the best way to participate is to enact change with your wallet—to donate money. Or, if there’s something at our table that speaks to them, they can take it home. We want people to engage at the level they’re comfortable at. And hopefully when they leave, they’ll look at the piece they purchased or the flyers they picked up, and decide to look into what’s going on in L.A.

I know sometimes people get upset that artists are tasked with the emotional labor of teaching, of having to pick up the slack in figuring out how to heal our society. I do wish it was different, that we had more resources to help our communities, but it is important to show how art is such a necessary part of our survival, our resilience. I want the people coming to this fair to become champions of art, to become active supporters of the work that BIPOC artists are doing across the cities and the world. It’s really an amazing thing to learn.

You do a lot of collaborative work in your practice, but this is a new experience for you. What’s something you’ve learned?

I’m someone that’s always playing with hybridity. I grew up on the U.S.-Mexico border and have been thinking about this for decades. So, it’s amazing when you get exposed to a new combination of concepts, material, and message. My mind was blown when I found Contra-Tiempo, the BIPOC activist dance group, which helped me think that activism doesn’t have to be a graphic image or protest—all these things I’m used to. It showed me how dance is a form of resistance, of maintaining culture. When we become too used to one art form, we don’t do deep dives into how others can give voice to different narratives. There are new forms of resistance and survival.


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