Resisting Superficial Narratives About the US-Mexico Border

ALBUQUERQUE — Many artists with an intimate, lived border experience denounce what they see as outsider extractivist practices that often feed superficial narratives. However, border politics influence many of those who have not necessarily lived along the dividing line, making the ethics of its representation questionable as people from all over reflect and respond to its dynamics. When The Dogs Stop Barking, on view at 516 Arts in Albuquerque, presents a collection of work that exists in this nuanced space, showcasing powerful interpretations of the subject, regardless of the artists’ proximity to the border. 

For example, Juana Estrada Hernández’s family migrated from Zacatecas, in Central Mexico, to Denver when she was seven years old. As a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the artist’s life is deeply dependent on the ever-shifting US border policies without a direct geographical connection, a dichotomy at play in her installation “Lo Que No Nos Enseñan Parte 2 (What We Are Not Taught Part 2)” (2021). In it, she uses paper DACA forms – through which some undocumented youth can apply for limited legal migratory protections – covered with her own woodcut prints and shaped into water jugs, an object that has become an art motif representing the dangers of undocumented migration through the desert. In “Nuestro Futuro (Our Future)” (2021), Estrada Hernández depicts a group of children in a cage on US territory, an image that portrays the horrors of the family separation that occurred in recent years. Both the cage and the water jugs become analogies of the artist’s own experience in the country, regardless of whether she personally suffered the processes they represent.

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The title of the exhibition comes from a lithograph by Makaye Lewis (Tohono O’odham), whose Indigenous identity informs her work. The land that encompasses her Nation includes both the US and Mexico, creating a third sovereign identity in the region. Her native town of Ventana, Arizona, is a mere 60 miles away from the border, from where she draws images of surveillance, control, humanity, and nature that reflect the foolishness of geopolitical limits that separate her people, who have been in the area long before the delineation. 

Installation view of When the Dogs Stop Barking at 516 Arts, Albuquerque (2022); middle: Haley Greenfeather English, “NMTRU 2” (2022), acrylic on canvas, 5 x 12 feet; left and right: Yvette Serrano, “ICE THUGS” (2020), engraved cast mirror, acrylic, dirt, bullet casings,  17 1/2 x 27 inches (photo Claude Smith, courtesy 516 Arts)

The show — Rachelle B. Pablo’s (Diné) inaugural exhibition as the museum’s first Native American curator — is in conversation with Minerva Cuevas’s Migratory, which is conjointly on view and originally shown at the Rubin Center for the Visual Arts in El Paso, Texas. Cuevas’s border approach comes from the globalized perspective of her practice, which criticizes capitalism and often hijacks its methods in the process. A huge mural designed by Cuevas and painted by Albuquerque artist Aaron Stromberg, welcomes the audience into the gallery with the phrase: “Yes, it could even happen to you.” What “it” means and who “you” is are open to interpretation, with subtle nudges as one walks through Migratory

Any subtlety is, however, forsaken in When the Dogs Stop Barking, where Yvette Serrano’s sculpture “ICE THUGS” (2020) — acrylic replicas of the official targets used by the Department of Homeland Security — point a gun at the audience as their likeness is reflected on mirrored surfaces. There is no mistaking what “it” is: the multidimensional violence perpetrated by nation-states in their eternal search for power. The “you” becomes an existential proposal. Regardless of presumed safety or how many degrees of separation we assume we have from border issues, the reality is that at any moment, for many reasons, “it” could happen to anyone.

Joshua Wesley Wells, “N.A. MUH Cargo Co.” (2019), metal, wood, light fixtures, found objects, 25 x 12 x 27 inches (photo Claude Smith, courtesy 516 Arts)
Juana Estrada Hernández, “Lo Que No Nos Enseñan Parte 2 (What We Are Not Taught Part 2)” (2021–22), mixed media, dimensions vary (photo Claude Smith, courtesy 516 Arts)
Detail, Juana Estrada Hernández, “Lo Que No Nos Enseñan Parte 2 (What We Are Not Taught Part 2)” (2021–22), mixed media, dimensions vary (photo Daniel Ulibarri, courtesy 516 Arts)

When the Dogs Stop Barking continues at 516 Arts (516 Central Avenue SW, Albuquerque, New Mexico) through December 31. The exhibition was curated by Rachelle B. Pablo.


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