As xenophobic political rhetoric echoes across the country, a new art exhibition at the Richmond Art Center challenges U.S. immigration policies and seeks to give us a deeper understanding of what’s unfolding in the borderlands. Entitled, “Califas: U.S.-Mexico Borderlands/ El Arte de la Zona Fronteriza México-Estados Unidos,” the exhibition began this week and will continue until Nov. 16.
“This is a lot deeper than the media, children separation, fear mongering, we seek to offer a deeper look”, said Amy Spencer, exhibition director of the art center.
Califas extends the legacy of the Chicano movement into the contemporary art of the U.S.-Mexico “borderlands,” with an emphasis on the Bay Area. It features photographs, sculptures, textiles, literature and multimedia by 21 contemporary artists and collaborative groups.
“Borders became important with the arrival of the Europeans, not only in the U.S. and Mexico,” but worldwide, said Richard Candida Smith, professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Berkeley. “The question of the U.S.-Mexico border is a colonized history,” he said.
The exhibition adopts the word Califas, used by Chicanos for California, when referring to the region’s rooted indigenous history before borders were drawn. It seeks new ways to explore California without borders, reimagining a landscape without lines. The exhibition offers a unique perspective without orientalizing the immigrant population. It explores the themes of remembering, dividing, identity, resistance and visioning.
The installation entitled, “Emblems of the Decades: Borders 2015-2018,” by Bay Area Chicano artist Amalia Mesa-Bains, is the center piece of the exhibition. Emblems consists of an altar piece, or ofrenda, unique to the exhibit. It features a dresser piled high with toys dropped by children during the crossing of the border, bronze cast shoes, and portraits of children who have been allowed to remain in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which enables some children who entered the country illegally protection from deportation and eligibility for work permits. Some of the dresser drawers are ajar and filled with black sand.
Emblems takes aim at the current administration’s immigration policies that treat immigrants as criminals. The altar is an homage to children separated from their parents by U.S. border agents, and to those who lost their lives at the border crossing. According to a story in The New York Times last week, 12,000 immigrant children are still being held and remain separated from their parents.
“I started seeing the border being militarized with the wall, heavily armed agents, high-tech surveillance camera and drones back in 2009,” artist Richard Misrach, whose work is part of the exhibit, said in an interview.
A photograph by Misrach entitled, “Wall, Los Indios, Texas (2015)” depicts a free-standing fence constructed in the middle of a desert landscape. The fence stands in a desolate space with nothing in front or behind it. Wall speaks about divide and how borders are man-made fences that disregard space, giving a façade of security.
As an artist, journalist and war refugee from Iraq, I really connected with Califas. In 1994, my family and I were forced to leave our home and cross the border to a refugee camp. When my family and I crossed the border, we were forced to leave everything behind, including our identity.