Art as Activism

This is my home, this thin edge of barbed wire, but the skin of the Earth is seamless, the sea cannot be fenced, el mar does not stop at borders (…) 

This land was Mexican once, was Indian always, and will be again.” 

Gloria Anzaldúa

Art has been an impactful form of activism throughout history, but in recent years, there has been an explosion of creativity dedicated to protesting change. A recent example is a dance that has traveled from Chile to Germany in protest of extreme sexism and femicide. One of the largest topics of discussion in general has been the mistreatment of Immigrants entering the United States, seeing as they account for a large amount of the workforce, but are largely mistreated and exploited. Generally escaping poverty and corruption within their respective countries, illegal immigrants have been manipulated by the media, described as “aliens” and treated as criminals. 

In the recent installation of Where No Wall Remains / Donde No Queda Ningún Muro, artists tackled the topic of borders, and how to look past them. They portrayed topics such as the Palestinian conflict, unity between cultures, and deaths at the border. Emilio Rojas, both an artist and professor at Bard College, focused their installation on Immigrants from Latin and Central America.

One of the pieces that Rojas created for the event is titled: m(Others): Hudson Valley. It displays a video of children being held by their mothers, who are covered by the American flag. Rojas wanted it to be a parallel to photographs that existed within the 1800’s, where mothers would hold their children to sit still in pictures. They intended to “[punctuate] the invisibility of [the mother’s] labor,” while calling attention to the “myth of the anchor baby” – the idea that one can recieve citizenship from their American born child. Rojas says that “[Having children in the US] doesn’t legally help you. It’s a 30 year process, it’s not like a baby guarantees you stay.” They wanted observers to ask questions such as: “Who is this person behind them?’ ‘What are the mothers? Now that Trump is talking about the birthright, are the children going to be American citizens?” They sat down with the photographed mothers from the Hudson Valley area, and “[talked] about their labor in this country, how they got here, how they [felt].” By drawing a parallel between women in the 1800’s, and immigrant mothers, Rojas emphasized the strength and resilience of their ability to push forward, regardless of the obstacles against them.

Rojas’ Naturalized Borders (to Gloria) is a recreation of the wall separating the United States and Mexico. Rojas began by growing corn, squash, and beans, (known as ‘the three sisters’ in agriculture) which were planted in May. The installation itself was fully completed in September, where around 35 classes, and a total of about 350 students, attended.

When classes attend Naturalized Borders (to Gloria), they are first asked to pull out a piece of paper, and pretend that the border is a person. What questions would they ask it? Rojas has collected these questions, and transcribed them into a small book.

Would you marry a Mexican? Do you think burritos are mexican? 

Do you hold their hands while they die in your desert? 

After the questions are asked, Rojas pulls out a piece of corn, and says that this is called an ear. Students then take turns whispering to the “ear” of corn with their partner. Rojas describes this practice as “transmit[ing] that information from body to body.” From this, the students walked through the “wall”, eyes closed, while holding on to the person in front of them. After they passed through the wall once, the students walk through it again, only this time picking up pieces of writing. The writing is generally pieces of literature written by Gloria Anzaldúa, a queer Chicana scholar. They were placed either on the grass in front of the “wall,” or hanging from the corn.The pieces of writing are read aloud, then traded off, so everyone has a chance to read every paper at least once. 

It is through Naturalized Borders (to Gloria) that Rojas is able to connect art to activism. “For me, art and activism are not separate; that’s the big myth of contemporary art: ‘Art is devoid of politics,’ or the opposite, which is like: ‘All art is political.’” By bringing the issue of immigration on campus, but directly connecting it to the senses in an artistically driven manner, Rojas hopes that “students [will] learn to see it as a tool that could be used beyond this campus.” 

The Return to Land Ritual  

December, Friday 13, 2019

The installation was taken down in a ceremony that included pulling every stalk of corn out of the ground, and cutting the roots and soil off from the bottom. Afterwards, they were gathered by the volunteers, and carried from the Bard Farm, to the fire pits on Central Campus. After fighting against the slight rain, Rojas managed to start a fire with the help of their volunteers, and the stalks were set aflame. The corn was shared amongst everyone who attended the ceremony, and as the smoke rose into the air, the end of the installation was marked by returning the border to the land. As the installation came to an end, we understood the true meaning of borders, and how these borderlands affect our lives more than we are aware. 

“A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary.”

Gloria Anzaldúa

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