For Mexican-Americans, the idea of a border wall between the two countries can be soul-splitting. Instead of encouraging you to be this and that, it wants you be one or the other, to consider which side you stand on.
Personal geography matters, especially for two cultures where nationalism is wound so tightly with identity. Who you are depends on where you are, and a wall dams off the natural fluidity of dual allegiances.
“Mi Tierra,” the remarkable show that just opened at the Denver Art Museum, asks 13 Mexican-American artists to confront this notion head-on, and in public. How Mexican are you, it wants to know, and how American? You may live in Texas, or New Mexico or Colorado, but where does your heart place your homeland on a map?
It’s a highly charged question in the current political climate that has an actual wall on its way up, but “Mi Tierra” is not a polemical exercise, even though the artists invited to set up installations in DAM’s Hamilton building lean heavily to the pro-immigration, anti-isolationist left. The works avoid direct protest and instead offer symbolic narratives that tell wide-ranging existentialist stories. And because the pieces are all big enough that you can walk through them, they are powerfully involving — seeing “Mi Tierra” is like watching a movie and being in the movie at the same time.
That is exactly the case with Justin Favela’s “Fridalandia,” which can be fairly described as the world’s biggest, walk-through piñata. Favela has recreated, in human scale, the courtyard of the late artist Frida Kahlo’s house in Mexico City using thousands and thousands of tiny pieces of multicolored paper. There’s a cactus here, a peacock over there, a Virgin of Guadalupe shrine in the middle of it all.
The scene is not based on her actual courtyard, however, but the one he saw while watching the 2002 American biopic “Frida.” And for background scenery he has reinterpreted the sprawling, overly romanticized landscapes of the revered, 19th century Mexican painter José María Velasco.
With his frilly tableau, Favela backs up the question of identity. What is authentically Mexican, anyway? Or Mexican through the eyes of American pop culture? Or tourists, art collectors or politicians stirring up jingoist sentiments? You want to take a stick to the work and find out what’s really inside.
Jaime Carrejo’s “One-Way Mirror” is less like a movie and more like a dream — even though it uses actual video that is projected directly on two large and opposing museum walls to make its point. One wall has landscape footage of the U.S.; the other has footage of rural Mexico. Down the middle he has constructed a third, artificial wall, covered in acrylic that is sometimes reflective, sometimes transparent — you can only see through it to the other country’s landscape when the lighting hits just right.
How does all this fuss over borders and cultural divisions prevent us from seeing one another? And how does it shape the egotistical ways we see ourselves? The story continues.
Those two pieces offer expressions of identity as different as the two artists who made them — and that turns out to be “Mi Tierra’s” strength. Curator Rebecca Hart, working closely with her contributors, has put together a show with a cohesive theme but a variable tone, and that keeps it on topic without being repetitive.
Just the opposite, really. Every artist here has something unique to say, and some of it is surprising. How Mexican or American is Ana Teresa Fernández? Well, she lives in the U.S. and has for decades, since her family migrated from Tampico. But her piece is concerned almost totally with the interior politics of Mexico.
“Erasure” is centered around a video that has Fernández decked out in a little black dress and stilettos and standing before a black background. Slowly, and with a fat brush, she covers every inch of her body in goopy, black paint — her bare legs and shoulders, her hair, hands and face. She eventually disappears into the scenery, drawing attention to the 43 students who were kidnapped and murdered in Iguala, Mexico, in September 2014.
Most Americans never heard of the tragedy for which many hold the local government responsible. But in Mexico, it remains an open wound. People still protest, maintain memorials and demand accountability.
Fernández’s “tierra” — at least, the one she presents here — dwells on the southern side of the border. But it’s not a physical place as much as a relentless state of cross-cultural concern. It’s in her head.
Dmitri Obergfell’s place is more tangible and a lot closer to home. He lives just a few miles from the museum and his “Federal Fashion Mart” is the re-creation of a small market, catering mostly to the Latinos in his West Denver neighborhood. The shop sells iconic goods that serve its demographic: religious statues, fancy fake nails, the shiny, chrome bumpers you see on low-rider cars. There is also a shrine to Santa Muerte, the skeletal deity of death whose worship is forbidden by the Catholic Church in Mexico.
Obergfell is exploring his own identity here — his father is Mexican but he grew up without him, connecting only to the family of his Euro-American mother. His search for Mexican-ness lead to places like this, and he has come to understand the physical evidence that sums up the contemporary Mexican-American experience. Retail doesn’t lie: You are what you buy.
The piece works because it is impeccably installed. The linoleum tile squares on the floor look like they’ve been there for years. The glaring fluorescent lights are left unshielded, casting unflattering shadows on everyone who enters — just as it happens in the real stores he mimics.
That says a lot, since installation proves to be the real challenge for “Mi Tierra,” and mostly because of the architect Daniel Libeskind’s angular design for the decade-old Hamilton Building, which is unfriendly to most art and a particular problem here. Walls lean and bend at awkward angles and come together to create corners and shapes that defy the logical placement of art.
“Mi Tierra” seems to be in a constant wrestling match with the building that houses it. Sometimes it wins. For example, Xochi Solis’ multi-colored collages take on unexpected dimensions when placed, as they are, on the uncomfortably canted wall inside DAM’s main stairway.
But just as often it loses. One example: John Jota Leaños’ mesmerizing, animated movie, “Destinies Manifest,” which offers a revised telling of Westward Expansion, has to be morphed into something like a parallelogram to fit the unnatural walls in the room where it is screened. Another: Gabriel Dawe’s “Plexus no. 36” — a marvel, made miraculously with 65 miles of rainbow-hued thread — is crammed into an uncomfortable corner so that it is able to capture natural light from a random window.
The placement has nothing to do with Dawe’s art (which is about taking back his identity as a male while working in fiber, a traditionally female medium in Mexico, where he grew up) and leaves a sense that DAM is trying too hard to right an institutional misstep — to prove its building is not a flub — at the expense of its artists’ authentic visions.
The artists, however, prevail. Every one of them: Claudio Dicochea, with his update of 18th century “caste paintings,” which show how the restrictions of class never really change. Daniela Edburg’s romantic portraits, which link Colorado’s naturally evolving geology — lichen, rocks, cheatgrass — to the evolving ethnicity of the people who migrate here; Daisy Quezada’s porcelain casts of the clothing of actual immigrant children, which makes their stories so personal.
And because all of this work deserves to be mentioned: Carmen Argote’s wonderfully complicated blurring of the lines between art, work and daily life; Ruben Ochoa’s sculptural exploration of infrastructure and place; Ramiro Gomez’s potent tribute to overlooked, Mexican laborers.
These pieces, in their own language, answer those original questions — who are you, what are you — with the complex answers they deserve. Identity is in constant motion; it’s not easy to freeze it just because a museum asked you to.
But the question is crucial now, as our country aims to separate itself from its neighbor. We may be able to back up trade deals, define citizenship more clearly, prevent families from sneaking into places they’re not allowed, but we cannot seal off the duality of millions of people who can’t help but to be this and that, people for whom choosing a side is undesirable, as well as impossible.
“Mi Tierra: Contemporary Artists Explore Place” continues through Oct. 22 at the Denver Art Museum, 13th Avenue between Broadway and Bannock streets. $10 for Colorado residents. 720-913-0130 or denverartmuseum.org.