Celebrated Curator Lowery Stokes Sims Discusses Borders, Diversity, And The Fluidity Of Design And Craft


Oceanside Museum of Art
Omar Pimienta, “Lady Libertad V1,” 2007. Plaster statuette, 29 x 19 x 19 in. © Omar Pimienta

A report from Laist.com.

From the Middle East to Europe to the Americas, borders are at the heart of contemporary debates over immigration, refugees, crime, and the economy. Rather than fixed barriers that exist solely to separate nations, borders are fluid areas of exchange, through which people, goods, and culture flow in both directions. To see them only as zones of exclusion is to deny the rich network of interdependence that they embody. This sentiment is behind the upcoming Getty initiative Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, an ambitious series of exhibitions taking place all over Southern California this fall focused on Latin American and Latino art, and their relationship with Los Angeles.

Aptly subtitled “A Celebration Beyond Borders,” PST LA/LA features several exhibitions that look at the phenomenon of borders, and related themes of migration, displacement, and diaspora. Coastal/Border at the Angels Gate Cultural Center is the result of a year-long series of research-based programs focused on the ports of San Pedro, the largest on the West Coast. Six contemporary artists have been invited to create performances at sites around the area, and create educational workshops that consider the ports in the larger context of the border. Four exhibitions examine the less talked about, but deeply meaningful links between Asia and the Americas. Transpacific Borderlands at the Japanese American Museum features artists of Japanese descent living in Los Angeles, Lima, Mexico City, and São Paulo, while Winds from Fusang at the USC Pacific Asia Museum is a historical exhibition on the influence of Mexican artists on Chinese art. Circles and Circuits, a two-part show at the California African American Museum and the Chinese American Museum focuses on artists of Chinese heritage living in Cuba, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, and elsewhere throughout the Caribbean. The US-Mexico border is naturally a major focus of this discussion, and UnDocumenta at the Oceanside Museum of Art includes artists from San Diego and Tijuana who address complex issues of human rights, labor, and identity through performance, technology, and other experimental methods. LAist spoke with influential curator Lowery Stokes Sims, who co-curated The US-Mexico Border: Place, Imagination, and Possibility at the Craft & Folk Art Museum, on what we can learn from looking at this specific situation with a focus on “design thinking.”

Chinese American Museum Circles and Circuits II: Contemporary Chinese Caribbean Art Albert Chong, “Aunt Winnie,” 1995″

This exhibition casts a wide net in terms of the disciplines included. What can we learn about the border by focusing on design and craft in addition to “fine art”

First of all I think we wanted to emphasize the porousness of categories of art making, not only along the border region, but also in contemporary practice in general. Under the rubric of “design thinking” we wanted to capture a wider range of creativity that related to living and thriving in this region while connecting it to the work that is classified as “fine art.” This allowed us to show how a medium as unexpected as jewelry, for example, could deal with issues similar to those addressed in painting, sculpture, photography, installation, etc., such as the physical nature of the border, its landscape features (flora and fauna), bifurcated identities and the experience of separation, loss and survival.

Works of craft and folk art are often seen as being representative of a certain culture or region, while the border is a fluid area of hybridity and cross-pollination. Can you discuss the ways some of these artists incorporate craft traditions to express this sense of diversity and multiplicity?

One of the most important ideas we explore in the exhibition is how contemporary artists incorporate concerns about cultural survival in their way of working, and crafts is the most obvious medium. So we can look at examples such as Pilar Agüero-Esparza and Hector Dios Mendoza’s installation/ performance about making huaraches that carries on the skills inherited from her father. The huaraches take on new forms and styles to reflect popular contemporary life: at times incongruous (in the form of swimming flippers) and hip and stylish (as woven sneakers).

Then there are Margarita Cabrera’s cacti soft sculptures created in collaboration with migrants who bring their stories and their needlework skills to the construction of the plants out of the cloth of discarded and sourced uniforms of border patrol guards. Again they reference the botanical character of the border regions and express, what I suspect, is a subtle statement of defiance.

More conceptual in approach is the work by Amy Sanchez and Misael Diaz, who comprise Cog·nate Collection, which documents the site-specific installation in a stall they rented at the San Ysidro border crossing, to sell tchotchkes that people can purchase waiting to pass through back to the United States. The presence of a plaster television reminds us that Tijuana, as many sites along the border, is an important manufacturing site for goods sold in the United States and the world, specifically in this case, electronic appliances. The project also highlights the fact that vendors’ catering to popular taste comes at the detriment of the appreciation of traditional crafts.

Angels Gate Cultural Center
Coastal Border

As the border becomes an increasingly contested space, what do these works say about possibilities for the future, expressing both hope and alarm?

Policies and events and negotiations around the border change so quickly these days, that it would be foolhardy to try to predict the future. What is clear is that despite political maneuvers, legislation and policies, that people on the border region and on both sides of the border will continue to find creative and imaginative solutions for surviving and making statements about their condition. One thinks of the recent action of women at the El Paso/ Ciudad Juarez crossing who braided their hair together to demonstrate the interconnectivity of the two municipalities. There is also the imaginative conception of the border as a prominent element of infrastructure by Rael San Fratello architects, which would include a library, greenhouse and pedestrian walkways accessible to citizens on both sides of the border.

Craft and Folk Art Museum
The US-Mexico Border: Place, Imagination, and Possibility
Ana Serrano, “Cartonlandia,” 2008. 

With such a broad array of artists working around the border, what was your curatorial selection process like?

The selection process was lively, interactive and responsive. Once the organizational team of guest curators, advisors and the curatorial, exhibition and educational staff of the Craft and Folk Art Museum convened, we assembled images and information on potential participants. After a few meetings, we embarked on site visits to San Diego, Tijuana and Ensenada to meet artists, visit galleries and museums and architectural offices; and, to experience another aspect of the border, we also visited El Paso and Ciudad Juarez—where we viewed the 2015 Biennial shared by both cities. We also convened a meeting of essayists who had important input about the content of the exhibition, and we interviewed a number of key individuals in the dialogue about the border in the visual arts from the 1970s and 80s to the present.

How does this exhibition complement or relate to the other PST LA/LA exhibitions that address the subject of borders?

While the exhibitions Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo at the Japanese American National Museum, includes the work of artists of Japanese heritage in the US, Mexico and Latin America, and Found in Translation: Design in California and Mexico, 1915-85 examines the design dialogue between the two countries the exhibition at the Craft and Folk Art Museum focuses on artistic activities with a craft and design focus in the four US states and six Mexican states immediately contingent to the border. This work specifically targets the interconnectedness between the two countries that characterizes contemporary life in the region.

Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA runs through January 2018. For more information, visit the website here.

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