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Artists Address Border Control: The Writing's on the Wall

Architects, activists, artists, and photographers explore the many manifestations and consequences of border walls.
Abrazos no balazos/Hugs not Slugs, 2016, Lupe Flores. All images courtesy apexart

Between Donald Trump’s US-Mexico wall and the Syrian refugee crisis's border debates in the EU, walls are increasingly occupying greater space in the international dialogue and physical reality than ever before. It is as if no one learned one of the great lessons from the Berlin Wall: erect a wall and people will invariably find a way around it.

As the exhibition Fencing in Democracy reminds us all, the manifestations and consequences of divisive walls are many. Organized by Miguel Diaz-Barriga and Margaret Dorsey for apexart, the exhibit explores the many individual stories and impressions around the walls and borders constructed by nation-states.


Installation view

“Walls now permeate our world, with 33 nation-states constructing them,” Dorsey and Diaz-Barriga explain to The Creators Project. “Walls now separate Spain from Morocco (in the exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla), India from Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia from Yemen, Botswana from Mozambique, and the United States from Mexico.”

A bilingual exhibition, Fencing in Democracy brings together a number of artists, activists, architects, and public intellectuals who have envisioned alternative designs or who have fought the construction of the US-Mexico border wall. The exhibition is intended to get people thinking about how borders can be re-imagined in a more populist way, and not just function as powerful tools for countries and corporations.

Sinagua, Alfred J. Quiroz, 2004, abraded aluminum, 60 x 98 in

In Visual Testimonio of Border Security for instance, artist Lupe Flores video installation creates a window into an encounter with US-Mexico border agents. On the other end of the aristic spectrum, architects reimagine the border wall’s potential of being a “generative site” of binational cooperation. Architects Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello imagine the wall’s metal and concrete construction repurposed as hiking and biking trails, with solar panels that generate electricity for nearby residents, and water collection stations (a direct criticism on deaths from dehydration during border crossings).

Painter and printmaker Celeste De Luna explores how border walls follow people around in her print Breach Baby. She does this by representing a woman’s torso and upper body as the border between the U.S. and Mexico, with picket fencing and barbed wired severing and trapping her bare breasts and limbs. Within the woman’s body is a mature fetus and an anchor encircling it, highlighting how anchor babies, as Dorsey and Diaz-Barriga explain, have become crimes within the “militarized framework of the border wall, anti-immigration discourse, and presidential candidates wanting to end birthright citizenship.”


Dorsey tells The Creators Project that Fencing in Demoncray has its origins in her and Diaz-Barriga's ethnographic research on walls and borders.

Breach Baby (detail), 2015, Celeste De Luna, woodcut on paper, 36 x 60 inches

“I was a specialist on politics and culture on the border [and] I was curious how it would play out,” she says. “We were in South Texas doing so when DHS began building the wall when we began to research border residents' responses to border wall construction.”

“I think that governments build walls for a variety of reasons,” she adds. “As a form of political theater, as a form of international gamesmanship, as an assertion of control that marks sovereign power.”

While conducting their field work along the US-Mexico border, Dorsey and Diaz-Barriga met several artists and activists. They found others by reading their books and articles on border culture and life, or through online research. “We found their art or ideas and thought that they helped generate dialogue and expand imaginaries of borders, border life and the aesthetics of walls,” Dorsey explains.

Friendship Park, 2016, James Brown, architectural rendering

While the works in Fencing in Democracy focus on the realities of the US-Mexico border wall, the art really speaks to any wall which people desperately cross in an attempt to find a better life, only to find themselves criminalized.

“I would like for people to take away a deeper understanding of the dynamics surrounding wall construction,” says Dorsey. “I want them to understand the fear instilled in residents of border communities, to see that the border wall is only the beginning.”


“The attendant personnel and infrastructure only continues to expand without an end in sight,” she adds. “It's not just a physical structure but marks the insertion of the border security apparatus into multiple domains of U.S. life.”

Dying to not be Enslaved, 2008, Gilberto Rosas, digital image

To learn more about Fencing in Democracy, formerly showing at apexart through July 2016, click here.


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