Skip to Main Content

“El Otro Lado” (The Other Side): Border Art Histories of the MexiCali Biennial

Border Emergences and Interferences

The history of art in Baja California and its border region is a history of outcasts and dreamers, an exercise of both the downtrodden and the adventurous which dwells on the possibility of creating a unique regional imaginary. That is, a worldview that belongs equally to the dreamers, the outcasts, and the adventurers who have populated our cities since their founding. The outcasts live on the edges, inward-facing and fixated on the nineteenth century vision of “art for art’s sake”; the dreamers, in turn, constantly work to define identities and concepts on their own terms. Between them are those that generate the language of representation that art institutions need to affirm their role in the development of culture; those who carry out an ongoing effort of inventive storytelling. We measure the output of border culture by what it leaves behind: local icons; historical myths and epics; recycled objects, aesthetics, and concepts; all within a framework that works to understand art as something more than just art. To understand art as an engagement with the past and, at the same time, with the future. Within this history, the MexiCali Biennial has taken on an exercise of across-the-board experimentation. This has meant interfering in both aesthetics and society, and from this exercise comes an energy that drives the artists and collectives who dream of new ways to create and, therefore, new ways to understand the region.

Vergara, Camilo. US border fence seen from the toll road to Mexicali, 2018. Digital photographs--Color. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Since the early seventies, artists from the center and northwest of Mexico settled in the cities of Baja California, with their empty wallets and baggage of styles weaned on the country’s visual modernity. These included Rubén García Benavides, José García Arroyo, Carlos Coronado, and Álvaro Blancarte, and they drove a northwestern scene and aesthetic that initially cultivated the fields of painting and sculpture. At the same time, with an eye toward ensuring the endurance of the art scene, they helped create the spaces and institutions that offered a foothold for the first formal development of the region’s visual arts.

As art institutions solidified their place in the region between 2000 and 2010, a school of art appeared, laying the groundwork for a second level of academization. Together with artistic production grounded in traditional techniques and mediums came a reimagining of the art object and its relationship to space. Moreover, we see the inclusion of components and methods tied to a more contemporary vision of artistic practice. Video, performance, expanded drawing and graphics, installation art, and conceptual photography opened the way for new artistic languages to emerge. They broke away from “master narratives” of the border and moved towards a way of creating art that involved processes, as well as making and/or unmaking anew what we traditionally considered a “piece” of art. Among this new generation are the artists Héctor Bazaca, Luz Yaneli Montiel, Héctor Herrera, and the recently deceased Julio Torres/Ale.

However, these new ideas found no place for themselves in the institutions, because both the way this art is received and its relationship to the public, continue to be difficult to capture or describe neatly. Near the end of the 1990s and into the early twenty-first century, this led to the languages and mediums of contemporary artistic practice finding their own spaces on the margins of these established institutions. Independent and self-funded spaces opened their doors to new voices and new ways of approaching the arts. The MexiCali Biennial has, since its beginning in 2006, fitted its activities into exactly this context. It has forged a toolkit of new ways to curate art, exploring the depths of California’s historical remains and what history has left behind. By doing this, it works to provoke a discussion of our foundational myths, generating a sort of useful disruption in the eyes of the public which, throughout the Biennial’s various editions, has had the opportunity to question how the historical and social-aesthetic fabric of our surroundings has been maintained.