TRACES: LAND USE AND REPRESENTATION IN ARIZONA, U.S.A. AND SONORA, MEXICO BORDER ARTS

by John-Michael H. Warner*[1]

Border art[2] histories map everyday human experience onto the economic, political, and legal discourses of militarized borderlands.[3] Taking the border as an intersection of geopolitical and biopolitical modalities, this paper examines three artworks that represent and occur along the U.S./Mexico border separating Arizona, U.S.A. and Sonora, Mexico. First, Daniel Leivick’s Border Patrol and Cave Dwellings (2011)—a large-scale, panoramic color photograph of the Sonoran desert—depicts a section of the U.S./Mexico borderlands where diverse histories coincide. Second, Scott Hopkins’s photograph Looking Across the Border Fence from Nogales, SON to Nogales, AZ (2008) displays the national architecture of surveillance found at a present-day U.S./Mexico border city. Third, Gabriela Muñoz’s and Mary Jenea Sanchez’s collaborative performance La Tapiz Fronteriza (2009) consists of the artists weaving a two-sided tapestry of the Virgin of Guadalupe directly into the border fence between Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Sonora. These three artworks examine geographic sites where natural, social, political, and economic histories converge.

Walter Benjamin’s notion of the trace serves as a productive theoretical tool in unpacking the layered and often-conflicting histories and narratives embedded in these works. In The Arcades Project, Benjamin attempts to liberate the reading and writing of history from bourgeois ideology. In particular, the idea of the trace, or spur, emerges as fundamental to the destabilization of dominant discourse. To that end, Benjamin posits art as a layered record of existence, a material palimpsest that can be understood as encompassing both the present and the past.[4] The word trace simultaneously conjures presence and absence. In aesthetically interpreting the surfaces and textures of history, these three artworks reveal significant erasures in the writing of frontier histories[5] and unearth divergent narratives of the American Southwest and Northern Mexico.[6]

Daniel Leivick’s panoramic photograph Border Patrol and Cave Dwellings (2011) depicts a landscape that is at once geographically specific and abstract. The horizontality of the twelve-foot-long photograph emphasizes the vastness of the Sonoran desert. Borrowing the words of landscape historian John Brinckerhoff Jackson, the artist describes the photograph as a “vernacular landscape.”[7] The expansive picture depicts the Sonoran desert topography through the eyes of someone who resides in the borderlands. Framed by cresting mountains and bisected by a road directing the viewer’s gaze toward a horizon of peaks that reach upward to a stormy sky, Leivick’s image orders the landscape so that it is easily apprehended by the human eye. Crucially, it is through this human perspective that traces are uncovered.

Daniel Leivick, Border Patrol and Cave Dwellings, 2011

Daniel Leivick, Border Patrol and Cave Dwellings, 2011

Trace is one translation of Benjamin’s spur, the German word alternatively denoting track, vestige, sign, and trail. Border Patrol and Cave Dwellings is a material record that captures traces of the past and attests to the presence of memories otherwise subsumed by a dominant history. Leivick’s photograph produces a site for the inscription of counter-hegemonic narratives that have been omitted and/or erased.[8] However, Benjamin cautions:

Whoever follows traces must not only pay attention; above all, he must have given heed already to a great many things. (The hunter must know about the hoof of the animal whose trail he is on; he must know the hour when that animal goes to drink; he must know the course of the river to which it turns, and the location of the ford by which he himself can get across.) In this way there comes into play the peculiar configuration by dint of which long experience appears translated into the language of immediate experience.[9]

Thus, the creation of additional narratives is contingent on knowledge developed through a new reading of evidentiary traces. An art historical reading of traces in a work such as Leivick’s photograph requires an informed viewer whose knowledge of the past permits a new interpretation of the present. Once the material and aesthetic traces are made visible in Border Patrol and Cave Dwellings, the viewer can re-imagine the landscape as more than a barren, uninhabited desert, the American frontier, the abandoned Southwest, or the stolen reaches of Northern Mexico.[10] In the bottom-left corner of the photograph, a figure is barely discernible due to the scale of the image. After close and sustained inspection, however, the viewer identifies a female form standing near a towering Saguaro tree. Beside the woman, the slow-growing, drought-loving Saguaro becomes another body in the landscape. This gentle detail reminds the viewer that life—both ecological and human—does indeed exist in the desert.

As the viewer follows the bisecting roadway, the middle ground opens up into a flat expanse of desert floor and a tiny white SUV with green writing appears—a checkpoint. The parked Border Patrol vehicle denotes the over one hundred and sixty years of shared national and political history between the United States and Mexico. The Border Patrol’s unilateral ability to determine who is legally permitted in the country and on public lands dates back to the United States land grab of Northern Mexico, authorized by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.[11] Leivick’s photograph conjures the symbolic footprints of those who have traveled the road throughout the fraught history of the borderlands.

The left end of the photograph depicts a mountain peak dotted with caves—homes that once provided shelter from the harsh environs of the Sonoran desert. The dwellings are markers of ancient sites where indigenous peoples resided prior to Spanish colonization, long before the formation of the Mexican and American nations. The Tohono O’odham have lived and migrated throughout Arizona and Sonora for millennia.[12] The land imaged in Leivick’s photograph was negotiated between the United States and Mexico in the Gadsden Purchase, a 1853 treaty in which the U.S. seized partial control of territory that had belonged to the Tohono O’odham for thousands of years.[13] The presence of the caves in Border Patrol and Cave Dwellings—affirmed in the image’s title—enunciates this historical erasure and calls attention to the ongoing foreign occupation. Today, Native North Americans who practice migratory traditions are routinely detained and deported.[14]

Scott Hopkins’s Looking Across the Border Fence from Nogales, SON to Nogales, AZ (2008) similarly animates the trace in order to destabilize hegemonic narratives. The color photograph depicts the built landscape of Nogales, Arizona from behind the border fence separating it from Nogales, Mexico—contested ground.[15] The photographic gaze is cast downward from the Mexican hilltop onto the United States, a vantage point that enacts Albert Boime’s theory of the magisterial gaze,[16] according to which such a panoramic perspective suggests a colonial claim on the landscape.
From this viewpoint, very little of Nogales, Sonora is visible; however, the inscription Limite de la Republica Mexicana, Tratado de 1848 Restablecido por Tratados de 1884-1889 on the painted concrete obelisk indicates that the photograph was taken within the boundaries of Sonora, Mexico. A vestige of nineteenth-century survey projects that demarcated the expansive international boundary,[17] the obelisk is foregrounded in Hopkins’s photograph: the trace is made visible. The relic of nineteenth-century statehood is dwarfed by the U.S.-built border fence, which authoritatively divides the image. The U.S. surveillance tower, equipped with heat sensors, rises above the Mexican hilltop, aggressively and invasively policing the everyday—its panoptic gaze engaged in an “inspection [that] functions ceaselessly.”[18] It is even possible to watch real-time online footage of the border recorded by cameras such as these[19]—a privatized but government-sanctioned form of entertainment wherein bodies police other bodies via electronic inspection.[20] The 360-degree gaze of the surveillance cameras produces an environment of perpetual scrutiny grounded in purely visual information.

FIG2Hopkins

Scott Hopkins, Looking Across the Border Fence from Nogales, SON to Nogales, AZ, 2008

Hopkins describes his work: “My project has been to photograph the physical realities of the border, [and] how technology has been implemented to turn the natural landscape into a physical division which is both concrete and symbolic.”[21] Hopkins’s photograph examines the architectural production of nation-states—the human-designed structures and technologies that divide landscapes and communities. The foregrounded obelisk—the trace—initiates a historical escalation of authoritative demarcation—the fence and most recently, the surveillance tower. The composition of Looking Across the Border Fence—as well as its title—directs the viewer to look beyond the dividing structures. Human figures are notably absent from the photograph. By mobilizing the trace of the obelisk, Hopkins suggests the need to move away from increasingly abstracting structures towards a human-centered discourse of the borderlands.[22]

Finally, Gabriela Muñoz’s and Mary Jenea Sanchez’s La Tapiz Fronteriza (2009) is a collaborative performance in which the artists wove a two-sided tapestry depicting themselves as the Virgin of Guadalupe directly into the border fence separating Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Sonora. The tapestry was made by hand from the fibrous pulp of the indigenous Sonoran desert Yucca plant, which was harvested by the artists. The tapestry was woven through the armature of the border fence. Once the strips of paper had been sewn together and the tapestry formed, Muñoz’s portrait looked onto the built landscape of Douglas, Arizona and Sanchez’s image faced the border city of Agua Prieta, Sonora. Once installed, the tapestry took possession of the wall and embodied the Mexican and American borderlands as the portraits were reciprocally activated by the changing light and winds of the desert. On December 12, 2009—the annual day of observance of the Virgin of Guadalupe—a dozen people joined the artists, about half of whom crossed into Mexico through the Douglas/Agua Prieta port of entry.[23] Once on the Mexican side of the fence the artists were unable to install the tapestry at the previously selected site, as the U.S. Border Patrol had since welded an additional layer of wire mesh to the fence, further militarizing the space and limiting cross-border interaction. Less than one hundred feet west of that site the artists chose a second location, where the tapestry would be installed. The U.S. Border Patrol arrived at the performance site and maintained a watchful eye throughout the entire performance, even interviewing the participants about what had “actually” taken place.

Self-identified fronterizas, Muñoz and Sanchez approach border art as a means to reconsider and reimagine national landscapes.[24] La Tapiz Fronteriza weaves the body back into the nationalized and militarized discourses. Specifically, the artists’ appropriation of the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe as a form of self-portraiture reactivates the legacy of 1970s and 80s Chicana feminism. In Chicana Art: The Politics of Spiritual and Aesthetic Altarities, Laura Pérez posits Yolanda López’s Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe (1978) as an iconic painting emerging out of feminist, queer, and Chicana discourses. Pérez writes, “self-portraits are another terrain of contestation for women of color, like those working with Guadalupe imagery.”[25] The various incarnations and exhibitions of Muñoz’s and Sanchez’s performance-based installation extends the legacy of Chicana artistic practice by embodying it, constructing a visual vocabulary that is not static but changing, fluid, and productive. Similarly, the work’s title extends the limits of verbal vocabulary. The use of the feminine article la in place of the grammatically correct masculine el and the feminine adjectival form fronteriza to describe tapiz (tapestry)—a masculine noun—forces a feminized notion of the borderlands. In subverting the grammatically correct El Tapiz Fronterizo, Muñoz and Sanchez address the many ways in which subjects are produced—in this case, through language. La Tapiz Fronteriza embeds a feminist Chicana narrative into la frontera, or the borderlands, destabilizing the hegemonic masculinist narrative of nationhood.[26]

Gabriela Muñoz & Mary Jenea Sanchez, La Tapiz Fronteriza, 2009. Artists weaving la Virgen into the fence.

Gabriela Muñoz & Mary Jenea Sanchez, La Tapiz Fronteriza, 2009. Artists weaving la Virgen into the fence.

Just as Leivick’s and Hopkins’s photographs render visible historical and sociopolitical traces, markers of border histories appear throughout La Tapiz Fronteriza—in this case, they speak to ecological concerns. Within one hundred feet of the installation site, participants came upon both an obelisk (the kind found in Hopkins’s Looking Across the Border Fence) and a United States Geological Survey (USGS) plaque (a record of a series of land surveys undertaken in the Southwest United States and Northern Mexico in the 1890s). Neither of these marking structures infringes on fragile plant and animal systems, as does the U.S.-built border fence, which harmfully divides the Sonoran desert. Muñoz’s and Sanchez’s original installation engages the site’s traces, drawing attention to the escalation of environmental destruction caused by such structures. La Tapiz Fronteriza, installed directly onto the fence and left to endure nature’s wind, rain, and sun, is a powerful critique of the harmful ecological impact of this form of nationalist architecture. Over time the installation fell apart and decomposed, its Yucca-based paper returning to the earth. All that remained was the rusted metal fence, scarring the landscape.

Gabriela Muñoz & Mary Jenea Sanchez, La Tapiz Fronteriza, 2009. Weaving, with obelisk in view.

Gabriela Muñoz & Mary Jenea Sanchez, La Tapiz Fronteriza, 2009. Weaving, with obelisk in view.

La Tapiz Fronteriza also addresses the destructive impact of the ongoing militarization of the borderlands on human lives—the division of families and the barring of undocumented workers from attaining employment rights and protection. Woven into the border fence, La Tapiz Fronteriza is situated at the physical epicenter of nationalist allegories of citizenship and trade. The image of la Virgen—a protective spiritual icon—stands in opposition to the U.S. and Mexican governments’ free trade policies and signals the transnational dynamics of a global female, often migrant, workforce. Maquiladoras (assembly factories)—found in nearly every U.S./Mexico border city and town, including Agua Prieta, Sonora—depend on the low-wage and readily available labor force of migrant women.[27] Most of these women work under strenuous conditions in the U.S./Mexico borderlands, without adequate compensation, workers’ protection, or the right to unionize. La Tapiz Fronteriza reminds us of the countless women who labor on “el otro lado.”[28]

Daniel Leivick’s Border Patrol and Cave Dwellings (2011), Scott Hopkins’s Looking Across the Border Fence from Nogales, SON to Nogales, AZ  (2008), and Gabriela Muñoz’s and Mary Jenea Sanchez’s La Tapiz Fronteriza (2009) are three important selections of Arizona/Sonora border art. By making signs embedded in the landscape visible, these works reinterpret specific border sites and produce crucial spaces for problematizing and complicating the histories of the U.S./Mexico borderlands. As powerful critiques of ongoing mechanisms of political and economic control, these works encourage a more complex understanding of the transnational North American landscape.

*John-Michael H. Warner is a doctoral candidate in the Departments of Art History and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona. 


[1] I would like to thank my PhD advisor and mentor, Professor Sarah J. Moore, for her many contributions to this article. This paper began in her seminar “Mapping America.” Additionally, I would like to thank the Interventions editors, Carmen Falcioni and Cecelia Thornton-Alson, for their careful review of this text.

[2] Beginning in the 1980s, trans-border art historian Amelia Malagamba-Ansótegui developed the field of Border Art History at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana, where she also founded the Department of Cultural Studies. Since the field’s inception, Malagamba-Ansótegui has used the term border art as a description rather than a category. In Caras Vemos, Corazones No Sabemos: Faces Seen, Hearts Unknown (Notre Dame University Press and Snite Museum, 2006), Malagamba-Ansótegui posits border art as a symbolic space that humanizes politicized understandings of border crossers. Shifra Goldman was one of the first U.S.-based art historians to categorize border art in her essay in the edited volume Visual Arts on the U.S./Mexican Border: Artes plasticas en la frontera Mexico/Estados Unidos (1991), wherein she brings needed attention to the Border Art Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo (BAW).

[3] The intersection of border art with geopolitics and biopolitics is implied here. I understand geopolitics as a method of analysis that deconstructs causal relationships between geography and the assumptive power and authority of politics. For Michel Foucault’s analysis of biopolitics—or, discourses that politicize the body, medicine, and science—refer to the recently published collection of essays: Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2009).

[4 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002) 447. In a dialectical relationship, Benjamin articulates the trace as a form of memory, notably, for a culture without one. He writes, “The trace is appearance of a nearness, however far removed the thing that left it behind may be. The aura is appearance of a distance, however close the thing that calls it forth. In the trace, we gain possession of the thing; in the aura, it takes possession of us.” The trace and the aura become image-concepts that are always related yet different from each other. For this essay, I have chosen to employ the concept of the trace because it is only through trace-based analysis that “we gain possession of the thing” and, I hope, destabilize dominant discourses.

[5] The very term frontier is historically constructed and inflected. In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner delivered the paper “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”—or, what is more commonly referred to as the “Frontier Thesis”—for the annual American Historical Association meeting. The paper addressed reaching the end of the frontier (i.e., California’s coastline) and examined the possibility of an imperial American frontier exceeding the boundaries of the North American West. In The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1987), Patricia Limerick argues against Turner’s idea of an infinite, imperial Western frontier. Limerick asserts that the American West is a particular place bound by Continental geography. Today, cultural historians continue to grapple with the frontier as a concept.

[6] For Walter Benjamin’s analysis and interpretation of the concepts of history and narrative, refer to: Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Concept of History,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968). On p. 257, Benjamin writes, “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it the way it really was.” Thus, philosophies of history invite a variety of narratives that vary dramatically with interpretation, methodology, and so forth.

[7] Artist’s statement written for the exhibition, The Border Project: Soundscapes, Landscapes, and Lifescapes (Tucson: University of Arizona Museum of Art, 2011). Leivick writes, “Many of my ideas regarding landscape were crystalized by J.B. Jackson’s book The Vernacular Landscape, particularly his notion that the visible landscape is a reflection or product of people living and working.” See: John Brinckerhoff Jackson, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984).

[8 In The Arcades Project, Benjamin considers material objects—including technologically and mechanically reproducible ones—ideal forms for studying the past. Benjamin characterizes these objects as traces of living history (i.e., a site where counter-hegemonic narratives can be exhumed).

[9] Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 801.

[10] For conceptual frameworks within which to contextualize these discourses, consult Juan Gómez-Quiñones’s Roots of Chicano Politics, 1600-1940 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994).

[11] The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (1848) marked the end of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and the U.S. annexation of what has come to be known as the American Southwest. The treaty outlined an understanding of citizenship for residents of these lands, which over time was ignored and defied.

[12] Traditionally, the Tohono O’odham have migrated across the lands south of Phoenix, as far west as the Gulf of California in Mexico and as far east as the transnational San Pedro River.

[13] Gómez-Quiñones, Roots of Chicano Politics, 191-194. The Tohono O’odham were not consulted when Mexico and the U.S. signed the Gadsden Purchase.

[14] “Tohono O’odham History and Culture,” <http://www.tonation-nsn.gov/history_culture.aspx&gt; (October 23, 2012). That the Tohono O’odham people continue to face challenges during trans-border migration demonstrates the disregard for the terms established by the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and the Gadsden Purchase.

[15] I describe the border zone pictured in the photograph as contested for various reasons. Foremost, I honor indigenous claims to the land. I am also responding to the colonial history of land occupations and land swaps by Spain, Mexico, and the U.S. The result is an amalgam of land histories that are anything but resolved.

[16] Albert Boime, The Magisterial Gaze: Manifest Destiny and American Landscape Painting, c. 1830-1865 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2011).

[17] For histories of U.S./Mexico border surveys and borderlands survey practices, see: Leon C. Metz, Border: The U.S. Mexico Line (El Paso, TX: Mangan Books, 1989); Joseph Richard Werne, “Redrawing the Southwestern Boundary, 1891-1896,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 104 (July 2000): 1-20; and Joseph Richard Werne, The Imaginary Line: A History of the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey, 1848-1857 (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 2007). I express appreciation to Katherine Morrissey, University of Arizona Professor of History, for her guidance and expertise, notably her presentation “Borderline Photography: The Visual Legacy of the 1890s U.S./Mexico International Boundary Survey” delivered at the symposium “Looking at Arts, History, and Place in the U.S./Mexico Borderlands” (Tucson, AZ, December 1-3, 2011).

[18] Michel Foucault, “Panopticism,” in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage 1995), 195.

[19] With growing political favor, many southwestern states are actively finding ways to manipulate surveillance into a form of racialized entertainment for a largely white audience. For example, BlueServo is a virtual stakeout that distributes real-time footage of the border online: “Blue Servo,” <http://www.blueservo.net/&gt; (October 20, 2012).

[20]   Humane Borders, a Tucson, AZ-based organization, has found ways to communicate with undocumented persons to lessen the number of people who die trying to cross the border. They have set up water stations and deposited first aid kits throughout the Sonoran desert as well as offering information at Sonoran migrant shelters about crossing conditions. As a result of their work, some journey across the U.S./Mexico border better informed and supported.

[21] Scott Hopkins, “Artist Statement,” in The Border Project: Soundscapes, Landscapes, and Lifescapes (Tucson: UAMA, 2011-2012).

[22] A discussion of the photograph’s traces might also address the relationship of surveillance, masculinity, and race to state-production.

[23] The team of assistants included: fellow fronterizo/a artists Claudio Dicochea and Adriana Gallego; anthropologist April Bojorquez; Lekha Hileman-Waitoller, then-curatorial assistant at the Phoenix Art Museum; Federico Waitoller, Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago; and Emily Weirich, at the time a graduate art history student at the University of Arizona. Community participation took place on both sides of the border and among the participants were members of Mary Jenea Sanchez’s family. I attended the performance on December 12, 2009 as well as the opening of the exhibition “Negotiations.”

[24] In Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books, 1987), Gloria Anzaldúa creates a theoretical space derived from personal fronteriza experiences. She describes her life as a geographic border dweller in the U.S./Mexico borderlands and as a border crosser, which for Anzaldúa meant living as a lesbian woman of color in the United States. Here, I refer to the artists as fronterizas based on personal interviews and discussions, in which they have self-identified as such. The artists have expressed solidarity with Anzaldúa as fellow border-crossers and women of color.

[25 Laura E. Pérez, Chicana Art: The Politics of Spiritual and Aesthetic Altarities (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 281.

[26] On culturally constructed ideas of manhood in the United States, see: Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). Bederman illuminates the ideological, cultural, and social forms of masculinity and their relationship to the nation-state in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

[27] For a feminist labor history of the maquiladora factories, which developed out of an economy created by the North American Free Trade (NAFTA) agreement, refer to Norma Iglesias Prieto’s Beautiful Flowers of the Maquiladora: Life Histories of Women Workers in Tijuana (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997).

[28] Julia Alvarez, The Other Side/El Otro Lado (New York: Plume, 1996). In closing, I borrow Alvarez’s phrase “el otro lado,” to reference the landscape of new immigrant and Latino/a experiences that she articulates through the written word.