On Oct. 6, 2006, artist Mike Rogers (left) on the U.S. side of the international border fence “speaks” to artist Luis Hernandez (right on pole) on the Mexico side in a cross-border art piece called “Telephone/Teléfono,” one of the first major pieces in the ongoing MexiCali Biennial, which is now curating its fifth version to open in 2022 and 2023 at galleries and alternative art spaces in Mexicali and California. | PHOTOS COURTESY OF LUIS HERNANDEZ
CALEXICO/MEXICALI — Fifteen years ago, in the days before the international barrier topped 30 feet tall, Mike Rogers erected two structures against a then-15-foot-tall border fence — one on the Calexico side and one in Mexicali — some 200 yards east of the downtown ports of entry.
The roughly 12- to 13-foot pole with ladder-like rungs was painted red, white, and blue on the U.S. side, while its Mexico counterpart was red, white, and green, with both sides connected by a piece of string running through the fence and attached to Dixie cups on either side.
The debut of “Telephone/Teléfono” on Oct. 6, 2006, was one of the first international art pieces in what would become the reoccurring MexiCali Biennial, a cross-border art exhibition gearing up for its fifth renewal.
“For me, the MexiCali Biennial offered an opportunity to address the xenophobia that is percolating in much of the United States. My project, called ‘Telephone/Teléfono,’ was designed as an instrument to foster cross-border communication,” Rogers would write in the biennial’s program for that year.
“On the Mexicali side, Luis Hernandez, wearing a t-shirt with ‘Mexico’ and the country’s flag emblazoned across it, and I, on the U.S. side, wearing a ‘U.S.A. Home of the Brave’ t-shirt, climbed up the poles and tried to talk. Within two minutes, U.S. Border Patrol officers on bicycles rode over to me and stopped the action,” Rogers wrote in 2006. “The structures were dismantled.”
As the last few years have revealed, in light of a border barrier that has since doubled in height and expanse and following the hangover from Trump-era divisions, that “percolating” xenophobia has arguably boiled over as times have both changed and stayed the same.
Another constant from 2006 has been MexiCali Biennial co-founder and artist Luis Hernandez and his partner in the effort, artist Ed Gomez, who on that day nearly 15 years ago was also assisting Rogers, but on the U.S. side.
Today, Hernandez is an art instructor at both Imperial Valley College and San Diego State University-Imperial Valley campus in Calexico, where he is director of the John Steppling Art Gallery. Gomez is an associate professor in studio art at California State University, San Bernardino.
Together they have since curated, along with others, four international biennials over the years and are now calling out to border-area artists to participate in a fifth biennial to take place in three locales between 2022 and 2023, including an as-yet unscheduled stop at Steppling Gallery in 2023.
In its broad concept and birth, the MexiCali Biennial started as a way to poke fun at the bloat that had infiltrated the international biennial movement in which the high-dollar art world had essentially lost its soul, or at least its footing on earth.
“MexiCali Biennial originally started as an art project conceived by myself and Luis. We settled on this as a way to critique the proliferation of international regional art biennials, and to play with the way the word biennial can change the context of an exhibition,” Gomez said recently.
“Since 2006, the MexiCali Biennial has showcased artists and collectives on both sides of the border in alternative and traditional spaces with select works activating the border itself as an alternative arts program,” Gomez said during a live online talk hosted by the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History on Friday, Sept. 24.
“Exhibitions can be executed without the confines of traditional biennial models. Our programs can take place outside of the two-year limit of traditional biennials and host actions and performance along the U.S.-Mexican border, and within the broader Mexico-California region,” he explained.
Hernandez and Gomez, along with curators April Lillard-Gomez and Mexicali-born El Centro native, Rosalía Romero, gathered for a Zoom event hosted by the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, one of three primary gallery sites for the fifth biennial.
The talk was billed as a history of the 15-year-old MexiCali Biennial, but it was also a deeper dive into the central theme of the fifth-generation event, “The Land of Milk and Honey,” and a solicitation of works.
Four Biennials and Counting: A Recap
For Gomez and Hernandez, their association was born out of a 2005 exhibition they were invited to produce featuring Los Angeles and Mexicali artists. That was the launching point for a thumb in the eye at what Gomez called the “typical white cube exhibition space.”
The biennial kicked off in 2006 primarily on the Mexicali side, around an alternative space called La Casa de la Tía Tina, before moving to Chavez Studios in East Los Angeles. The multimedia events spanned from performance pieces like Rogers’ “Telephone/Teléfono” to Chicali and American punk bands to three-dimensional installations on public walls and graffiti-style art.
“As part of the overarching program in 2006, there were no curatorial limitations on the exhibited works. The selected artists were open to addressing the U.S.-Mexican border as a site either physically or conceptually, while experiencing firsthand the process of traversing the U.S.-Mexican border and the cultural bleed that happens where countries meet,” Gomez explained.
The second iteration came beyond the typical biennial timeframe of two years, occurring in 2009-2010, where it expanded past the Mexicali and Imperial valleys and L.A., now extending to Tijuana, Gomez said.
In 2010, one of the more memorable, ambitious, and down-to-earth pieces occurred at the Calexico-Mexicali border, the “Transborder Game” project by Homeless (collective) visual artists Cristian Franco and Felipe Manzano of Guadalajara, Mexico.
“This ‘Transborder Game’ performance consisted of a soccer match conducted on the international border between Mexicali and Calexico,” SDSU-IV’s Hernandez explained. The piece “attempted to condense ironically and concisely aspects of the relationship between Mexico and the U.S., including migration, and the illegal trafficking of goods. The soccer game, or ‘cascarita’ (improvised soccer game),’ was carried out on both sides of the border with the border fence acting as a midfield, dividing access.”
Each player wore jerseys printed with the face of the past 11 presidents of each respective nation. Hernandez added that the work intended to “address confrontation, cooperation, competition, and exchanges between individuals, as players. And the most constant movement, on both sides of the border, and the invisibility of what’s happened, or of what happens on the other side, illustrated the various bilateral relations between neighbors.”
The large-scale piece was specifically influential to co-curator of the 2022-2023 biennial, Romero, who attended the performance. The Southwest High School graduate who is now an assistant professor of art history at Pomona College, spoke of the effect the piece had on her during the Sept. 24 talk.
“I was researching how artists were developing creative practices to transcend the physical barriers imposed by the border structure and its surveillance apparatus,” she said of the thesis she was working on at the time while a student at University of California, San Diego. “Viewing this work in person had an immense impact on me, and my future decisions to continue researching the contemporary, as well as the historical art of the U.S.-Mexico border.”
“Transborder Game,” Romero said, “exemplifies the experimental and the innovative projects that the MexiCali Biennial has reported, and it reveals how art can shape and reframe our conceptions of the physical and conceptual nature of the border, its physical form, its representation, and the hierarchies of power that it reinforces.”
Hernandez and co-founder Gomez said 2009-10 was also the year the biennial began to work with Mexicali Rose, the now-closed collective run by former area resident Marco Vera. Mexicali Rose would figure prominently in the third biennial as well, in 2013, which explored themes of cannibalism, ultimately, as a stand in for colonialism in the Americas.
Mexicali Rose and the art gallery at Mexicali’s Universidad Autónoma de Baja California would host an exhibit titled “Cannibalism in the New World.” That exhibit would travel to the Vincent Price Art Museum on the campus of East Los Angeles College in Monterey Park, Hernandez said.
“‘Cannibalism in the New World’ was one of the central rationales for colonialism, but MexiCali also proposes it as a path forward towards a new model for avant garde practice,” Hernandez said on Sept. 24, with that idea expanded upon on the biennial’s website: “Cannibalism can open up radical new spaces in art for bodies and their environmental interactions, and push against the oppressive pressure of hegemonic Western cultural systems.”
Taking place over three years between 2018 and 2020, the fourth and most recent biennial delved into the world of mythology, with the theme, “CALIFAS: Manifesting the Terrestrial Paradise.”
MexiCali was able to “explore the spirit of California by using the mythological Black female warrior, Califas, who is the namesake and ruler of the fictional island of California as a source of inspiration and artistic departure,” Hernandez explained.
Fifth biennial co-curator Lillard-Gomez wrote of “CALIFAS,” Hernandez quoted during the talk, “The parallels between the myth of Calafia and current day inhabitants of the great state of California don’t stop at its etymology. … From the cinematic glamour of Hollywood to its identity as a fertile paradise, to its association with gold and riches, the story and character of Calafia can be a point of critical interrogation used to explore and critique California’s stories, contradictions, and identities.”
As if coming full circle, the fourth biennial also saw cross-border communication as a key component if not the theme of a performance piece between the Mexicali-Calexico border fence in January 2020 but on a much grander scale.
“Rituals of Propagation” was a work by artist and experimental vocalist Carmina Escobar, originally from Mexico City but living in L.A.
“The performance consisted of two wooden megaphones positioned on each side of the U.S.-Mexican border that were vocally activated,” Hernandez said. “After Escobar’s performance, spectators were invited to interact with the work by writing text onto each megaphone and singing or yelling into each of them … having their voice travel over the border fence to create a sound interspaced between realities.”
Fifth Biennial Focuses on Agriculture, Migration
Hernandez and Gomez’s journey through the first four MexiCali biennials led to Romero and Lillard-Gomez to expand on the theme for 2022-2023 and the call for artists to fill out “The Land of Milk and Honey.”
Lillard-Gomez, an independent curator and arts administrator who has served on the board of the MexiCali Biennial since 2006, is also classically trained chef.
“This round will focus on broad issues surrounding concepts of agriculture and the interwoven relationships between California and Mexico. These topics may include labor, food security or insecurity, environmental impacts, land use, farming practices, and food justice, among many others,” she said on Sept. 24.
“Other subjects of interest include the Bracero program, labor, cultural culinary traditions ecologies of borders, agricultural climate impacts, and indigenous land stewardship,’ Lillard-Gomez added.
Acknowledging that he can be problematic for broadly painted character depictions, “The Land of Milk and Honey” draws largely from writer John Steinbeck’s portrayal of the region as a “corrupted Eden,” she said, referencing seminal works, “The Grapes of Wrath,” “East of Eden,” “Viva Zapata!,” and “Log From the Sea of Cortez,” and his relationship with a cross-border community and the migrant workforce around his hometown of Salinas.
Romero explained that in fleshing out the fifth biennial, artists are asked to “explore agricultural concepts in both Californias,” with an eye toward reflecting on the past, present and future of “Alta and Baja California.”
“We’re interested in artists’ artistic takes on these policies and critical moments in history, as well as any contemporary reimagining of the agricultural past of California,” Romero said. “We encourage artists to engage with longer histories of agricultural labor, farming practices and migration in California, and to promote dialogue about current political and environmental issues around agriculture.”
“The Land of Milk and Honey” will open in Santa Cruz at the “MAH” on Aug. 26, 2022, at the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture of the Riverside Art Museum in early 2023, and Steppling Gallery in Calexico sometime later that year.
Artists are encouraged to visit MexiCali Biennial’s website to learn how to submit a full exhibit proposal, which are due Jan. 3, 2022. Submissions should be sent to email@example.com
Legacy of Biennial and its Future
Gomez said part of the process of making an active call to find artists in this way is to bring new voices and new blood to the gallery space, “white cube” or otherwise.
Recently, artists from the Imperial Valley, many of them young and many of them having never exhibited in a gallery before, opened a show at Calexico’s Steppling Gallery — “Crisis y Cosecha,” which translates to “Harvest of Crisis,” a study on the ways the Imperial Valley and border region has changed over the past 18 months under the COVID-19 pandemic.
The opening reception on Sept. 23, the night before the MexiCali Biennial talk, saw these emerging artists speaking with Hernandez. He was asked on Sept. 24 whether that show, which is open through Nov. 4, would bring some new talent to “The Land of Milk and Honey.”
“One of the reasons I had this exhibition was to start talking and getting to know more local artists, so I did talk to some of the artists that are showing in this current exhibition. And the theme kind of goes hand in hand with what the biennial is,” Hernandez said. “So, yes, the idea is now to have more of a presence of Imperial Valley artists in the biennial. Unfortunately, we have not had that many (participants) in the past, but that is the idea, to start getting artists familiarized with these themes.
“I’m pretty sure there’s gonna be a few of them showing from the Imperial Valley,” he added.
Romero, who immigrated to the Imperial Valley from Mexicali when she was 3 years old and attended St. Mary’s Catholic School before enrolling at Southwest High, speaks to the cross-cultural, cross-border story of the region. A Fulbright Scholar and a Ph.D. from Duke University, the newest addition to the 15-year-old biennial put it into a larger context.
“It is an artist-driven curatorial project based on a grassroots approach to exhibitions and art programming. It has supported artists to freely experiment with new media and formats, and it has supported artists from the border region and both Californias,” she said Sept. 24.
“So, the art exhibited in MexiCali Biennial exhibitions showcases the very distinctive artistic visions of border cultures, and regional art practices in California and Baja California,” Romero added. “As an art historian, I see the MexiCali Biennial exhibitions, as part of a rich and long tradition of cross-border artistic production and cultural exchange between the U.S. and Mexico.”