Life and Art in the Desert

Even though it might seem we’re living in a place containing only concrete, broken sidewalks and buildings, we’re actually living in a pretty vast desert, something readily apparent from a plane or even a fairly short drive. Of course, the word desert means different things to different people. Many who live elsewhere might think of the desert as being empty or barren. Those who have explored the desert know that careful scrutiny reveals abundant and varied forms of life. They also know it can be dangerous as well as rich and breathtakingly beautiful.

All of this by way of introduction to the exhibit “Desierto/ Arte/ Archivo” currently on view at the Central Cultural de la Frontera and running through the end of January.

This was a project begun back in June in which Dr Leon de la Rosa Carrillo engaged participants in exploring different aspects of desert life through a series of lectures and discussions led by different experts and figuring out ways of interpreting the culmination of those discussions through art.

Not unsurprisingly the show actually feels a bit like a desert. At first glance it seems spare, and perhaps even a bit arid. The predominant tone, mainly due to a few large pieces, is light brown. Like the desert itself the pieces require close inspection to reveal their beauty and riches.

Jane Terrazas’ work looks at first glance like a simple colored rendering of a part of the Chihuahuan desert, but it is, in fact, created with dyes made exclusively from plants found there with special attention paid to the controversial Samalayuca mine and the danger it poses to the region’s health. The qr code for the piece explains which plants produced which colors, and gives a more detailed explanation. While Terrazas uses plants, Cassandra Adame uses minerals and stones from the region to create pieces of jewelry set here among rocks from the area for her piece entitled Tierra de Nadie. (No Man’s Land, which also happens to be the Mexican title given to the movie Sicario.

The desert can mean a lot of different things. It can be a term indicating a place of danger and you might feel the need for protective armor, and while at first glance, Alejandra Rodríguez and Octavio Castrejón seem to have created what looks like some sort of Bedouin head covering, they have actually designed a physical protection which includes thick sharp wooden arm bands to protect against all manner of dangerous animals both four footed, but especially two footed, that roam in this desert city. Others mine their childhood or create desert curio cabinets to explore the theme.

The show contains video, installations, and among other pieces a series of very free flowing portraits drawn on long sheets of canvas. This work by artists Réne López Dorado and Alejandra Vargas called Sangre(s) de la Arena shows just the simplest rendering of individuals whose own recordings of reflections on their life can be downloaded from an accompanying qr code next to each

Perhaps the most impressive piece, and certainly the largest, is a recreation of the border wall with large recreations of all of the animals whose life is specifically threatened by its existence. This work called simply El Muro (the wall) by a team composed of Paola Mendoza, Laura Menesses, and JuanCarlos Reyes, provides something of an anchor to the show and is clearly linked to the impetus for the show itself, which was created in conjunction with Albuquerque 516 gallery as part of their Species in Peril of Extinction along the Rio Grande series.

At the risk of coming off as some kind of dinosaur, I do want to say something about the use of qr codes which are used exclusively here in lieu of wall information charts. They definitely provide a clean contemporary look and, more importantly, can transmit more and different kinds of information than can be provided on a simple wall post. On the other hand, while it might be safe to believe everyone has a phone capable of reading them, it seems a bit presumptuous to assume so. Additionally while the building, owned by the University, now offers free wifi to its guests, I’ve found it doesn’t always work, and not everyone has an unlimited data plan. This is not the fault of the show, but it is something that needs to be considered, otherwise it seems something of another unintentional barrier between those who have and those who don’t.

Apart from that quibble, this is an excellent show which reflects the hard work and careful thought expended in the long months of preparation and study, and focuses our attention on the fragile environment in which we live. – David Sokolec

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Children of the Rarimuri

There is a sweet photo exhibition which opened a few days ago at the Museo de Arqueologia here in Juarez that might be something of a needed antidote to the fear-fueled hate which arrived across the border recently.For some 12 years the ever active and seemingly tireless multi-tasking photographer Ogla (no, that’s not a typo) Liset Olivas has been photographing Rarimuri life in the Sierra Tarahumara and, through those photos, to bring us a closer understanding of what life is like in that rugged mountain range. In this show entitled La Raíz de Tu Mirada, she focused exclusively on Rarimuri children and women and their daily lives. By turns thoughtful or wistful or just grinning with delight the people in these photos reflect dignity and humanity.At a time when there are so many on the other side of the border who seem to feel frightened of anyone who seems different, this show helps remind us of our common humanity, and portrays a beautiful, strong and resilient group of people. It will be up until Sept 8.I also have to say that for anyone (like me) who has not been to the Museum in awhile and who remembers it as a small cramped area, it is it has been transformed into something totally different and wonderful with huge airy spaces and lots of room for exhibitions. – David sokolec

Mago la Magnifica

Margarita Gandara Armendáriz (Mago) who died last year at the age of 89, has been given a well deserved retrospective at the Museo de Arte de Ciudad Juárez. A true fronteriza she was born in El Paso, but, interestingly, her grandfather registered her as a Mexican citizen. She was always interested in art, studied it formally and then after 25 years of marriage , divorced and constructed a private art studio in Juarez which she called Casa Cui and spent years there happily living and working alone until the violence in 2011 forced her out.

She was strongly influenced by Italian Renaissance al Fresco artists as well as by Byzantine mosaicists. From that beginning, she incorporated a wide variety of, at the time, untraditional material such as fiberglass, wood and incorporated techniques learned from bricklayers to focus on visually exploring her surroundings, but also the underlying cultural spirit in the form of prehispanic and Christian religious symbols which always lie just beneath the suface here .

La Maquina de la Esperanza

La Niña cósmica

Although she worked in many different media, it is unquestionably her large murals and her sculptures which are the most impressive and are here shown along with an installation representing her beloved studio Casa Cui.

Fortunately Casa Cui has now been turned into an art center which will not only keep alive the memory of this wonderful artist but also her desire for that space to be an oasis for artists.

Installation reproducing Casa Cui

The show continues until September 7. – David sokolec

Uncaged Art, Caged bodies


At the entrance to “Uncaged Art” we are told there is a saying that the Quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala, cannot be caged or it will die.

This exhibit at the Centennial Museum on the UTEP campus shows the work of mostly Central American immigrant teenagers ranging in age from 13-17 who were kept at the camp in Tornillo. This was the largest detention center for children in the US with some 2500 children being kept at its height before closing this past January.

With the help of two instructors, detainees made art with what was at hand. The instructors suggested they create images which reminded them of home. The result is a series of drawings and sculptures with scenes of the quetzal, churches and home life.

In many ways heartbreaking, yet also a testament to the resilience of these kids in what must have been an unimaginably difficult emotional time.

The exhibit is up through October. – david sokolec

Haunting images of a troubled land.

For the last number of years when people think of Tamaulipas, if they think of it at all, it is probably only as a place of violence. However much like Juárez, which often suffers much the same sort of reputation, there is more to the area than the horrible things people do to each other.

Local artist Jair Tapia was awarded a three months arts residency there and has produced a haunting work entitled “Espacios en Vigilia” which was shown last weekend at the Museo de Arte de Ciudad Juárez.

This was Tapia’s first visit to Tamaulipas and his work is something of a visual tone poem reflecting his impressions of Victoria and the surrounding area. Four projectors present a simultaneous stream of images. This is not a straight forward portrait in the usual sense. In fact, there seems to be little or nothing which even tells us where we are. There are no people or well-known landmarks to indicate geographical specificity. This is the polar opposite of those old travel shows of the This is Tamaulipas! variety. Instead the mostly pastoral scenes create an impression of a mostly beautiful area, but the background music as well as the images themselves which, though often beautiful, nevertheless give a sense something is off, that there is something definitely seriously amiss. There is a sense, if not specifically of danger, then of foreboding running through the series.

I found that long after I left the museum the images, or more specifically, the mood of disquiet evoked stayed with me, and actually continued to grow stronger throughout the rest of the evening.

Through this series of seemingly random images located somewhat out of time and place, Tapia has been able to evoke the sense of both beauty and danger he felt while living there, and has enabled us to feel something of the same.

Unfortunately, for technical reasons, this will only be shown once more this upcoming weekend, but hopefully he will be able to find a way to get the necessary equipment and venues to show it in other places. It is a beautiful and haunting work and deserves a larger audience.-David Sokolec.

Sensory Riches at Museo de Arte

The Museo de Arte de Ciudad Juárez here has a new director, Christian Diego Diego, so what better for an opening show than to go back to basics.

In her show “Cromática”, Tania Candiani explores the three primary colors as a means of showing and helping preserve indigenous traditions and craftsmanship as well as showing how colors, in this case, the red, yellow and blue primary ones, can and should interact with all of our other senses. She also wants to remind us of how the making of these colors for textiles and other things is an interaction between the fabricated and the natural world. As curator Blanca de la Torre notes red dye traditionally came from the Cochineal bug and therefore from the animal world, anil blue (azul anil) from plant life and the yellow pigments were made from the mineral world. So there is this man-made natural world interchange.

Each room in the exhibit is devoted to one of these three colors and provide information on how these colors are made as well as ways of interacting with the items to heighten our other senses. In the main “red” room there is an enormous loom hooked up to a loudspeaker and at the opening we were treated to a symphony of sorts by the playing of the loom. In the yellow room there are yellow birds, which are actually ocarina which can be played by means of an attached bellows. These birds are reminiscent of whistles often found in the south of Mexico . For years I used to have a black clay bird whistle I bought in Chiapas.

Each room also features a series of hand embroidery with quotes about the specific color featured. There is also detailed information as to how these colors are formed, videos showing traditional methods of dye making and large hanging examples of wool both dyed and undyed.

All of this is specifically related to native cultures and I believe at some point during the show there will be dances by the members of the Raramuri community. The show itself runs until June 16.

This is a really exciting show and a great beginning for this new chapter in the museum’s history. – david sokolec

Three gems at Rubin Center

The smallest show of the three fine shows at the Rubin Center is perhaps the most satisfying . Russian born artist Yana Payusova studied at the St Petersburg school of fine Arts where she was trained in a strict classical style faithfully copying Old Masters, and perfecting her drawing skills. She then moved to the US where she completed her studies, and now teaches at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

She began as a painter but has recently turned to ceramics and here her show entitled “Revolutions” demonstrates her skills as a painter and ceramicist, as well as the concerns which have long been at the center of her work.

Here there are bowls revolving slowly and painted inside and out with haunting folklike images of women. Payusova uses cartoon like forms, Russian propaganda poster images, Japanese print forms and other references to explore issues of gender equality, power structure and other serious themes, often with a light sardonic touch, and at other times with truly haunting images. On display are not only her ceramic pieces, but also her paintings as well and they are all quite wonderful. Even though they do not directly show Old Master techniques, one can sense the skill and talent underlying all of them, as well as a keen sense of humor.

Upstairs, Mexico city born and based artist Betsabee Romero uses the space to illustrate her concerns with immigration by foot as well as by train. When she was still in school, her best friend moved to Tijuana, and and this led to her interest in the border and moving to distant places in order to better one’s life . Here she has created huge installations involving train tracks, and foot lasts, each of which is inscribed with a phrase of encouragement. On the hill outside the Center, there are flags which also carry a shoe last. Originally these came all the way down to the front door, but the wind necessitated their removal.

The other show upstairs comes from Oaxaca, where contemporary print makers reference traditional images such as maize and combine them with contemporary images exploring and playing with the past and present.

All in all shows to explore. They will be up through mid- December.- David sokolec