Transcending Boundaries

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San Ysidro: CBP San Diego Operations – From a roof top, vehicle traffic is seen crossing into the United States from Mexico through U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the San Ysidro border port of entry. Photographer: Donna Burton

Art transcends borders, which is evident from just a quick survey of gloabal art history. Ideas, movements, techniques, and materials have traveled fluidly across the globe. Seeing Japanese woodblock prints was pivotal to Van Gogh’s stylistic development, especially with regards to his depiction of space and use of color. Before Abstract Expressionism became mainstream in North America, Abstract Expressionist painters were gaining avant-garde insight via the Mexican muralist painters. For example, Jackson Pollock studied with David Alfaro Siqueiros in the Mexican Modernist’s Siqueiros Experimental Workshop. Siqueiros developed a technique of dripping and pouring paint onto the canvas, which no-doubt inspired Pollock later on when he created his famous Abstract Expressionist paintings such as Number 1 (Lavender Mist) (1950). In his piece for solo piano titled Music of Changes (1951), American composer John Cage applied the mystical cleromancy from the ancient Chinese I Ching (Book of Changes). The composition was realized through applying decisions from the I Ching, thereby, the piece was considered a major work of indeterminate music, a genre pioneered by Cage, where parts of a piece are left open to chance. These are just three of many examples of how globalization has had major influence on artistic progression.

Art teaches us that ideas, movements, signs and symbols, and the freedom to express ourselves, have very limited restrictions and are open for interpretation, transformation, and re-contextualization. In other words, there are a myriad of ways to convey meaning artistically. In visual arts education we have ‘guidelines’ in the form of the Elements of Art and Principles of Design and they are traditionally a good place to start so that a student develops skills and techniques in order to communicate symbolically in the materials of their choice. However, as the old adage goes, “rules are meant to be broken.” An educated artist (or a person educated through art) is able to come up with a multitude of ways to solve an aesthetic problem that may or may not involve the formal elements of art and principles of design. The essential value of art is the studio habits of mind that art-centered learning has on other aspects of an individual’s learning. Making judgements in the absence of rules is one of Elliot Eisner’s studio habits of mind that has relevance in all other facets of an individual’s life. Eisner explained this habit of mind best when he spoke at Stanford University in 2002:

“The arts provide the kind of ideal that I believe American education needs now more than ever. I say now more than ever because our lives increasingly require the ability to deal with conflicting messages, to make judgements in the absence of rule, to cope with ambiguity, and to frame imaginative solutions to the problems we face. Our world is not one that submits to single correct answers to questions or clear cut solutions to problems; consider what’s going on in the Middle East. We need to be able not only to envision fresh options, we need to have feel for the situations in which they appear.” 

Another lesson that the arts teach us is how to be flexible when outcomes don’t go as planned. Eisner called this habit of mind “flexible purposing,” and stated:

 “Opening oneself to the uncertain is not a pervasive quality of our current educational environment.  I believe that it needs to be among the values we cherish.” 

Habits of mind encourage inquiry based learning, which becomes prevalent throughout an individual’s life. Just like John Cage embraced the uncertainty of the I Ching to unlock incredible creative potential, we can all become more open and engaged by employing the artistic habits of mind in our lives. Scrutinizing problems and realizing that there are many different situations to be accounted for (as well as scenarios that we haven’t even thought of yet), opens ourselves to creative possibilities and solutions that we may have previously thought to be unfathomable.

One major conflicting problem that needs creative solutions within our lifetime is the issue of immigration. Heavily enforced political borders make it difficult for individuals and groups of people to travel from one place to another. The border between North America and Mexico is one example where travel is greatly restricted for many people on a daily basis. It can take hours to cross the border from the U.S.A into Mexico and vice versa, which makes for a stressful commute for many who need to cross the border for work. Another is the growing issue is the astonishing numbers of Syrian citizens who have been displaced from their homes and are living as refugees. There is a lot of discrimination around the issue of opening up borders or taking in refugees, which is the result of fear mongering policy makers and xenophobic groups that sadly have the authority to wreak havoc on individuals who are trying to obtain a better life for themselves (or in many cases, save their lives). It will take a lot of creative problem solving, collaboration, and placemaking initiatives to “envision fresh options and frame imaginative solutions” that will take on the issues of immigration and the growing refugee crisis. We must be open to exploring other possibilities when best-laid-plans go awry and we are faced with unfamiliar circumstances. The results are worth the effort, case in point, the inspiring work of Tanya Aguiñiga and the resident artists of the Za’atari Refugee Camp.

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Screen shot of Tensión by Tanya Aguiñiga (R) and Jackie Amézquita (L). The full video is now up at MAD as part of ‘Tanya Aguiñiga: Craft and Care’ 

Tanya Aguiñiga is an artist and designer from Tijuana, Mexico, whose craft-based work is rich in both materials and subject matter.  When Aguiñiga was in grade school, she traveled several hours each day across the San Ysidro border into California to go to school and became well accustomed to life between and along the Mexican-American border. Aguiñiga works in a variety of media, but generally with textiles and techniques that combine traditional craft-making with contemporary design. Her work is largely rooted in intersectionality of identity, which examines social and emotional connections through the act of “Performance Crafting,” where two or more individuals engage in a creative process together. The results are dependent upon strong communication and empathy for each other. Seeing art as a means to overcome the ambiguity and conflict emerging from political borders, Aguiñiga founded AMBOS (Art Made Between Opposite Sides), an art and activist project that focuses on interconnections between people in border regions. Many times, people who live in these areas feel a great sense of belonging to both the United States and Mexico, whether they cross the border for work or to visit their families, it is a part of their daily lives. Through creative processes like weaving, individuals on either side of the border partake in a profound placemaking experience. They are transcending the physical boundary that separates them by engaging in the collaborative realization of an artwork and documenting how similar lives are affected by the physical separation caused by the border.

While borders aim to keep people in their assigned countries of origin, what do you do when you’re forced out of your  homeland? That is the crux of the humanitarian crisis that is currently happening in Syria. Due to the ongoing violent Civil War, many Syrian refugees have been forced to relocate to camps such as the Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan. While they are far from their homes and living in a constant state of flux and trauma, refugees obtain catharsis by engaging in collaborative art projects within the camp. Through the support of aptART, ACTED, UNICEF, ECHO and Mercy Corps, artist Joel Artista travelled to the camp beginning in 2013, to collaborate with Syrian refugees. Artista and a team of resident Syrian artists developed a series of art education workshops and public art projects for the children in the camps. Young artists painted murals on buildings and objects like kites and wheelbarrows that reminded them of home, addressed issues (such as clean water and hygiene) that are important in the camp, and celebrated their vibrant cultural identities, which cannot be displaced. The wide range of colorful subjects liven up the bleak reality of their current situation and strengthens the community at large. From the look on the children’s faces (see the photos on Artista’s website), it is evident that they are proud of the work they’ve made. Art making in this capacity has a profound way of humanizing a crisis by coping with the conflicting messages and ambiguity of a situation that no human being should have to endure.

Life is unpredictable. There really aren’t any stable situations or predictable outcomes in the long run. By incorporating studio habits of mind, such as making judgements in the absence of rules and flexible purposing, we can all become adept at handling all of the curve balls life throws at us.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Eisner, Elliot W. (2002). ‘What can education learn from the arts about the practice of education?’ The Encyclopedia of Informal Education.

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