When I emerged from the 59th Street subway station, my eyes were struck by the sun’s last rays peeking between office buildings. I squinted to adjust my eyes, and almost didn’t notice that I was standing directly in front of my destination, the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York City. The MAD is home to a rich collection of contemporary art exhibitions, and I was excited to spend my Thursday evening exploring it with a few friends.
In contrast to the monochromatic city buildings that surround the museum, the first floor of the museum is a shocking pop of color — half the walls are painted bright bubblegum pink. This bright space holds the exhibition Craft & Care by LA-based artist Tanya Aguiñiga, who was born and raised in Tijuana, Mexico. Craft & Care weaves together art, design, and activism to address community and how it is formed. The artwork that I instantly gravitated towards was Quipu Fronterizo, a series of long knotted fibers that hung from the ceiling in the center of the room.
Aguiñiga created the work for her Art Made Between Opposite Sides (AMBOS) project that addresses identity across the US/Mexico border. AMBOS reflects Aguiñiga’s own experiences growing up, as for 14 years she crossed the border to attend school in the US, and her parents crossed the border daily for work for 40 years. From its inception in 2016, AMBOS serves to record what daily life is like along the border, and generates international dialogue and collaboration.
For the performance piece Quipu Fronterizo, Aguiñiga asked anonymous US/Mexico border commuters to tie two strands of thread together. At the same time, commuters were asked a question: “What are your thoughts when you cross the border?” The knots from each day were then tied together and presented as a quipu, a tool used by ancient Inca to record information via knotted colored threads. At the MAD, the knots hang from the ceiling, accompanied by photographs of Aguiñiga and volunteers asking strangers to participate, and iPads with scanned images of written responses to the question. Responses were a mix of emotions, from violence, to anger, to fear, reflecting the limbo of the border’s current state.
Initially, the two separate threads of each knot represent the disparate parts of each person as they cross the border. Although the physical land is the same, the constructed separation between makes it difficult to reconcile these two pieces. Through the act of tying the threads together, Aguiñiga suggests that borders should foster international collaboration and dialogue, rather than serve as a rift. And after each individual person connects two halves of themselves, each knot is connected to the others at the end of the day, creating a community connected by the shared experience of transience.
The quipu is a communication device, after all, and Aguiñiga’s quipu communicates the human experiences around the US/Mexico border, the hum of vehicles in line to cross the border to go to work or school, and the soft footsteps of those who make the same trip by foot. Even though participants were also asked to write down what they were feeling, the quipu is able to communicate on its own in lieu of written language. Quipu Fronterizo offers a different view of life around the largest international border in the world, with knots that tie communities and people together, to go beyond barriers. The artwork repaints the picture of border towns to show the personalities and character of the people who live in them. Aguiñiga said of her project, “Quipu Fronterizo seeks to materialize our connection to one another as a community and make our presence and experiences visible to bi-national audiences.”
In a time when tensions across the US/Mexico border heighten, Aguiñiga’s work recontextualizes borders as possibilities for collaboration and connection rather than separation. Although I was only at the MAD for a bit before it closed for the night, Quipu Fronterizo left a powerful mark in my mind, and I am definitely planning another trip soon.
To find out more about the AMBOS project, visit http://www.ambosproject.com/.