I was supposed to drive out for Dallas artist Karla García's binational exhibition La Línea Imaginaria, set to open in both El Paso and Ciudad Juárez in mid-August, but the universe intervened. The trip's one I've made many times before, leaving the flat grasslands of the Great Plains to cross into eastern New Mexico, where the hills slowly curve into mountains of spruce-fir trees until I slip back into West Texas and the landscape opens up into the Chihuahuan desert.
Like García, I too lived in El Paso for some time, and spent as much, if not more, time in Juárez. The artist's latest work joins these two cities of our mutual past, "where the desert is in both places," through a site-specific sculpture installation at the border wall that transgresses state-imposed separation. Her fragile sculptures sit exposed and in quiet conversation with the raw landscapes of the sister cities, reflecting both a vulnerability and fortitude inside the vast thorny terrain of sand, rocks, and sky.
García uses raw clay as the main material for this exhibition, she said, because of "[its] direct connection to the land, earth, and soil." Pressure from her fingers molds the clay into various-sized cacti sculptures that infuse the desert terrain with more life—this vitality a stark contrast against the 30-foot tall border wall that obscures views of desert, valley, and mountains.
"[The] physical action of touching and leaving something from us [behind] is as old as cave paintings. Leaving the memory of our identity, our memories in a way that says I am here," said García.
Her intimately sculpted cacti mix seamlessly with the acacias, saltbush, and desert willow, the agave, yucca, and ocotillo. They stand time-bound as tender additions to the sublime harshness of the desert.
La Línea Imaginaria's indoor installations are comprised of photography, video, sculptures, and drawings—also rendered in raw clay—and located inside both Juárez's Museo de Arqueología e Historia El Chamizal and the Chamizal National Memorial Cultural Center in El Paso. Working across the border required a bit of navigation from the artist. For the logistics of a binational project, García had to obtain permits, transportation, and funding, working with the city of Juárez, Museo de Arqueología e Historia El Chamizal and Museo Casa de Adobe, and the gallery director from Chamizal National Memorial Cultural Center in a process that took over a year.
According to the artist, the concept for the project came during the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, while in France on a residency at the now-defunct laRex l'Atelier. García returned to Dallas where she started with just drawings and small little maquettes. She had no access to a studio, so she made "the sculptures at home… [lived] with them… and just put them in different parts of the house."
Home became an installation space where García, raised in both Juárez and El Paso, could fuse her cultural history into the work she created.
"I have this very clear notion of my identity, of being, of belonging in both," said the artist, who now lives in Dallas with her husband and young daughter. "Though sometimes it feels like neither, because you've been gone for so long, and I don't really always feel like I belong here either."
Inside the galleries, sculptures are arranged on the floor, while a video of the desert plays behind them. These constructed representations invite the desert into the museum space and allow the audience to witness the sculptures as the focal point rather than the landscape. Two identical sets of 30, 8-by-10 inch photograph prints hang as a collaboration between García and Alejandro Bringas. Each photo presents a more intimate glimpse of García's sculptures in the environment.
These desert photographs "speak of the consciousness of land, life, and giving the cactus symbol new life, ancient life, its own type of spirit in a way," said García. Not forced but rather, intentionally planted, each individually-shaped cactus forms a relationship to the surrounding desert life. There is no interruption in the scenes and they never feel staged. A photo taken during the night in particular appears to be real and yet also, surreal, pressed against the dark sky and stars. García and Bringas'photographs highlight the exceptional natural design of the desert.
"Out in Samalayuca and at the dunes, it was magical," García said. "I felt energy from underneath my feet, from the wind, from the day and the night, watching the stars come out and the moon above watching over us. It was a very spiritual experience. Out by the border wall, it was about seeing both cities, El Paso, Juárez, the U.S., and Mexico all at once. All one place despite the wall."
Her sculpted cacti, organic and Indigenous forms placed back into the landscape, flout the arbitrary and violent rules of possession, ownership, and nation state. Even the choice of setting the installations on both sides of the Chamizal is a challenge to the existence of borders. The Chamizal, a Spanish name derived from a native plant, was a united region until the adjacent Rio Grande shifted course, creating a dispute that ended with a forced and imaginary boundary. García says part of the title, La Línea Imaginaria, is a symbol of that.
Earlier this month, violence created by the existence of prisons spread out from inside the walls to the streets of Juárez. This resulted in the deaths of 11 people and caused García and museum officials to temporarily postpone the opening of La Línea Imaginaria until mid-August out of respect for the victims. Since I could not physically visit the exhibition, García and I connected over Zoom on a Monday morning for an interview, which has been edited for length.
mónica teresa ortiz: What is your artistic practice? What does that process look like?
Karla García: My artist practice is in response to my research, my life experiences, and how that fits in the overall conversation about Mexican cultural identity in the United States. I raise questions of belonging and point out references from symbols of ancient Mexico that belong in U.S. history. When I begin any project, I begin by bringing the idea of a symbol and creating it as an object. I make multiples of the same symbol, studying the qualities of the material, the form, and the surface as a way to explore it. The more I make, the more answers I begin to uncover. Sometimes I am not quite sure what the work will look like in an installation until it is done. My process continues to evolve up until it is installed in any given space whether it is a gallery, my home, or outside in the desert.
ortiz: What was it like to work so close to the border?
García: Why I chose this location… just an awful wall. It's just an eyesore in this landscape, [but] despite this wall here, the landscape is still around it. It's the same land. And this obstruction is there, but it's not supposed to be. You can't divide land. Land is underneath, and land is around it as well.
Outside the Museo Casa de Adobe, there's this river where people come in and they swim in it, and it's really interesting because people come and they're having fun. There's kids or families. And then on the other side, you always see a Border Patrol vehicle or someone looking. And so you never quite actually feel like you're having fun, without any of these looming political or military style of security. There's these other security cameras around and I'm still thinking about that.
I was walking through the river, on the edges of it, and then I saw how beautiful life underneath is. Going with the concept of these cactuses, where they are coming from, the land—it's life that you don't see, which also speaks of how people sometimes are not seen.
ortiz: Can you speak a little bit about the exhibition's title, La Línea Imaginaria?
García: I was thinking about lines and about how this bridge is one line that I cross back and forth. And then this other one is the actual borderline of the location of my public installation… There's this imaginary line that we cross back and forth, and our cultural identities are tied together. What I want to show is that we are belonging to both. We are part of the same place.
ortiz: You mention migration as an important part of your work. How does migration show up in your art? And memory? How does memory factor into the work you create?
García: Migrations show up in different ways. First, the cactus is a symbol of Mexican culture, when immigrants from Mexico or Mexican Americans use the symbol of the cactus it has to do with identity and migration. Migration is a natural phenomenon when people from any place go live somewhere usually because of a need. As Mexican immigrants or some Mexican Americans, we are often referred to as aliens, criminals, not belonging, or having to prove ourselves more often than others. We are othered. In my sculptures, I alter the form of the barrel cactus. I think about how me and my mother's life experience has shaped us. We have had difficulties, grief, and life-changing experiences but we are always resilient to move forward. I use these to create ways the cactus shrivels and grows in different ways. I felt that by doing this, the more realistic these forms appeared from far away. From up close you see the memory of my fingertips shaping and forming these sculptures.
ortiz: What are some things you discovered through the process of working on La Línea Imaginaria?
García: This work has been evolving for three years, and each iteration of it teaches me something new.
As I installed the work in the open desert and by the wall, I connected to the land in a new way. I loved the photographs we took where the wall is faded or blurred showing the landscape as one. As I mentioned before, the wall is on the surface, deep in the ground, and around is the landscape, the earth. And I would like to create a sense of consciousness about it. To be less divided, to connect with one another. To see each other as human beings.
Art is powerful. Art can change the way we see the world and the way we see each other. But art alone cannot do it all. We try to stay shielded from the worst, or avoid hard conversations. People are divided in ideologies, and a lot of it comes from fear and not looking past certain points in history. When we understand history from different points of view we can begin to see clearly.
La Línea Imaginaria takes place at the Chamizal Museum of Archeology and History and the Chamizal National Memorial in both Juárez, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, from August 12, through November 30, 2022. Check out more of Karla García's work at her website: karlamichellgarcia.com
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