Tanya Aguiñiga receives Heinz Award for the Arts for work along U.S.-Mexico border
By Chadd Scott
Tanya Aguiñiga in her studio | Photo credit: Katie Levine
To the people who live there, who cross it, when it bisects your life, the U.S./Mexico border and border wall are not abstractions. They aren’t lines on a map. They aren’t talking points.
They are real.
They are unforgiving.
Tanya Aguiñiga’s humanitarian art practice personalizing the border wall, border region and, most importantly, the people living with these constructions along Tijuana, Mexico where she was raised has been recognized with a Heinz Awards for the Arts. The accolade, which she shares for 2021 with Sanford Biggers, includes an unrestricted cash prize of $250,000.
Established by Teresa Heinz in 1993 to honor the memory of her late husband, U.S. Senator John Heinz, the Heinz Awards celebrates the spirit of the Senator by recognizing the extraordinary achievements of individuals in the areas of great importance to him. The Awards, administered by the Heinz Family Foundation, acknowledge individuals for their contributions in the areas of the arts, the economy and the environment.
Tanya Aguiñiga’s visual artworks blend contemporary craft, sculpture and performance to address issues of migration, gender and identity. Born in San Diego and raised in Tijuana, Mexico, she draws on her life experience as a binational citizen who as a child crossed the border daily from Tijuana to San Diego to attend school.
Aguiñiga’s work speaks of the artist’s experience of her divided identity and aspires to tell the larger and often invisible stories of the transnational community.
“When you grow up with (the border wall) and you're used to seeing it every single day – every morning, every night – it carves its way into your body and how you think of yourself in comparison to the U.S. when you’re on (the Mexican) side,” Aguiñiga explains. “It does a bunch of crazy psychological things that people don’t think about if they don’t have to engage with it.”
Aguiñiga grew up along a section of the border between San Diego and Tijuana where the wall cuts through an otherwise post card worthy beach on its way into an idyllic stretch of the Pacific Ocean. A grotesque, rusting reminder of how America fails to meet its ideals about a being welcoming, caring and open nation. While Republicans are seen as the political party of the border wall today, this 14-mile stretch of wall – the first to be erected – was mandated in 1993 by Bill Clinton, a Democrat. The Clinton Presidency set in motion more draconian border and Mexican immigration policies that would be further weaponized during the later Bush and Trump administrations.
“It is really sad when you think about a country that has supposedly been proud of its immigrant past and proud of its inclusivity and then – all of a sudden – (you see the wall) and think, ‘oh my god, this is so inhumane and a very undignified way of treating other humans,’” Aguiñiga said.
Last year, Aguiñiga created a wearable artwork she turned into a performance piece. Metabolizing the Border served as a manifestation of the pain experienced by border crossers. The artist designed and fabricated a bodysuit using remnant wall pieces incorporated into brittle, clear blown-glass wearables designed to shatter and break. Her pain representing the pain experienced by those who cross the border.
“By letting people see all of the pain that I carry, I’m hoping that it will help people empathize and think a little about how we’re all connected to each other,” Aguiñiga told Art21 of the project.
Empathy. A quality desperately lacking in America’s political system and among American politicians.
Aguiñiga’s humanizing performance of border realities starkly contrasted to the fashionable theatre engaged in during the summer of 2021 by cosplaying conservative governors from around the nation who buzzed the border in heavily armed boats feeding their anti-immigration constituents back home red meat to share on social media about a get-tough approach to the ongoing “border crisis.”
Currently, Aguiñiga is preparing car-crossing survival kits to give away at the U.S./Mexico port of entry so that elderly and vulnerable individuals can withstand the excruciating wait while legally crossing. She is also preparing to install clay shrines—made by asylum seekers at an LGBTQ+ shelter where Aguiñiga started a trauma-informed ceramics program—along the U.S./Mexico border fence from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico. The installation is designed to honor lives lost, pray for safe passage and remember loved ones separated by the wall.
America’s Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall stood for 28 years before coming down in 1989. The first sections of America’s Border Wall with Mexico are now almost exactly the same age. While America pointed to the Berlin Wall as proof of superiority for its political and economic systems, America’s government appears to be in no mood to “tear down this wall.” Peak American hypocrisy: your wall barbaric, our wall necessary.
As with the Berlin Wall, life on either side of the border wall between the United States and Mexico varies tremendously. Housing represents the most immediately obvious difference. On the U.S. side, in San Diego, houses are built far away from the border.
“It’s one of the few parts on the U.S. side that chooses to have this big visual separation between where people live and the actual fence, and what it does,” Aguiñiga explains. “It makes it so that a lot of people in Southern California have never been to the border, have never seen the fence, have never had to physically engage with the fact that they live in a border town.”
On the Mexico side, housing is built right up to the fence line. On that side, “you’re constantly engaging with it whether it’s just visually or having to navigate how it subdivides the way the city is laid out,” Aguiñiga says.
“There (are) so many levels of inequity and pain (that result from) this crazy scar in our land and on our landscape,” she adds
Turning artmaking into a profession is difficult no matter who you are. With a practice centering around non-commercial activism and collaboration with non-profit groups, the challenges for Aguiñiga to earn a living from her creativity become even more pronounced. Now living in Los Angeles, she intersperses creating artwork she can sell with the humanitarian projects which drive her.
Grants provide assistance. The Heinz Award obviously being a game changer.
Aguiñiga doesn’t expect the award money to change what she does, most importantly, it will allow her to persist, keep working, keep advocating, grow her scale to broaden her community, include more collaborators, raise more awareness.
“If I didn’t get (these messages) out in some way, (it) would cause me more harm; if nobody was talking about it or bringing attention to injustices, (it) would cause more harm to our communities,” Aguiñiga said. “Knowing that all of this is in service of a greater good and us having a better future, leaving things behind in a better situation for the next generations, all of that is fuel for working even harder.”