Border Lines

Leslie Moody Castro at the 1st Bienal de las Fronteras in Matamoros, Mexico

Left: Bienal de las Fronteras director Othon Castañeda. (Photo: Eduardo Melendez) Right: A visitor takes a selfie with Luz María Sánchez's installation. (Photo: Leslie Moody Castro)

IT’S A RARE DAY that the small city of Matamoros, Mexico, receives international attention in the world of contemporary art. Matamoros sits on the exact opposite side of the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, a growing town on the southernmost tip of the state. For many years the Matamoros-Brownsville metropolitan area has been marred by cartel violence, drug and human trafficking, and recently the construction of the border wall, a concretization of US policies against undocumented border crossing.

Matamoros has the feel of a civil-war zone, where residents simply draw their curtains and live in a constant state of fear and mistrust. It’s an unlikely place for a biennial, but that was my most recent occasion for a trek. The Bienal de las Fronteras (Biennial of the Frontiers), hosted by the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Tamaulipas (MACT) just a stone’s throw from the bridge between Mexico and the United States, was inaugurating its first exhibition after an international open call.

I was greeted at the Valley International Airport in Harlingen, Texas, by Enrique, an enthusiastic government employee who drove me to Mexico. He evinced a profound pride in his community, “happy to see such a large and international exhibition in the museum—and in Matamoros.” The MACT is a stunning construction by Mario Paní, a famous architect of Mexico’s golden era, who is responsible for much of the country’s great architecture leading up to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. The museum was finished in 1969 and stands as an emblem of a once-thriving city.

The biennial boasted an impressive list of jurors—from Guillermo Santamarina of Mexico City’s Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil and the art historian and curator Julia P. Herzberg to Emilio Valdéz, chief curator of the Museo Arte Moderno Medellín— and also cultural partners, including El Museo del Barrio and the Guggenheim Museum. The most significant stats, however, involved the 1,600 applications embracing the “borders” theme that the jury received from artists and curators spanning fifty-five countries. In the end the committee chose works by fifty-five artists. The resulting exhibition was a labyrinth of individual works and curatorial initiatives that complemented Paní’s architecture, and a large rotunda on the second story that featured work acquired by the museum from the open call.

Prizes were awarded to artists based on outstanding work related to the theme. First-prize winner Luz María Sánchez of Guadalajara, Mexico, was chosen for _V.F(i)n1, an installation of sound fragments extracted from YouTube recordings of street shootings throughout Mexico, which she played through speakers shaped like plastic guns. A list of dates, times, and locations of each shooting accompanied the installation. Second place was earned by Jerusalem-based artist Maya Yadid for 443, an absurdist video of a young couple smoking and driving a BMW convertible down a long strip of highway along a desolate landscape while singing along to a song lamenting a better world. The chosen works did not speak simply of physical borders, but of metaphorical and cultural ones: borders of languages and ideas.

Left and right: Visitors at the public opening of the Bienal de las Fronteras. (Photos: Eduardo Melendez)

After a press conference and a public inauguration, the entire curatorial and cultural team was chauffeured to a private dinner at Garcia’s, one of Matamoros’s nicest restaurants, which is surprisingly tucked behind a large, fluorescent-lit store that sells every kitschy “Mexican” item you could think of. I was lucky enough to sit beside director and biennial mastermind Othon Castañeda. While devouring our oversize plates of traditional border-style enchiladas, tamales, and beans soaked with melted cheese, Castañeda opened up about the biennial. He spoke of a mix of cultural pride and determination to change the conversation in the area. Our dialogue went many different directions but circled back to Castañeda’s goals to create a platform for local and international artists and to illustrate broader global conversations. “I want to show residents that there are other people dealing with similar issues along many borders in the world. People living in this border region are part of bigger issues, and are not alone in them.”

The opening events surrounding the exhibition were a buzz of activity. A formal press conference earlier in the day offered the space for every single cultural partner to stand behind a podium and thank every other cultural partner in attendance. Later that night at the well-attended public opening, Coca-Cola was handed out as people gathered around María Sánchez’s installation. As they searched for their city on the list of shootout locations and recalled the shootings they had witnessed or were a part of, many proceeded to take selfies with the plastic guns.

Only a handful of artists were able to make the trek for the opening, but for everyone that did attend we all became a little clan, traveling between the hotel and museum, eating together in the kitschy restaurant across the street obviously catering to US tourists, then packing into cars to grab a late-afternoon coffee while exchanging stories of travel, home, and the general feeling of optimism. After the openings and the celebratory dinner, we all arrived back at the hotel and gathered in the lobby, where we shared a champagne toast to the artists. It was obvious that we were witnessing something bigger than any of us.