The first Border Biennial, a joint exhibition hosted by the El Paso Museum of Art and the Museo de Arte de Ciudad Juárez, was held in 2008, and until its fifth iteration in 2016 it didn’t carry any particular theme. Border artists were free to follow their fancies in representing the region and its residents, culture, and environment. But since Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign, which at its inception placed the U.S.-Mexico border at the center of American politics, the biennial’s curators have encouraged artists—all of whom reside in the border region or hail from it—to submit work that considers the political questions and anxieties that the border provokes. That ongoing project was interrupted by the pandemic, which led to the twenty-month closure of the border and the cancellation of the 2020 and 2022 biennials.
The 2024 Border Biennial/Bienal Fronteriza 2024, on view through April 14, returns after six years to a scene echoing 2016. Donald Trump is running for president and the border has, if anything, become further embedded into America’s frontal lobes. In December, federal authorities on the southern border logged 302,034 migrants attempting to enter the country, the highest monthly total on record, 149,854 of whom arrived at the Texas border. In fiscal year 2023, the federal government recorded 2,475,669 encounters, 1,315,332 in Texas, a number that broke the previous year’s record. Since 2022, Texas has bused or flown more than 90,000 migrants to cities such as Chicago, Denver, New York, and Washington, D.C., which has overwhelmed shelters and schools in those cities. But as the most affecting works on view at the biennial show, those numbers represent the comparatively lucky ones.
Lying palms-up on a fold-out table at the entrance to the exhibit are two blood-red hands, part of the display “Disappearing Is NOT Normal,” created by a collective of Mexican artists called Nortejiendo. Each hand is a textile sculpture (visitors are encouraged to pick them up and hold them) and its red fabric untwines into threads that connect to a panel with 3,542 strips of cloth, each representing a missing person last seen in Chihuahua, the Mexican state that borders New Mexico and Texas. Some of the strips have written in marker the name of a missing person, such as Aldo Tram Carrillo, and a short message from a relative—“Te busco siempre,” “Donde estas.”
Hanging in one of the back corners of the exhibition is Mexican artist Elizabeth Pineda’s “Reverencia,” three silk sheets that from a distance appear to have a design of thin, horizontal black lines. Up close, each line is revealed to be an entry from a medical examiner’s database of migrants that were found dead in the Arizona desert: “ ‘Avila Vargas, Carmen’, ‘female’, ‘22’ . . . ‘Probable hyperthermia’, ‘Decomposed w/ focal skeletonization’ . . . ‘Gonzalez Pablo, Jaime’, ‘male’, ‘27’ . . . ‘Gunshot wound to the chest’, ‘1’, ‘Fully fleshed.’ ” Immediately to the right of the sheets is an oil painting, “Passage,” by Mexican American artist Antonio Vigil, of ghostly, mirage-like silhouettes of migrants—a woman carrying a little boy; a man leading two boys, one of them carrying a backpack as if he were walking to school—dissolving into a disquietingly bright, stark desert landscape.
The most poignant work on view is from Brownsville artist Lauren Graciela Cardenas’s Absence/Abrazos series: five small photopolymer prints of disembodied hands and arms that are embracing someone who’s been removed from the picture. One of the prints appears to show the arms and hands of a woman caressing a child who’s no longer there, an arresting image that brings to mind the one thousand migrant children who are still separated from their families.
But the border region is more than just the site of crises. It’s also home to about three million Texans who live along it, 89 percent of whom identify as Latino. Those lives are also represented here, at times to stunning effect, such as in El Paso artist Tino Ortega’s oil painting “Lalo,” a large, photorealistic, purple-tinted portrait of a grizzled Latino man wearing a straw cowboy hat set against an aureate background. The man’s face is at once ordinary—you’ve seen this man and many like him—and extraordinary. It’s soft and rough; you can almost feel the stubble on his fleshy cheek and the prickliness of his straw-like mustache. He looks up and off to the distance with a note of confidence tempered by fatalism, with a furrowed brow recalling that of Donatello’s St. George at the moment he decides to confront the dragon—except Lalo looks as if he’s about to crack an ironic smirk or issue a dismissive snort. So enthralling was Lalo’s face that I nearly missed the yellow flower—it almost looks like it’s growing out of his shirt—which appears to be a Mexican golden poppy, which blooms around this time of year on the slopes of the Franklin Mountains just outside downtown El Paso.
Another seemingly life-affirming oil painting by another El Pasoan, Citlali Delgado, hangs prominently at the center of the exhibition’s back wall, facing out onto the rest of the space. A small, dark-haired boy with big, anxious eyes is surrounded by bubbles; a dog is nuzzling his shoulder, gazing up at him. But a closer look reveals a tension that is emblematic of the entire exhibition, and indeed of the border today. The dog at the boy’s side is a Xoloitzcuintli—commonly known as a Mexican hairless dog—which the Aztecs believed was created by the god of lightning and death to protect the living and guide the souls of the dead through the underworld (the dogs were ritually sacrificed and buried with their companions). Is the Xolo here protecting life, or guiding a lost soul? The boy’s eyes are fixed on one bubble, which seems to show a reflection of a skull.
In Delgado’s painting, as in the exhibition overall, the close intermingling of life and death, of beauty and ugliness, captures the character of the border today. Sometimes art can be justifiably accused of taking the comprehensible and rendering it incomprehensibly abstract. Here, the art is doing the opposite for the border, and for the lives it has defined.