Sanctuary Through Reappropriation and Border Art: Converting the Border into a Space of Transnational Solidarity and Protest

Dorian (Obed) Labra-Pelaez | May 2021

The U.S.-Mexico border holds undeniable importance within the Sanctuary Movement and the experience of many migrants who traverse this perilous terrain to attain a more secure life. Throughout history, it typically has been perceived as a place of inherent danger and division. The militarization and recent reinforcement and expansion of the US border wall only seems to support this predominant perception. However, the Sanctuary Movement has always been predicated on the rejection and defiance of structures and systems fomented by the nation-state. The practice of sanctuary itself revolves around rejecting notions and arbitrary demarcations of legal status to welcome the figurative neighbors and integrate them into one’s community with benevolence and enthusiasm. This is precisely where the potential of the physical border wall and space as potent means of protest and solidarity come into place. Through contemporary border art, artists of many disciplines have reappropriated the border wall to act as their canvas for protesting the immigration policies of the US and cultivating a sense of solidarity and unity among those on both sides of the border. Portraying sanctuary as a multifaceted movement with unlimited manifestations, border art is just one way in which migrants and allies can support one another and protest policies they perceive to be unjust and inhumane.

Direct Assistance Through Border Art

Transborder Immigrant Tool Mockup and Advertisement
Transborder Immigrant Tool Mockup and Advertisement. Courtesy of the Transborder Immigrant Tool.

Border art can be a fruitful means to provide direct assistance to migrants during the physical journey of crossing the border. This reality belies the misrepresentation of art as a purely symbolic practice with no direct potential for affecting change. This potential is illustrated by the Transborder Immigrant Tool, an artistic and activist project devised in 2007 by two performance artists, Ricardo Dominguez and Brett Stalbaum, and their creative protest collective: the Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT). EDT’s Transborder Immigrant Tool represents an ambitious initiative intended to help migrants in two main ways: physically, by using GPS technology to lead them to sources of water on their journey and, spiritually and mentally, by relaying audio recordings of poetry to inspire and support them on their trek. This initiative would have been made possible by distributing low-cost Motorola phones to migrants in Mexico before crossing the border. Ultimately, legal challenges by the federal government and fear that the use of phones and GPS may lead to persecution by cartels derailed its actual implementation. Despite the project not fully coming to fruition, the concept and inspiration behind the Transborder Immigrant Tool help us conceptualize how art can be used not only to provide tangible and lifesaving assistance to migrants within the broader Sanctuary Movement but also to emphasize that caring about and providing support for the spiritual and mental health of these migrants is equally important. Most importantly, this initiative proves that physical assistance and artistic expression are not mutually exclusive; they can be pursued concurrently to affect change that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Solidarity Through Border Art 

Aerial photograph of JR’s Migrants
Aerial photograph of JR’s Migrants, Picnic across the border. Courtesy of JR’s website.

Other artists have challenged the notion of the border as a place that must always signal division and barriers. Accordingly, artists like French photographer and street artist JR have utilized installation art to temporarily change the purpose of the border wall, presenting it as a radically convivial space. Through his conceptualization of the border wall as a potential space of unity and solidarity, JR created Migrants, Picnic across the border in 2017 as part of his series on the US-Mexico border. This piece was located along the border wall in Tecate, Mexico. In this installation art piece, JR utilizes the border wall as the centerpiece of a transnational meal, allowing the audience to break bread together and foster hospitality despite divisional structures. To avoid it being shut down by border patrol, JR was obligated to resist publications of the event and rely on word of mouth to draw visitors instead. The installation project proved to be a resounding success despite its covert and low-key nature. It attracted hundreds of people in just a few hours and had people on both sides of the border enjoying tacos, tea, and live traditional music a band playing on both sides. JR vividly described the beauty and unity that his project culminated in, stating, “we started to relax, to enjoy the moment, and even almost forgot that the wall was there.” JR’s piece is more than a dinner table meant to foster unity; it is explicitly representative of the precarity that DREAMERs regularly experience, particularly when the DACA program faced impending rescindment. The table bears a printed photograph depicting the eyes of a DREAMER whom JR had personally met. It is a stark reminder that amid all the happiness and unity that a transnational dinner brings, the structures and rhetoric that divide and enclose these people cannot be forgotten.

Abolition Through Border Art

Artists have typically utilized the border as a canvas to foster unity and highlight the US’s unfair and regressive immigration policies, but what if a different message were conveyed, a message that was much more radical and revolutionary? This expression is precisely the realm Mexican performance artist and painter Ana Teresa Fernández explores in her 2011 installation painting Borrando La Frontera (Erasing the Border). In this piece, Fernández utilizes the border located at the beautiful beach backdrop of Playas de Tijuana and Border Field State Park to imagine a more attractive and scenic world, one without the unsightly structures of border walls and fences. Painting it a baby blue hue that matches the majestic sky and ocean behind it, Fernández intentionally paints only a small portion of the wall to incite curiosity and awe in beachgoers. The stark juxtaposition of an ethereal borderless vision with the unattractive and jarring border fence allows us to conceptualize radical realities. Fernández’s message is simple but beautiful and revolutionary.

We have always been told that borders are necessary in our world; they help keep us safe and are requisite structures for countries to exist. However, Fernández highlights the ugliness they have brought into our world. Nature, by default, is beautiful. Humanity, by nature, can be beautiful. Borders obscure the natural beauty in the world. Fernández imagines a more idyllic vision of humanity and the world through the abolition of borders and other demarcating structures. If we rid ourselves of the barriers in our world, we may be better positioned to see our world in a more picturesque, unadulterated manner.