November 26, 2012
by Ella Diaz
Ana Teresa Fernandez is a visual artist, sculptor, and performance artist based in San Francisco, CA. Originally from Tampico, Mexico, Ana moved in 1991 with her family to San Diego, California. In the early 2000s, Ana earned her MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute [SFAI], and began teaching drawing and painting around the time I began teaching in the humanities at the SFAI. But before I actually met her, I first encountered Ana Teresa Fernandez through her 2008 exhibition, “Ecdisis: Juarez, Mexico” at the Galería de la raza in San Francisco, California. See http://www.galeriadelaraza.org/eng/events/index.php?op=view&id=1244
This exhibit featured Ana’s oversized ex-votos, better known as milagros, which are the diminutive metal fetishes of hands, hearts, arms, and other sacred body parts often used in syncretic and hybrid spiritual rituals in Mexico and Central America. Ana’s replicas of Milagros were “life-size” and hung on a red velvet wall. By isolating these representations of body parts and contextualizing them within a well-known spiritual practice for many Mexicanas and Latinas, Ana reframed the recovery of the mutilated and desecrated bodies of women murdered in Juarez. This show stayed with me for many years as I tried to find ways to talk and teach about Ciudad Juarez and representations of female sexuality and gender in the neoliberal state. See http://anateresafernandez.com/ecdisis/af_111708_prs_001/
Another component of the exhibit featured Ana’s creation of glass sculptures of several children, orphaned by the femicide in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, as well as children left parentless through sexual and labor exploitation in Bangladesh and Vietnam. Ana began the process of creating the sculptures first by taking molds of the children in various poses. She then took the molds and covered them with broken glass from beer bottles. Her choice of material was based on her travels through Haiti and Ciudad Juarez where she noticed that broken glass was often as a type of home security system, placed at the tops of walls as a defense against robbery and other crimes. The broken glass sculptures were illuminated during the 2008 exhibit and positioned against walls of the Galería; one of the sculpture-children was placed on a bench. The figures were at once beautiful, haunting, and lonely. Ana wanted viewers to think about the multi-generational repercussions of the ongoing femicide in Ciudad Juarez, as well as the fallout of other epicenters of violence against women. Ultimately, the broken glass sculptures visually conveyed Ana’s and our inability to protect these children from the crimes against their mothers and the traumas imposed upon them as a consequence and in the future without the protective presence and defense of their mothers.
Returning to her recent lecture at my campus on November 8, Ana centered her presentation around her 2010 work, “Borranda la barda/Erasing the border.” (http://anateresafernandez.com/borrando-la-barda-tijuana-mexico/) In 2010, Ana “set an enormous ladder against the border wall separating Playas de Tijuana from San Diego’s Border Field State park, and using a generator and a spray gun, she started painting the bars a pale powdery blue. While wearing a little black cocktail dress. And black pumps” (Jill Holslin, 2010). Writer Jill Holslin concludes that “Erasing the border, then, reminds us of the power of utopian visions, of dreams and the imagination.” Utopian visions are not uncommon in narrative, and Ana works across many mediums, from visual art, to performance and social sculpture, to tell the stories that shape our cultural experiences. For those of you who may not be familiar with social sculpture, it’s an idea put forth by Joseph Beuys in the 1960s and 1970s that proposes sculpture as a potential for and an act of societal transformation.
One aspect of “Borranda la barda” that I had difficulty reconciling is Ana’s selected wardrobe for painting the border fence: a little black dress and black high heels. As a Chicana who has witnessed many offensive perceptions of overtly sexual apparel, I didn’t know how to read this component of her performance and intervention on the border. During her lecture, however, Ana explained that the “little black dress” is a loaded symbol—even a kind of capital—in the western imagination. By placing it out of its expected context—the nightclub, the lounge, etc.—Ana is able to channel its co-opted power, or objectifying gaze and turn it back on her viewer.
Also, while in the midst of painting the border that perfect shade of sky blue, she was detained by to policemen on the Mexican side, while helicopters hovered above her on the U.S. side. Her negotiation with the police went on for 45 minutes. Ana contends that her little black dress had everything to do with her ability to finish painting the piece.
Earlier this year, Ana learned that “Borranda la barda” had been destroyed—repainted the black color of the fence. Prior to arriving at Cornell to give her lecture, Ana returned to the fence and repainted “Borranda la barda” that perfect shade of sky blue that, at a certain distance, restores the horizon to an unbroken, unblocked natural divide, where the ocean meets the land.
Ella Diaz is an Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University. Her research is on the interdependence of Chican@ and Latin@ literary and visual cultures.