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Like much of life along Mexico’s northern edge, border art is often defined by its relationship to the U.S.
“I have an inherent need to create bridges, to reach,” said Patricia Ruiz Bayon, a prominent performance artist in Matamoros, Mexico, just across the border from Brownsville, Texas. “Probably because I have always been at the edge of division.”
But Tijuana artists and partners Mely Barragán and Daniel Ruanova, who grew up on the border, got tired of always looking north.
Although Barragán is a legal resident of the U.S. and Ruanova has dual citizenship, they’ve never been able to build a sustainable relationship with the arts community in the U.S.
“It’s always on their terms,” Barragán said of the contacts and visits over the years.
So four years ago they decided to explore in a different direction and immigrated to China. It was a move that has sparked a seemingly unlikely cross-cultural artistic link.
The goal, Ruanova said, was to build new ties so Tijuana artists can “expand the idea of border and create different exit-entry points to TJ instead of being monogamous to the USA.” (“TJ” is how many Tijuana natives refer to their hometown.)
But there was another reason. “It was the furthest and most civilized place we could find that was really, really far away from Mexico and from what we were trying to not think about,” said Ruanova.
Like most people living through the explosion of drug cartel violence in Tijuana in the late 2000s, Ruanova and Barragán grew paranoid. You could see it in their art. Ruanova’s work at the time — “The F--- Off Project” — included bright, colorful paintings shielded by steely gates and teeth or painted over with the project’s titular epithet in bright red letters.
He also built large-scale metal sculptures with sharp edges that defended the spaces where they were installed. “Protect my space, protect my people, protect my stuff, protect my consensus,” he said back in 2009. “And when you start doing that, you realize when you protect yourself, you’re just giving more energy to this cycle.”
Barragán, meanwhile, constructed soft sculptures of baguette-style leather handbags shaped like chef’s knives.
In 2008 there were 844 homicides in Tijuana. San Diego, which sits just across the border and is comparable in size, had 55 murders that year. The frequent kidnappings and gruesome murders took a toll on Barragán and Ruanova. They were afraid to go out. They kept a gun in their home.
Just two years earlier, the New York Times had hailed Tijuana as the center of a “vibrant new art movement” during the landmark “Strange New World: Art and Design from Tijuana” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. That exhibition hosted 130 works from 41 artists, including Ruanova and Barragán. It was the pinnacle of U.S. interest in art from the Mexican side of the border.
By 2008, Tijuana artists — like much of the rest of the city’s residents — were bunkered in their homes, securing themselves behind locked doors.
“It was depressing,” Barragán said. “It was contaminating us as artists.”
When they moved to China, Barragán and Ruanova found very little cultural representation of Mexico. To initiate a cultural exchange between the two nations, they opened the TJ in China project room in Caochangdi, an industrial arts district described as the Williamsburg of Beijing (referring to the Brooklyn neighborhood with a thriving art scene) and stomping grounds of China’s internationally famed artist Ai Wei Wei.
But it was not easy to be a commercial hit. Despite packed events, TJ in China never sold a single piece. Not that Barragán and Ruanova found that off-putting. “Maybe some people will see [that] as a negative, but growing up as an artist in TJ — there’s no market,” said Ruanova. “That’s not the reality of why you do art [in Tijuana].” (The pair did, however, continue to sell several of their own pieces outside of the gallery.)
Arturo Rodriguez, who runs the upscale Caja Gallery on a winding residential street about two miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, confirms this. Even with pieces by respected border artists like Irma Sofia Poeter and Pablo Llana in his collection, Rodriguez has a tough time attracting buyers.
“It’s difficult because there’s a lot of money here but the people usually …” his voice trailed off as he searched for a diplomatic way to explain the city’s lack of local art buyers. As for San Diego collectors, Tijuana’s security reputation keeps them away.
“There’s no art market,” affirmed Stefan Falke, a German photographer who has spent much of the last six years shooting portraits of artists all along the U.S.-Mexico border, including Barragán and Ruanova. (The photos will be exhibited at New York’s Photoville exhibit in September.)
But for Falke, what’s bad for the artists’ pockets is good for their process.
“Art there is made for the art,” he said.
In 2013, Barragán and Ruanova started to lobby the Cultural Committee of the Mexican Congress to fund their cross-cultural space. They received 700,000 pesos (about $53,000) and a stipulation: The funds must be spent in Mexico.
TJ in China opened in February in an abandoned curio shop on Tijuana’s famed Avenida Revolución. The space showcases mostly local artists and has a residency program for artists from Beijing. The current exhibit, “The Layered Process as Self Documentaton,” runs through mid-September.
On a Thursday afternoon in July, Barragán and Ruanova sat on red chairs in the middle of the gallery as a parade of flies zipped about, having taken a wrong turn from the taco stand next door.
“We had way more fun in China than we do here,” said Ruanova, lighting a cigarette to chase out the flies. “But we are here with a purpose.”
The two want to plant a seed in a city where they believe it has a lot of room to grow. They also want to bring something home.
“There was something we admired in the art districts in Beijing — that they worked for the people of Beijing. Not for the foreigner who wants to go. And in my case, I can’t hide the fact from myself that I think my work would be more important here than in another place,” Ruanova said.