Margarita Cabrera, installation view of “Blurring Borders,” 2022–23. Photo: Vivian Zuniga

Margarita Cabrera

San Antonio, Texas

McNay Art Museum

Margarita Cabrera’s socially engaged works—often communal projects addressing themes of national identity, hybridity, migration, and sacrifice—draw on the concept of nepantla, a Nahuatl word meaning “the space in the middle.” The theme has personal relevance for Cabrera, who was born in Mexico and moved to the United States at the age of 10; she currently resides in San Antonio, where her monumental Árbol de la Vida, 40 feet high and 80 feet across, was unveiled on the River Walk in 2019. “Blurring Borders,” her current exhibition (on view through February 5, 2023), presents a large selection of multimedia sculptures that compellingly encourage viewers to consider the plight of the displaced with empathy and understanding.

The featured works speak to Cabrera’s interest in amplifying the voices of people who find themselves in transitional spaces, particularly members of the immigrant community. Many of these works come from her ongoing “Space in Between” series, which uses fabric to depict native plants of the Southwest in a soft, floppy style reminiscent of some Claes Oldenburg sculptures. Sprouting out of terra-cotta pots, Cabrera’s indigenous plants are made from a very specific fabric—border patrol uniforms purchased at thrift stores. Some, ironically, bear tags saying, “Made in Costa Rica.” Installed together, they create a sort of interactive landscape to be navigated. Some viewers might consider these politically charged uniforms as emblems of security and safety. To others, they will represent exclusion and control.

This is an ever-evolving body of work for which Cabrera invites local participation. With the help of immigrants who attend her sewing and embroidery workshops, each plant is embroidered with images that tell the stories of individuals and families who found themselves, at some point, between borders. These images are as varied in style and content as the experiences they represent: a stylized depiction of Our Lady of Guadalupe, an assortment of regional foods and treats, American flags, and Mexican flags. One message reads “Romana Crossed 1941.” Others say “Hope” and “DACA.” Some of the vignettes are sad and sobering. In one embroidered image, a dark rectangle surrounds several individuals, one lying dead—presumably asphyxiated. The rectangle is a shipping container.

While Cabrera’s practice incorporates traditional craft across media, she also works with innovative digital technology. About a dozen or so parrots (also created from border patrol uniforms) perch throughout the gallery, echoing, in their silly parrot-y voices, anything they “hear”—visitors’ conversations, gallery noise, and, of course, each other. Their voices snowball into an indecipherable chatter, which serves to make the show playfully interactive. But the result is also considered, in part a metaphor for the ruckus of noise on the internet, where ideas, information, and misinformation spread at the speed of light.

Another body of work hides in plain sight within the show, completely invisible without the intervention of technology. Scan the relevant QR code with a smartphone, and a gravity-defying group of sculptures—existing only in augmented reality—suddenly comes into view. Viewers can navigate around each of these biomorphic forms in 360 degrees and even interact with them. The allusive hovering forms (some at ground level, others above our heads) were inspired by Cabrera’s paintings, which explore the vibrant pink and crimson hues extracted from the cochineal insect. The cochineal has been used for hundreds of years to make dye, and as the result of colonization, that dye began to be marketed extensively in Europe during the 16th century. These augmented reality sculptures serve in part as an avenue to discuss colonized spaces, but they also present viewers with a strange and disorienting “alternate reality” that they must figure out how to negotiate. The experience, in a very small way, suggests the experience of those who must navigate the new realities of foreign places and spaces.

Viewers will surely enjoy interacting with Cabrera’s works, particularly the parrots, which insert some levity into an otherwise serious, politically and socially resonant exhibition. The use of augmented reality pushes the boundaries of sculpture to new frontiers (it’s the first time that AR work has been showcased as part of an exhibition at the McNay), but “Blurring Borders” has real heart and substance. Each of these elements is considered, underscoring Cabrera’s intent to amplify the voices of those on the margins. Her body of work is genuinely moving, delivering an infectious empathy for those who find themselves in life’s borderlands and liminal spaces.