Tanya Aguiñiga, Palapa, 2017. Powder-coated steel and synthetic hair, 86 x 77 in. diameter. Photo: Jenna Bascom, Courtesy the Museum of Arts and Design

Tanya Aguiñiga

New York

Museum of Arts and Design

“Have you been part of a political party or social group? Has anyone in your family been convicted of a crime? What is the purpose of your trip?” These and similar questions, printed on the steps of two flights of stairs, served as the thematic entry point to Tanya Aguiñiga’s “Craft & Care” exhibition. U.S. Border agents ask the same questions of Mexican nationals when they enter the U.S. Much of “Craft & Care” originated in a project that Aguiñiga started in 2016. AMBOS, or “Art Made Between Opposite Sides,” is a multifaceted initiative, consisting of community activism, border documentation, artist actions, and commuter collaborations, which attempts to create a portrait of U.S./Mexico ports of entry and the sister cities at those sites. “Craft & Care” featured fiber art, furniture design, sculpture, performance crafting, photographic documentation, videos, radio broadcasts, data, and other ephemera generated by AMBOS. The various objects and processes illustrate how Aguiñiga makes connections between community work and design thinking.

Aguiñiga and her co-workers engage in what has been categorized as “craftivism”—a range of feminist, communal activities that involve the appropriation of spaces and provide an opportunity for activism. Generating humor through incongruity and provoking broader questions about gender, technology, and the political sphere, Aguiñiga’s work represents what can occur when craft gives up its strictly domestic functions and engages with social, cultural, and political issues.

Several major pieces in the show were made collectively—the multipart Border Quipu / Quipu Fronterizo uses the pre-Columbian quipu, an Andean calculation system involving knotted string, as the basis for recording daily commutes to the North. Commuters, who wait for hours to cross the border into the U.S., were asked to tie a knot using two strands of material sourced from factory scraps. The two strands represent the relationship of the U.S. and Mexico to one another and to the commuters themselves. AMBOS volunteers tied each day’s collection of knots into long chains. At MAD, the chains resembled columns hung from the ceiling. The date and location of each collection point was inscribed on a circular tablet placed below the column on the floor. This group of quipus was first exhibited strung over a billboard at a crossing-area marketplace in Tijuana.

Palapa (2017), the most theatrical object in the show, resembles a traditional thatched roof, though it’s suspended from the ceiling and made entirely of blond synthetic hair plaited into a powder-coated steel structure. Three people can stand comfortably under its enveloping form. Aguiñiga intends it to be used as a space for reflection or a site for community gathering.

In recent years, art/activist craft practices like Aguiñiga’s have become increasingly performative and interventionist. Unfortunately, their tremendous vitality does not always survive the transition from the field to the museum or gallery. The energy is subdued by the institutional context, where works become a model of themselves, more like design proposals than transformative, participatory sociopolitical actions in public space.

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