Mexican folk art in a socio-political context

by Keith Barber

A life-sized sculpture of an H2 Hummer serves as a centerpiece of Mexican-American artist Margarita Cabrera’s exhibit, “The Space in Between,” currently on display at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

A life-sized sculpture of an H2 Hummer serves as a centerpiece of Mexican-American artist Margarita Cabrera’s exhibit The Space in Between, currently on display at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem.

Earlier this week, SECCA Curator Steven Matijcio offered a tour of the exhibit, which runs through Feb. 12, and explained the genius behind the Hummer.

“[Cabrera] chooses her subjects very strategically,” Matijcio said.

“In American culture, [the Hummer] was this very popular symbol of military might that became commercialized and a toy for the rich and famous that has now become this symbol of luxury, wealth and waste. But she’s quite interested in the way that this icon of first-world luxury was produced by third-world hands.”

The Hummer sculpture offers social commentary on the rise of maquiladoras or factories in Mexico run by foreign corporations that export their goods back to their home country, Matijcio explained. The Hummer is a prime examples of the type of goods produced in maquiladoras. And ironically, Hummers serve as the primary vehicle for the US Border Patrol.

“She’s interested in immigration politics, border relations, displaced peoples and re-humanizing the corporate model to try to revalue manual labor,” Matijcio said. “She’s looking especially at the relationship between Mexico and the United States and the flow of people and goods and money and how all of those are interwoven.”

Cabrera’s threadbare, soft sculptures speak volumes about the nature of the social and economic relationship between the two nations.

For example, Cabrera’s Desert Plants series, which depicts the indigenous plants in the regions of the American Southwest encountered by immigrants as they attempt to cross the border, are made of deconstructed US Border Patrol uniforms, which “allows these communities to weave into and tell their own stories of migration, passage and transition,” Matijcio said.

Cabrera’s backpack sculpture series offers a portrait of a people in flux, Matijcio said. Cabrera has masterfully recreated the contents of backpacks seized by Border Patrol agents from Mexican immigrants.

“[The backpacks] represent everyone from small children all the way up to grandparents,” Matijcio said. “They are snapshots of everything that was in that person’s backpack at the time they were captured so you get this portrait of this person who we don’t know by name but we only know by what they were carrying at that time. It becomes this tragic, melancholic but celebratory portrait of a person in transition.”

Cabrera’s Bicycles series has a similar powerful impact on the viewer.

The vinyl sculptures look as if they are in the process of melting in the sun, sagging under the weight of the world. Each sculpture becomes an abstract portrait of people we will never meet or ever know, Matijcio said.

“You never really know the true stories behind so Margarita turns them into these silent memorials,” he added.

In her domestic appliances series, Cabrera has created sculptures of everyday household items to again refer to the maquiladoras.

“Maquiladoras are so prevalent in Mexico and people need to make a living, they’re now devoting their time, their labor, their efforts into producing waffle makers, food processors, luxury automobiles and moving away from the traditions of their parents and grandparents,” Matijcio said. “Margarita is trying to create a platform to not only celebrate and reinvigorate those traditions but to revalue them economically.”

As CEO of Florezca, Cabrera is striving to preserve endangered cultural and craft traditions of her native Mexico. Cabrera expresses her socio-political message in a very non-confrontational manner, which entices the viewer to want to learn more.

“She kind of tries to bring you in to develop a relationship with the objects before she surrounds you with the political content,” Matijcio explained. “She wants to build relationships — that’s the core of her political practice and through building those communities, you can really effect change.”

SECCA will hold a special celebration for Margarita Cabrera’s exhibition, “The Space in Between,” from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Nov. 3. For further info, call 336,725.1904.