With work in three important group shows this spring — Trinity University, the McNay, and now Guadalupe Gallery — Margarita Cabrera might appear to be an over-exposed local artist. But the exhibits only show hints of the mammoth production being done by this El Paso-based artist who emigrated from Monterrey, Mexico, as a child, and the many immigrant artisans she collaborates with.
Her latest project, Mexico Abre La Boca, is a portable art gallery mounted in a taco truck. It is a production of Florezca, a for-profit corporation founded by Cabrera to save vanishing Mexican craft traditions while empowering Latin American immigrants with fair-wage jobs and corporate profit. Trained in methods of folk art technique, the Florezca artisans colaborate with Cabrera in a number of community projects that meld together pre-Hispanic and contemporary art. The results are difficult to categorize. Is it craft, or is it art? To Cabrera, the distinction is unfortunate at best.“Had the art world been more inclusive of other voices from the beginning there wouldn’t be this difference between world art and western art history,” she told the Current, before pointing out that “art initially comes from craft.”
Her earlier work resembled Claes Oldenburg soft sculptures with a political twist. Working with teams of seamstresses, she sewed together old U.S. Border Patrol uniforms to make full-scale models of consumer products like the Hummer, made in the maquiladoras, Mexican industrial plants. “That car became such an iconic piece in everyday culture here in the U.S. It’s pop culture, right?” Cabrera says, “and it was made by Mexican workers, and who knows that?”
Like Oldenburg and Andy Warhol, Cabrera’s work has a pop art flavor, too. “Andy Warhol made mass productions of his work and acknowledged it. I am not addressing what the work is — but who made it. Who are the anonymous people behind mass culture?”
The new projects envisioned by Florezca take artistic collaboration to almost unanimous community participation; social art practice with a material bent. Workshops will be held in Austin this summer and in San Antonio next spring.
Florezca is starting projects with immigrant communities in Texas and California. “In Fresno we are talking about the immigrant farming situation. So I talk to students, to groups of farmers, and activist groups.” Cabrera says. “Then I think of a community that may be addressing some of the same issues in Mexico. In Oaxaca there is a community that uses a pre-Hispanic tradition of weaving using brown cotton. So there is a connection between these two cotton growing communities.”
Using liensos, a Mayan back strap loom that hangs from a tree, Cabrera will organize weaving circles not as producers of commodities, but “as community instruments.”
“We are creating groupings around the trees. Immigrants who have had specific hardships, people who have been a part of human trafficking, will be around one tree. People who are on wheelchairs because of construction accidents and have no health benefits will be around another tree. Every tapestry is addressing a real social situation. Whatever is going on, the tapestry is coming out of this conversation we are going to have, from the experience we are going to have as a group.”
The shapes on the tapestries will be a community design, but the real art is the process — almost ritual.
“Reclaiming is real important, not only with immigrants on this side of the border, but with the paesanos in Mexico. They have had to redirect their productions for their survival. But it is also a personal thing. Being an immigrant myself, I feel the art world at large should be doing this.”