Can art open the door of understanding between two sharply different cultures with two different languages?
That is the belief and motivation behind a new exhibit featuring three Tijuana artists that opened Friday at Sushi Performance and Art Gallery (852 8th Ave.).
Previous cultural exchanges have had little success in fostering widespread understanding of the differences between San Diego and Tijuana, much less the two countries, said Sushi’s visual arts coordinator, who goes by the name of Berne. Can one more exhibit in a tiny gallery make a difference?
“I hope to see collaborations by artists on both sides of the border,” Berne said. “I’m not saying they will result from this show, but we need to have more of these shows to build trust.”
The art on view, through Nov. 19, is by Tijuana’s Felipe Almada, Gerardo Navarro and Hugo Sanchez. All share space in Almada’s studio, and their art is radically different from that of contemporary San Diego artists. The change appeals to Sushi director Lynn Schuette.
“I haven’t seen such a direct link to Surrealism and Dada, (which) I really love,” Schuette said. “It’s tied to an international art movement--not what’s going on in New York City right now.”
All three artists have worked in San Diego’s art community as well as Tijuana’s. Their works include Almada’s use of popular cultural images in his box constructions and altars similar to those found in Mexican homes. Almada, 43, was a major disciple of the late Surrealist Benjamin Serrano, arguably the leading artist to come out of Tijuana.
Sanchez, 25, conveys his impressions of contemporary Tijuana life with floor-to-ceiling charcoal-colored murals.
Navarro, 26, is represented by murals and collages reminiscent of Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.”
Tonight, arte accion, or performance art pieces, will be performed inside and outside the gallery by Sanchez, Navarro, the Tijuana rock band Mercado Negro, actor Carlos Niebla and Guillermo Gomez-Pena.
An interdisciplinary artist and writer, Gomez-Pena acted as Berne’s liaison with the Tijuana artists and believes the time is especially ripe for a cultural dialogue.
“It’s a historical moment,” Gomez-Pena said. “Here (in the United States) Chicano artists are perplexed by the sudden attention they are receiving nationally . . . . Meanwhile, Mexican artists are more perplexed by a different phenomenon.
“It is the sudden awakening of the Mexican civilian population that has been occurring since the earthquake of ’86 and, more especially, with the new opposition political movement.”
Gomez-Pena was referring to this year’s controversial Mexican presidential election, in which the opposition candidates to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (known by its Spanish acronym, PRI) received unprecedented support.
Marco Vinicio Gonzalez, a Tijuana cultural journalist and activist, concurred with Gomez-Pena.
“In the last election in Mexico, the masses of the people woke up and tried to change reality,” Vinicio said. “Most of the people are very glad that the PRI is dying and something else is being born. Nobody knows what the new thing is, but everybody hopes the new thing will be the best way to arrive at a new kind of democracy.”
That sense of change, and the artists’ regular experience of crossing the border between San Diego and Tijuana, is reflected in the works on exhibit at Sushi, Berne said. The Tijuana art differs sharply from much contemporary U.S. art in that it appears less cerebral, he said. “I think it’s important that we understand there are significant forms of (contemporary) Mexican art and that we begin a dialogue to understand what the nature of that art is,” Berne said. “We all have something to gain by that dialogue. They have a rich tradition of cultural imagery.”
He suggested that a form of cultural arrogance has crept into the way the U.S. arts community views other countries’ arts.
“As one of the two or three dominant cultures in the world, we assume that the way we represent something is the way it’s represented,” he said. “We need to begin working with artists in Mexico as cultural equals.”
Gomez-Pena said the problem in creating a cultural dialogue is recognizing that there will be differences and avoiding being defensive. California has declared English as the official language, and, in Mexico City, a parallel exists in a committee for the defense of the Spanish language, he said.
“There’s a fear of Anglicisms and borderisms--that the Spanish language is losing its integrity,” Gomez-Pena said.
For a real dialogue to occur, artists on both sides must come to terms with their differences, conquer each other’s fears and test each other’s cultural limits, he said.
“The only way these can be achieved is to redefine everything, beginning with the concept of border, nationality, culture, identity, art and language. And to come up with more open, tolerant and multidimensional and multicultural concepts that are not defensive.
“Dialogue has to be multilingual. Most of the time the initiative for dialogue comes from this side (the United States). That means that the rules of the dialogue are created by this side. It has to happen on both sides and come from both sides for it to be symmetrical.”
The language used in the Sushi exhibit is Spanish. There are no English wall cards to explain the art, which rambles even into the restrooms. Berne said that, after realizing he did not understand the meaning of some of the posters on the walls in the women’s restroom, he decided to place Spanish-English dictionaries in the gallery so viewers could look up words.
Last week an exhibit of works by three artists from Costa Rica opened at the Southwestern College Art Gallery. Next weekend the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art Downtown opens another exhibition of Tijuana artists, including pieces by Almada, Manuel Cruces, Manuel Luis Escutia, Daniela Gallois, Andromeda Martin, Romel Rosas and Serrano.
A discussion of border culture, led by Berne and Madeleine Grynsztejn, associate curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, will be held at 11 a.m. Oct. 22 at Sushi.
Will a real dialogue between the two cultures ever be possible? Berne believes so.
“It’s going to take artists to start that dialogue to break down tensions that exist between San Diego and Tijuana,” he said. “If artists don’t do that, I can’t imagine who is going to.”