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May 5, 2017

Art exhibit symbolizes border between

Jake Hachey/Collegian

From afar, bicyclists slow as they inch up, peer around the corner and disappear behind the fence while disrupted foot traffic files in and out one by one. They approach what appears to be a construction site and hear the sounds of Native American ceremonial hymns, with the clanking of machinery and noisy helicopters surrounding the exhibit.

For the next week and a half, a photographic replica of the border between southern Arizona and Mexico will exist between the parking garage and the campus center to demonstrate the effects of driving a barrier down the center of a community. Organizers of “The Borders Crossed Us” expect its effect to compound over time as the fence continues to divide campus through May 1.

The exhibit is meant to simulate the effect of the fence built by the United States government after September 11th which cuts in half the Tohono O’odham Nation, the second-biggest federally recognized Indian reservation. It was created by artist Catherine D’Ignazio from the Institute for Infinitely Small Things, an artists’ collective that focuses on projects that take place outside the traditional museum or gallery setting.

Printed on mesh screen-like material used to wrap fences on typical construction sites, the exhibit features photographs taken of the border from the backyard of Ofelia Rivas, a native of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

“That is my backyard. That is what I have to deal with now. Helicopters are there every day. They didn’t ask permission from the people who were originally there,” said Rivas.

Rivas described instances on her own land where she said she was stopped for questioning by border patrol because of the color of her skin, thrown against a car in questioning and had a pistol held to her head for questioning authority.

A mixed sound recording of helicopters flying over Rivas’ home, the mechanical hum of construction noises and Rivas’ singing emanates from behind the fence, added to the illusion that construction is underway while setting an eerie tone.

At the exhibit’s reception Wednesday afternoon, D’Ignazio explained that the sudden appearance of the fence mirrors how, one day, a barrier was driven down the center of the Native American community in southern Arizona and Mexico without the consent of residents. She said that by inserting something inconvenient in a heavily trafficked area of campus, it will force people to stop and ask questions.

D’Ignazio was approached a year and a half ago by Loretta Yarlow, director of the University Museum of Contemporary Art, and asked to make a work of art for campus. She explained that she has family in Tucson and first saw the border a year and a half ago.

“It feels like [this] shouldn’t be happening in the United States,” she said.

Jean S. Forward, director of the certificate program in Native American Indian studies, which organized a panel talk following the reception, said she hopes that “a public art exhibit like this will encourage dialogue on campus about having a fence through a native community that has been on that land for thousands of years.”

Eva Fierst, Education Curator at the University Museum of Contemporary Art, explained the construction of the project.

“We want to give the illusion that UMass is putting up a fence,” said Fierst.

Designed to resemble the fence posts of the actual border, caps were placed on the poles which currently act as a barrier to cars on the bike path. Dirt was sprinkled around the base of the posts to further add to the effect.

The fence is staggered in three parts to allow foot traffic while still giving the impression of a fluid structure from afar.

Fierst explained that the original proposal to erect a fence stretching east to west across campus dividing it into a north and south was not approved because of the security implications and the disruption it would have to campus life.

“Site-specific installations like this are ephemeral, which means they’re only there once for a short time and just like so many public art works are nowadays it won’t be repeated,” Fierst said, describing the exhibit as a mixture between art and social activism.

Fierst said the biggest expense of the project was the screen used to print the photographs. Aside from that she credited the good will of UMass for allowing the use of sound and providing the fence, permits, sand bags and cones.

Rivas said that the exhibit was more important in the global sense of how these borders continue to divide people.

“We need to be a better society and resolve issues of borders. The United States needs to stop intervening in ‘border issues’ as they call it,” she said.

“We have family, friends, ceremonies and sacred places on both sides of the fence. We are so connected to the land that we need to go across that border without restriction,” said Rivas.

The exhibit was organized by the University Museum of Contemporary Art, which is located in the basement of the Fine Arts Center. Wednesday’s opening will be followed by an Indian discussion starting at 10 a.m. on Saturday at the Curry Hicks Cage and a performance at the project site from Tiokasin Ghosthorse, master of the Red Cedar Lakota flute.

Brian Canova can be reached at bcanova@student.umass.edu.

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