Artist Ana Teresa Fernandez was browsing Facebook when she first heard the news about the 2014 Iguala mass kidnapping. Believed to be masterminded by Iguala’s corrupt mayor, Jose Luis Abarca Velazquez, the incident saw 43 male students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers' College vanish without a trace. Presumed dead, the remains of all but two students are yet to be found.
“I think there was just a collective outrage that everyone felt because there was nothing being done about it,” Fernandez says of the tragedy. “It was so outwardly violent and the government seemed to just be asleep at the wheel.”
[jump] Her own response came in the form of “Erasure,” a collection of pieces currently on display at the Gallery Wendi Norris. At the center of the exhibition is a video of the same name which shows Fernandez painting her body black until only small fragments of color remains. The performance reflects the response of many social media users who turned their profile pictures black in protest over the lack of action with regards to the Iguala kidnappings.
“I think it was a series of events where everyone just seemed to be using black as a protest. I thought, if these students don't mean anything, if there's no value placed on their lives, what gives me value versus them? I wanted do this homage to them where I erased myself.”
The video is accompanied by other pieces, including hyperrealistic oil paintings of an eye and a mouth (inspired by stills from the film), a text installation featuring a quote from Rebecca Solnit, and a ladder set on a rocking base. Together the collection forms what Fernandez describes as “a dismembered body,” a potent statement that taken together suggests a political body being torn apart.
The concept of erasing something as art is familiar ground for Fernandez, who is perhaps best known for her 2011 performance “Borrando la Frontera,” in which she painted segments of the U.S.–Mexico border in San Diego sky blue while wearing a black cocktail dress and pumps. “Borrando la Frontera” spoke to the role of the border as a place of cultural, social, and national intersection, and what its implied absence meant in terms of a needed unity between nations. The project made waves, both in the media and with local citizens. When Fernandez continued her project in Nogales, Arizona, the response was even louder.
It was during this performance that Fernandez realized that by erasing the border, she was in fact making herself invisible. “I started thinking, wow, it's so funny, because of this black dress I look like a black dot just moving around. I started noticing that I was becoming this absence, this mark, this blackness.”
Fernandez’s art has always been inextricably linked the political turmoil of her heritage. Born in 1981 in Tampico, Mexico, her grandfather was thrown in jail on several occasions for attending protests. She says her whole family was very politically active in Mexico, and that while her intention isn’t to be overt, it’s situations like the tragedy in Iguala that fuel her to create.
“I think it's like my way of reinterpreting the truth or reinterpreting reality, or presenting a part of reality that I find very beautiful,” she says, “things that I find should be spoken and seen. I think it's an insistence, like a yearning to see something differently.”
On April 9, Fernandez will travel back to Ciudad Juarez to participate in a community continuation of the “Borrando la Frontera” project. Explaining that the border moves through many landscapes, from the beach to the desert, Fernandez recalls being inundated with messages from Juarez citizens eager to see their portion of the border erased.
“I let things have the life that they need to have,” she says. “The life expectancy is totally up to the piece, and it seemed like people were really interested in doing it again, so I said ‘ok.’”
A San Francisco resident, Fernandez also works as a professor for the California College of the Arts and the San Francisco Art Institute. Asked how the untenable rent increases plaguing the city may affect the next generation of artists, she cautions against sleepy indifference and a passive faith that everything will simply work itself out. She says she is an eternal optimist, and so she chooses to keep fighting.
“You never know how the situation will turn out, and you always have to be open for the unimaginable and the unexpected and the beautiful to happen. We have such a powerful history of music and arts in this city, that it would just be so sad to see that die. I think I'll keep fighting for that.”
Erasure, through April 16 at Gallery Wendi Norris, 161 Jessie, 415-346-7812.