The women in the portraits comprising The Mexican Women’s Post Apocalyptic Survival Guide in the Southwest all look into the camera with a combination of pride, defiance, and strength. The tools of their trade—a shovel handle, a small rabbit, hands dirty from gardening—are small details in the images, yet they hint at the labor and grit of these women, which is exactly what Douglas, Arizona artist M. Jenea Sanchez set out to capture in her portrait series.
Portrait of Lupita by M. Jenea Sanchez, 2016.
The women of the portraits are all members of the DouglaPrieta collective, based in Agua Prieta, Sonora, just across the border from Douglas. Sanchez was moved by the work, lives, and character of these women and wanted to share their stories in a series of photographs because, she says, their determination “ is representative of millions of women around the world who face extreme oppression and poverty.” The women of the DouglaPrieta collective originally came together to generate more income for their families by raising chickens and rabbits, growing food, and selling handmade crafts. When the rent was raised beyond what they could pay on the hall they rented to sell their work, the women turned to the desert: They made bricks out of the desert clay, then built their own building using the bricks. And they did it all without running water or electricity.
Sanchez first met the women of the DouglaPrieta when one of the founders, Marybeth Webster, let her know they were looking for someone to paint a mural on the front of their new building. During the summer of 2015, Sanchez worked alongside two other artists—one a woman from the DouglaPrieta—to complete the mural. Sanchez came to know the women of the collective well, and saw these “loving, creative, and hardworking people” as collaborators, not subjects of her work. She wanted to capture “their beauty, from the inside out, and the beauty of their work,” which is why she proposed the portrait series. It was on display at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art as part of the Push Comes to Shove: Women and Power exhibition through January 8, 2017.
Portrait of Cynthia by M. Jenea Sanchez, 2016.
The common thread in Sanchez’s varied work as an artist is her devotion to collaboration and community. Her work is not just to see, but to engage with. She often invites her family members, friends, and others from the community to take part in her installations.
Collaboration is at the heart of Labor , an installation also at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art and based on the work of the women of Agua Prieta. The completed twenty-two-foot-high installation is how M. Jenea Sanchez and her ongoing collaborator, fellow artist Gabriela Muñoz, chose to honor the women of the DouglaPrieta and their labor: They purchased some of the same bricks the Agua Prieta women used in their building, transported them to Arizona, screen-printed them with images of the women, and built a wall using the bricks. The significance of the bricks themselves—products of Mexico, moved north across the border—is not lost on Sanchez; or on Muñoz, who grew up just south of the border, in northern Chihuahua. This element is, in fact, a considered element of Labor .
M. Jenea Sanchez and Gabriela Muñoz performance documentation of "Labor," 2016. Photo by Mary Stephens.
The layering of symbolism and meaning in their work is typical for the duo. When they first met at Arizona State University, Sanchez had been studying the history of art and community and was inspired by Muñoz’s work with migrant children; Muñoz had printed images of the children on handmade paper that also contained pieces of their clothing. The two artists, who frequently ran into one another between classes, had “a two-minute conversation” in which Sanchez asked Muñoz to collaborate on a piece with her. In those two minutes, Sanchez says, they “established one of the most profound relationships of my life.”
The two installed the piece that came out of that initial conversation, Tapiz Fronteriza de la Virgen de Guadalupe , on the Mexico-US border fence in December 2010. To create it, they made paper from local desert plants, then sewed the thick pieces of paper together and painted an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on both sides before weaving the twelve-by-eight-foot piece through the border fence. This way, when the piece was installed, la Virgen faced outward on either side, including both border communities. The artists relied on friends and family on both sides of the border to successfully weave the piece through; as Sanchez reminisces: “ We were rewarded with not only a successful piece that brought community together, but so many beautiful, complex layers of friendship, comradeship, and trust that were brought to the surface.”
Sanchez and Muñoz, "Tapiz Fronteriza de la Virgen de Guadalupe," Mexico-US border, 2009.
Both artists try to be thoughtful and deliberate when considering the impact their art has on the border communities. They purposely chose to make the paper for la Virgen out of plants growing along the border fence, a tiring process that required fourteen-hour workdays, so that, as it disintegrated over time, the art would return to its original source. With Tapiz Fronteriza de la Virgen de Guadalupe , they wanted to challenge the idea that the border region is rife with crime and violence, and instead celebrate “the richness and value of border culture.” This instinct the artists share, the urge to contribute to as well as exalt the communities of which they are part, is at the heart of Sanchez’s and Muñoz’s collaborations and their individual work.
Growing up and living close to the border has had a deep and ongoing impact on Sanchez’s life. She recalls how her father used to drive her and her brother through parts of Agua Prieta that didn’t have running water or electricity, where the homes were often made of scrap wood and metal. These neighborhoods, just minutes away from where Sanchez lived, instilled in her a lasting belief that “we are all the same, no matter what side of the fence we live on.” The fence itself, she says, “ has taught me how to see past the obvious. Yes, the border divides the United States and Mexico, but the culture of this place is of one, not two. The border is not absolute; it’s man-made, imperfect . . . it is part of my daily visual landscape, and I do not forget about it and its implications.”
Sanchez’s work often returns to installations along the border itself. In 2009, she installed the Border Tapestry on the fence, weaving cloth through the slats of fence with her mother in a meditative installation that recalled the familial roots of the border communities, the families that are separated by the fence, and the days when movement across was more fluid and natural rather than militarized. Sanchez notes the sea change happening now: Many people are returning to Mexico. She reflects on how difficult life will be for many migrants under the coming administration.
Sanchez weaving "Border Tapestry" through the border fence, 2008. Photo by Rosa Sanchez.
Living so near the border, Sanchez has an intimate understanding of the region and its culture, and the understanding, compassion, and vision for the future she tries to bring to her work is both far-reaching and full of hope. Sanchez considers her collaborative piece with Muñoz, Labor , to be in dialogue with the border fence rather than a work emphasizing separation. Both artists believe it serves as a metaphor for the way forward: “The bricks, when placed together, become strong and able to endure the elements of nature and society,” Sanchez says. Similarly, she and Muñoz view the border community on both sides of the fence as one community, not two—stronger together.
This is how Sanchez works: by building community through art; creating something bigger and more permanent than the works themselves. The mural she worked on with the women of the DouglaPrieta collective has since spiraled out into many different works, and the portraits she took of them will be images in the book she and the women are writing together. As Sanchez continues working within her bi-national community “in order to push out stereotypes and send messages of empowerment for women,” she hopes the communities along the border and those among women in the area continue to grow as well, strengthening ties and fostering more work and collaboration.
All images used courtesy of the artists.