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Arte Salva Vidas

Photo by Miranda Levingston, Washington Square News.

A Mexican guy comes to New York City with his own bricks to build a wall! While wall building is not so original, tearing it down in the same day is. That is provocative art.

On September 7 in New York City, the wall, simply called “Muro” (wall in Spanish) was constructed 6 feet high, and 26 feet long, made of bricks hand crafted in Oaxaca, Mexico.  Built by documented and possibly undocumented Mexican workers, the wall was dismantled by passers by. The idea came from artist Bosco Sodi, a Brooklyn-based artist with connections to arts and community art education and development programs in Oaxaca, Mexico. “I wanted to create a wall made by Mexicans with Mexican earth,” Mr. Sodi said in a recent New York Times interview. Artist Sodi noted that “you can’t get more Mexican than this: Mexican water, Mexican sun, Mexican air, fire, and Mexican earth.”

The tradition of art in public space has a long history in Latin America. This particular interactive art installation had multiple purposes: a tool for collective community action, a protest strategy, a tool of empowerment for the oppressed, an expression of resistance, an attempt to raise consciousness of both participants and passers-by, and a means to influence public opinion. Art can do that! Public art can effectively draw us into critical dialogue with history.

Location and visibility are key to enhancing political meaning. The space chosen for the September 7 event was Washington Square Park.  With its own history of non-conformity, and with artists and writers in proximal residence, it is one of the premier tourist and community sites of New York City.  Long the site of labor, suffrage, and political rallies and protests, it seemed an appropriate venue. Earlier in 2017, a rally against Donald Trump’s immigration policies had been held there.

The act of looking, interpreting and making sense of cultural information is needed now more than ever. The U.S. and Mexico share two languages and are historically interwoven. Two distinct cultures and two histories vertically share the American continent. “Muro” reminds us that transforming historically conflicted societies requires courage as well as talent and dedication. The results of that commitment and sacrifice can be dramatic. Public art, through its protest and resistance message, can hopefully engage us in that struggle.

The Washington Square News reported that the installation and deconstruction of “Muro” was a five hour event, and saw a steady stream of  passersby in line to deconstruct the wall, one brick at a time. The first brick was removed by a representative from New York City Mayor DeBlasio’s office. Each brick was signed by the artist and is a hopeful reminder that “something there is that doesn’t love a wall”, as eminent American poet Robert Frost reminded us in his 1914 poem Mending Wall.

Barbara Kantz, Ph.D., M.S.W., teaches Latin American history at S.U.N.Y. Empire State College.

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