Fourteen life-size desert plants constructed from sections of dark green U.S. Border Patrol uniforms were casually arrayed in terra-cotta pots on the gallery floor for El Paso artist Margarita Cabrera’s recent exhibition. The sculptures (2006-12) primarily resemble cacti and are uncannily realistic, especially from a distance. The Border Patrol uniforms were cut to duplicate the shapes of the plants’ stems and leaves; pockets, buttons, identification patches and labels remain intact. The pieces were sewn together with quick machine basting, uncut threads dangling at seam ends, producing a rough-hewn quality that contrasts with the factory-made precision of the uniforms. Cactus spines are simulated by tufts of yellow thread, and small bursts of bright red fabric represent the flowers of the saguaros and the fruits of the prickly pears. Concealed beneath the cloth, copper wire armatures support the sculptures, which are wrought into gently curving, skyward gestures or squat globes with spindly shoots extended. The animism that enlivens the inert materials results from flamelike leaves, fleshy pads and an upward dynamic suggesting that the plants have raised their arms in affirmation, protest or surrender.
To help her create many of the sculptures Cabrera enlisted immigrant seamstresses (individually credited on the checklist) from Mexico and Central America, who embroidered fanciful pictographs on the fabric. Based on her long-term commitment to border and immigrant issues, in 2010 Cabrera began a community outreach project, Space In Between, which includes a series of embroidery workshops conducted in Houston; Charlotte, N.C., and Fresno, Calif. The participants’ handwork ranges from roughly outlined forms—such as a deer rendered in purple thread, a shining sun and a chain-stitched male figure with crows flying around his head—to more refined and time-consuming solid shapes like a map of Mexico filled in with the colors of the Mexican flag in Space in Between—Nopal #4 (2012). Each embroidered panel is unique, representing everyday scenes from the workers’ lives. Stitching on Nopal #6 (2012) sketches a driver’s license issued by the state of North Carolina to Ada Luz and her address in Charlotte.
Cabrera’s collaboration with as many as 17 immigrants at a time underscores the sociopolitical tensions in U.S.-Mexico relations, which encompasses the Border Patrol and the mostly female workers in maquiladoras, the factories that supply cheap labor for the production of American commodities on the Mexican side of the border. The constant migration between Mexico and Texas and the heated controversies over immigration throughout the U.S. pervade the exhibition.
Each picture or scene covers just a few inches of fabric, requiring the viewer to hover over the sculptures for inspection. The bristly spines cause an immediate and involuntary physical retreat. This happened every time I bent down for a closer look, despite foreknowledge of the soft materials. The bodily impact the works exert on the viewer, enhanced by the sculptures’ anthropomorphic gestures, is direct and unmediated, a quality too often lacking in contemporary sculpture. Predictable antagonisms between immigrant laborers and the U.S. government, here represented by the combination of highly personalized handicraft and mass-produced uniforms, are not depicted with the false optimism of synthesis but the more valuable back-and-forth of dialogue.