The Art That Could Decorate Donald Trump’s Wall

A mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe peers from a fence in El Paso, TX. Photos: Amy Lee Pearsall.

What would you do with a 1,000-mile long concrete canvas? The question came to me on Jan. 25, when Donald Trump signed a directive to begin immediate construction on a wall spanning the US-Mexico border. He claimed such a wall would cost roughly $8 billion, and asserted on the campaign trail that Mexico would foot the bill for it. Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s president, has made clear that while he wants to foster a productive relationship with US, his nation has no intention of paying for it.

Trump, of course, responded with a threat of military action. Like an angry racist in a fast-gentrifying neighborhood, our president is the equivalent of the crank who builds a “privacy wall” and demands that the people on the other side of his property line pay for it so he doesn’t have to see their laundry. Not to mention threatening to call in a SWAT team when he doesn’t like their music. I’m not sure which wolves raised Trump, but where I’m from — the borderland of far west Texas and southern New Mexico — that’s not how one treats one’s neighbors.

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A US/Mexico border gate in El Paso, Texas.
A border gate in El Paso, TX.

So now Trump has officially asked Congress to fund the wall. Outside research firms project that it may cost almost three times what the president’s alternative facts and new math led his supporters to believe. It will hit American taxpayers squarely in the wallet — to the tune of $21.5 billion.

Let’s forget for a moment that $21.5 billion is a substantial chunk of change that could be better spent elsewhere. Let’s instead consider what the artistic vision could be for Trump’s “big, beautiful wall” — some 1,000 miles of concrete.

The first thing to know is that the border between the US and Mexico in fact spans some 1,900 miles, 650 of which are already secured by some semblance of a fence. For those of you keeping score at home, that leaves some miles of unfortified land — mountains and “vicious rivers” and such — that Trump suggests would serve as natural obstacles. True, mountain ranges might deter some Mexican nationals from coming in, but if there’s anything we have learned on the news as we watch refugees crossing through rough terrain, physical impediments can always be overcome. As for those “vicious rivers,” anyone who has gotten a good look at the Rio Grande during the past 40 years knows that a more apt name for considerable portions of it is Rio Poquito.

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A section of the US/Mexico border fence that separates El Paso, Texas from its neighbor, Ciudad Juárez.
Part of the border fence separating El Paso from Ciudad Juárez.

But back to the aesthetics, and not the folly, of Hadrian’s Trump’s wall. The fencing that exists right now is not much to look at. That is to say it’s strictly utilitarian, lacking any creative adornment or vision. In El Paso, TX, where I was raised, one can see Juárez, El Paso’s sister city, right through it. Beyond the fence, you can see the mountains — a reminder that, despite Juárez’s often-notorious reputation, our immediate neighbors to the south are not entirely unlike us.

Let’s now say that view is lost, replaced with something else entirely. As an artist, I wonder how the borderland community might respond.

Not surprisingly, the prospect of what to do artistically with Trump’s wall recalls the Berlin Wall, which Republican hero Ronald Reagan famously challenged then-Soviet hero Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down in 1987. (The irony of our current Republican, Russian and wall situations should be lost on no one.) If there was anything redeeming about the Berlin Wall — maybe the only redeeming thing — it was the fact that it served as a gallery for street artists. Much of the art went unsigned, but not unappreciated. Today, bits and pieces of the now-dismantled wall are displayed all over the world, a testament to the power of art and democracy.

East Berliners weren’t allowed near the wall, so their side remained undecorated. Which side of Trump’s wall we would be on, theoretically, is up for debate. But assuming the wall is built, and assuming artists would be allowed near it, the creative possibilities appear endless. In my hometown, artists could take inspiration from Ana Teresa Fernández’s site-specific Borrando la Frontera (“Erasing the Border”), where a section of the fence in Juárez was painted sky blue, alluding to transparency, a world without borders. Local muralists could almost certainly make use of the blank space as well. The Borderland Jam, an annual graffiti festival, could make Trump’s wall its new home. Shadow puppet plays could be staged there and live music could be played. Entire sections of the wall could be manipulated by using light as a medium — taking a cue from some of El Paso’s own recent public art works.

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A mural depicting a tornado decorates a building in El Paso, Texas.
A mural depicting a tornado decorates a building in El Paso.

A popular social-media meme holds that, rather than build a wall, we should erect a giant mirror so that America could take a good look at itself. I’d counsel against that as a matter of safety, as parts of the border are perilously close to the highway. But the same sentiment is one that borderland artist Jaime Carrejo reflects in his video installation One-Way Mirror. The piece will be on view as part of the Denver Art Museum’s exhibition Mi Tierra, running Feb. 19 through Oct. 22. Perhaps a future projection similar to this work — or even a film festival, projected on the world’s longest concrete film screen — might not be out of the question.

Given the state of the nation, part of me feels guilty thinking about art. It seems inconsequential; it seems ephemeral. There are families being torn apart, after all. Yet I know that when times feel dark, the arts — music, film, dance, theater, poetry, sculpture — somehow make our days bearable. Frida Kahlo: painting her way to the other side of her pain. Fritz Scholder: challenging Native American stereotypes and courting controversy. And I can picture Georgia O’Keeffe, who said this actual quote: “I like an empty wall because I can imagine what I like on it.”