French artist JR border wall tecate installation
French artist JR installed an image of a smiling toddler looking over the border fence in the Mexican city of Tecate. / Photo by John R. Mireles

There’s a long tradition of artists making work at and about the U.S.-Mexico border.

The work often goes unnoticed outside the insular art world, but President Donald Trump’s push to build a border wall has brought an onslaught of attention to the genre.

This year, French photographer JR, an artist known for illegally putting up large-scale portraits in public spaces, capitalized on the conversation and installed “Kikito,” an image of a toddler peering over the fence in Tecate, Mexico. Later, the artist hosted a binational picnic near the artwork, and people on both sides of the ate food off of a massive picnic table made to look like it stretched across both sides of the border.

JR is famous, especially on Instagram, where he has more than a million followers. His piece got more mainstream and social media attention than any piece of border art that has come before it. The stunt got even more press than when Venezuelan artist Javier Tellez fired a human from a cannon over the border fence in Playas de Tijuana in 2005.

Some people called the work opportunistic and cheesy. Others called it timely and clever. Love or hate it, JR’s image spurred a critical conversation about immigration and border politics.

It also provoked arguments over border art itself. On Facebook, curator and art historian Sara Solaimani criticized JR’s work and said artists in Tijuana and San Diego who’ve long been making art about the border, immigration and human rights have a certain amount of claim to the wall.

“Border space isn’t up for grabs,” she wrote. “And critical, thoughtful interventions should take longer to plan, shouldn’t have a cookie-cutter model, and international artists need to take into consideration the local people (including artists) of a place before parachuting in.”

This is part of our Voice of the Year package, profiling the people who drove the biggest conversations in San Diego in 2017.

Kinsee Morlan was formerly the Engagement Editor at Voice of San Diego and author of the Culture...

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