“Looking for Algo Mejor”. 30” x 40” Monotype on paper. 2018.

Through the river: talking art, borders and identity with artist Camila Linaweaver

On most maps, the thin black lines separating nations appear as objective and fixed geographic realities. Artist Camila Linaweaver, however, troubles the water with her transgressive yet playful body of work aimed at deconstructing the US-Mexico border. 

Camila, who resides in Pensacola, Florida, was born in Santiago, Chile and crossed the border through the Rio Grande into Texas with her parents when she was just 7 years old. 

“I was undocumented for pretty much most of my life growing up, and it just was like this thing that we didn’t talk about growing up,” she said. “I couldn’t tell anybody about it.”

“Surrounded by so much shame, it’s difficult growing up with that idea about yourself. It took a really long time to even feel comfortable talking about it or making artwork about it.”

Themes of displacement and dual identity show up even in her earliest work, but it wasn’t until graduate school in a fine arts program at the University of Oklahoma that she started to situate her work within the larger lineage of political border art.  

Within the tradition, Camila’s work emerges as uncharacteristically subtle. For her, the imposition of the border is already a violent statement. She prefers to ask questions with her art, privileging feeling over assertion.

“When you approach it in a different way, it starts to become this thing that can maybe infiltrate and become a catalyst for conversation rather than opposition.”

“Looking for Algo Mejor”. 30” x 40” Monotype on paper. 2018.

Camila’s work bridges traditional picturesque landscape art and political art, keeping emotion at the center. Her art casts a wide net. It’s for the people in her family still undocumented. It’s for those still living on a border in flux, all the while in genuine danger. It also resonates with the more distant observer whose personal safety is not in jeopardy. The unsuspecting viewer is sucked into the emotion of a piece before they even register its deeper political content and concerns. Her monotype prints, a style of printmaking that involves drawing or painting on a nonabsorbent surface and transferring to paper, plunge the viewer into a depiction of a border in flux, the current changing the longer you look at it. 

The video for You Are Here—an animation comprised of 382 individual monotypes— takes the viewer to the border and shifts it, leaves you to wander through it, and to wonder why it’s even there in the first place. 

From her artist statement, it’s clear this disorientation is intentional. 

“Landscape paintings of the west are riddled with ideas of industrialization, westward expansion, and manifest destiny. America’s history of colonization, rooted in this religious and capitalist ideology, transformed the United States-Mexico borderline from a delineation of land into a symbol for nationalism and mistrust. Border theory analyzes the arbitrary quality of these demarcations and reframes borders as entities in constant motion and negotiation.”

Constant negotiation is Camila’s artistic ethos. She wants the viewer to come away contemplative and perhaps a little confused. Why do we have borders? What purpose do they serve? Do you see me?

“I want to, more than anything, to touch on the human side of it,” she said. “Taking the legality [of border crossing] aside and look at it from a human perspective. When you get to this at a very human level there are lot of things there that connect us instead of divide us. Everyone just wants the best for their families, and for some people coming here, they think that they’re doing the best for their family.”

She and her parents left Chile, traveled through Mexico, and crossed the Rio Grande into Texas when Camila was 7 years old. On their first attempt, they were detained.  

“We were in the desert and then suddenly we were running and running and running and suddenly we see these bright lights and these men—border patrol—coming out of their vehicles with guns. They took us into the van and my mom was having a panic attack and she was crying. It was a really scary experience.”

“We were detained for quite a while, but I was kept with my mom. I can't imagine if I had been taken from my mom, how that would have felt. I can’t imagine that.”

For Camila, ignoring the atrocities committed by ICE in recent years— children detained in unlivable conditions and taken from their parents, skyrocketing deportations, surprise arrests—isn’t an option. 

“People’s outrage comes in waves about it. If it’s trending, people are really upset about it, but then the wave passes and we just kind of go on about our day. But for me, personally, it’s still so present. I still have family members who are illegal and it’s just a very real thing.”

Memory is a tricky thing, and memories of place can wash over you at random moments and evaporate just as quickly. Until her field works trip in graduate school, Camila hadn’t been back to the border in the more than 20 years.  

Camila’s return to the border firmly linked her personal experience to the current sociopolitical context in which narratives around immigration from Mexico and Latin America are being shaped. Ultimately, this led to a shift in her work. While the artist still highlights the conceptual and emotional importance of liminality and uncertainty in her treatments of the border, her approach has become far more overtly political.

In one of her most explicit series Your English Is So Good, anagrams float in disorienting imagery of lush and beautifully-imagined landscapes. These landscapes are then overlaid with cold aerial screenshots of the U.S.-Mexico border sourced from Google Maps. 

The anagrams provide context and commentary to the landscapes. “Immigration” becomes “I roam, timing.” “American” is “main race.” “Deportation” is “patient door,” invoking, as Camila puts it, the feeling “that you don’t belong, that at some point you're not going to be here anymore.”  

The title Your English Is So Good comes from the pseudo-compliment Camila has received countess times. 

“I’d never really quite know what to do with that statement,” she said. “I always think... well what if it wasn't’? It gets back this idea people have about what an immigrant looks like or sounds like and how confusing it is when you don’t fit that mold.” 

Next up for Camila: another monotype animation like You Are Here, this time centered around water. The Rio Grande served as a literal threshold for Camila and her family all those years ago, and now the region is facing a water crisis that’s affecting folks on both sides of the border. To stay abreast of this future work, visit her website or follow her on Instagram @print_cess_camila

In the space and pause Camila’s work creates, viewers are left with the question how do we advocate for the safety, agency, and sovereignty of the people at the center of her art — people like Camila herself? Her artistic practice of distortion, permutation, and flux offers one  pertinent, yet subtle insight: blurring the border, reframes the conversation around living agents and their experiences. When it’s clear the border is arbitrary and political, rather than central and innate, the lens shifts and the lives and perspectives of the people most directly impacted by immigration policy come squarely into focus. 

  • About

    Emma Speckman is a writer covering arts, tech, food and beverage, and tourism. She’s a corporate communications professional by day and lives and works in her hometown, Charlotte, NC.