“Borderlands” is the reinstallation of seven of the rooms in The Huntington’s Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art. The updated displays reenvision American art through the lens of borders and focus on issues of migration, place, and ecology.
As the 2020–21 Caltech-Huntington Art + Research Fellow, Los Angeles–based artist Sandy Rodriguez created new artworks that appear in “Borderlands,” including a map and a series of works on paper. Her research on native plants, colors, and paper recognizes and celebrates Indigenous knowledge and ways of representing the natural world. Several of her works feature native plants, which have been traditionally used in the region to treat respiratory illness—a powerful reference to both the COVID-19 pandemic and the pandemics that ravaged Mexico in the 16th century.
In the second year of the installation, The Huntington commissioned Rodriguez to create a new series of works, including Rodriguez-Mondragón’s Federal Indian Boarding Schools Map of the South Western United States and Child Migrant Detention Centers, which visualizes the contentious politics around borders and borderlands in the United States.
Orange circles mark the locations of federal Indian boarding schools, which from 1819 through the 1970s forcibly removed tens of thousands of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children from their families and communities. At the government and missionary schools, the children were coerced to give up their traditional cultures, languages, and religions, and they were often subjected to physical and emotional abuse.
Light violet circles indicate the present-day sites of child detention centers created under the federal family separation immigration policy. With imagery and state boundaries based on an 1864 railroad map and a U.S. border survey in The Huntington’s library collection, Rodriguez’s map mingles past and present to show the ongoing cycle of forced family separations in the United States and the long-contested politics regarding immigration and borders.
The map is painted on large sheets of amate paper, made of hand-beaten bark from native jonote, agave, and mulberry trees using traditional methods by master papermaker Efrain Danza in San Pablito, Mexico. The paper provides a thick surface on which to paint—its mottled color and rough texture beautifully model the topography that it depicts. Amate paper was outlawed by the Spanish after their invasion and conquest of Mexico in the 16th century, in an attempt to eradicate Indigenous knowledge and traditional methods of record keeping, which included map-making.
One area of the “Borderlands” installation features Rodriguez’s screen-fold book—a traditional Mesoamerican book format—that contains a visual recipe for the treatment of susto (trauma). Plant Medicine No. 2—For Treatment of “Susto” is rendered in the style of a 1552 Mexican codex called Codex de la Cruz-Badiano, which records the medicinal properties of plants used by the Mexica (Aztecs) and is in the collection of the Biblioteca Nacional de Antropología e Historia in Mexico City. Compiled by Indigenous physician Martín de la Cruz and artists at the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, and translated into Latin by Indigenous translator Juan Badiano, this book features illustrations that combine both European and Indigenous styles, with descriptive texts in Latin and Nahuatl (the primary language of central Mexico) mirroring the images that merge artistic representation and Nahuatl hieroglyphic pictograms.
Rodriguez uses the style to create a book of illustrations of native plants from the region, which grow in The Huntington’s botanical gardens. Native fauna, like white-lined sphinx moth, sometimes hover over the plants, indicating a specific season during which the plant blooms and the symbiotic relationship between flora and fauna. The format of the work is notable for The Huntington’s galleries: In addition to being painted on textured, hand-hewn paper, the screen-fold book is the only Mesoamerican format of its type in the Library’s massive collections.
Rodriguez has also created a pair of dramatic color studies of fire paintings that connect the cycles of colonial aggression and climate change. Located in the Education room within the “Borderlands” installation, these images of California wildfires are painted in a range of hand-processed watercolors.
The Education room, focused on the theme of art and color, re-creates elements of Rodriguez’s painting studio with natural pigments and painting materials derived from botanical, mineral, and insect sources. In the case of cochineal red, the vibrant carmine dyestuff is derived from the cochineal (cochinilla) insect, which lives on the native Opuntia cactus (Tongva: naavo; Spanish: nopal; English: beavertail cactus; Latin: Opuntia). An Opuntia cactus has been planted at the entrance to the Scott Galleries alongside other native species, such as Toyon—all of which is meant to draw the connection among Rodriguez’s work, Indigenous species, and The Huntington’s three distinct collections: botanical, library, and art.
Rodriguez teaches us to see not only the ornamental beauty or scientific value of living plant collections but also their long history of use for food, medicine, artistic materials, and ceremony by Indigenous cultures of the Americas.
You can watch a video of Sandy Rodriguez discussing her large-scale, commissioned artwork YOU ARE HERE / Tovaangar / El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula / Los Angeles, a multilingual map of the greater Los Angeles area that was on display at the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries in 2021. The map represents the topography, language, flora, fauna, and land stewardship in the region over time and illustrates the movement and histories of peoples who have called—and continue to call—the area home.
Dennis Carr is the Virginia Steele Scott Chief Curator of American Art at The Huntington.
The Huntington exists on the ancestral lands of the Gabrielino-Tongva and Kizh Nation peoples who continue to call this region home. The Huntington respectfully acknowledges these Indigenous peoples as the traditional caretakers of this landscape, as the direct descendants of the first people. The Huntington recognizes their continued presence and is grateful to have the opportunity to work and learn on this land.