“No one is going to shut me up here.” That’s what artist Daniel Ruanova told Newsweek in a 2002 article that arrived at the zenith of media captivation with Tijuana art and music. The publication listed Tijuana alongside Austin, Kabul, and Cape Town, among others, as “The World’s New Culture Meccas.” Yet less than ten years later, the fanfare had subsided and Ruanova and partner Mely Barragán had turned their eyes elsewhere to pursue their creative visions.
“In 2010, there wasn’t a lot happening,” Ruanova recalls. “There was stuff, but not how it used to be when we were growing up and there was opportunity.”
Barragán and Ruanova came from a generation of young DIY artists that journalists, critics, and curators turned to in the ’90s as the new, radical voice in post-border dialogue.
“Imagine being 20 and just getting into art,” Ruanova says. “There was no art school here, so all the artists of our generation were in the process of being self-taught. We started getting all this international attention, like ten times more than TJ is getting now. The Newsweek article really opened our eyes. I think that was the shift between our generation and the dudes that came before us. They had this almost Chicano way of looking at binationalization. For us, TJ was this international place.
“We came from this informal art education but everyone was really hungry because they made us believe in the ’90s that this place was really important,” says Ruanova. “And we believed it. We were living in this strange utopia.”
But dystopia lurked around the bend. In 2010, Barragán and Ruanova relocated to Beijing’s Caochangdi arts district to establish TJ in China Project Room, which debuted in 2012. There, Tijuana’s notorious reputation meant little to locals, who often thought TJ stood for Tianjin, a Chinese city of 11.5 million.
“We would say Mexico and people would go like this,” Ruanova gives a handgun gesture, “and then this,” snorting, “and maybe football. But Tijuana? Nada. We always started our exhibitions with a map, saying we are right on the edge of the American Great Wall.”
“We always showed what was real,” Barragán says. “There was no censorship.”
“I’ve never seen a government that was so afraid of their artists,” Ruanova continues, “and that’s what I’m always looking for: artists who can put a stop to shit. In China that happens.”
For about a year, Barragán and Ruanova sold their work to buyers in Mexico in order to support the gallery, where they featured Mexican artists such as Jaime Ruiz Otis, Pablo Castañeda, Maribel Portela, and Jorge Ramirez alongside Asian luminaries Hu Wei, Zhu Yu, Dai Hua, and Shinpei Takeda.
“It helped us to be very far away from our culture and trying to accept a new culture,” Barragán says. “That’s when you start to value your own culture. You understand stuff that you didn’t want to understand.”
“I think this cultural trait of Mexican hospitality made everyone feel at home,” says Ruanova. “We weren’t even trying to sell them the work. We just tried to make people unite and have some community. And that’s when we started to realize, why can’t we do the same thing in TJ?”
The opportunity came sooner than the couple had anticipated. In 2013, they secured a 700,000 peso grant (roughly $55,000) from the Cultural Committee of the Mexican Congress with the provision that the funds would be spent within Mexico. By February of 2014, TJ in China Project Space was opening to the public just a few doors down from Sexta and Revolución.
TJ in China
Interview with Mely Barragán about TJ IN CHINA Project Room. (In Spanish.)
“I think we felt a responsibility to come back and, whatever we learned outside of Tijuana, we felt like we had to bring it back and share,” Barragán says, noting that a number of their contemporaries from the ’90s have been doing the same.
Always exploratory and occasionally risqué, the past year at TJ in China has seen exhibitions featuring Baja mainstays such as Acamonchi, Pepe Mogt, and Alida Cervantes sharing space with international artists and creative pop-ups such as the Bring Your Own Beamer projection art invitational and MusicMakers Hacklab.
“Eighty percent of the people that come to TJ in China are, like, 15 years younger than me, which means we are talking to the future,” Daniel says.
And what is the ideal future?
“I would love to see art become a necessity in Tijuana,” Barragán says, “for people to feel like they need it. In China, people need the art. We would be watching people in the streets and they would see a big sculpture and they would have to go and feel it and climb it and bring the whole family to take a picture with it. People felt like art was part of their life, and I think Tijuana needs that, and that is why our door is always open.”
by Daniel Ruanova
“If art becomes a necessity, that means artists will have jobs, and that’s better than having an art market,” Ruanova adds. “An art market is only good for dealers. “
With a three-year contract at their current space and an average of 100 or so visitors daily, TJ in China may well see the future they envision.
“I never wanted to be labeled as a TJ artist in my twenties,” Ruanova says. “After that, I realized it was the most important label that my art can have because it binds me to a community.”