Whether general improvements in a national economy benefit all members of society equally or not, the inverse—large-scale divestment—can certainty reap unemployment, ghettoization, a rise in crime, and other social ills. Consider Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican border city just south of El Paso, which has been the site of some of the most brutal and atrocious acts of violence committed during the still ongoing Mexican Drug War. While it would be reductive to call out just one root cause for the conflict, the desperation created as a highly corrupt government tanked the nation’s economy and devalued its currency in the early to mid-1990s helped to fan the flames.(1) Likewise, that same government’s collusion with drug lords,(2) not to mention the privatization of numerous public monopolies and a multiplicity of other factors, has also added fuel to the fire. In recent years, however, the crime rate in Ciudad Juárez has dropped, and the implementation of various reinvestment strategies citywide now point to signs of recovery.(3) Yet, just what these developments mean, and for whom they are undertaken, is something to be watched closely when few local residents currently have the capital or clout to get in on the action. Amid this complex setting, a new commercial art gallery just opened in Ciudad Juárez.

With a wink to the punk mantra of being “flowers in the dustbin,” the space has appropriated its name—yonke—from the regional slang word for “junk” or “scrapyards.” Despite this local touch, its partners and several of the artists in the inaugural exhibition are actually a mix of city natives and outsiders from Mexico City and points further beyond. Although several works allude to trauma and its effects, the opening exhibition, “A MadMax Community,” avoids easy references to the conflicts that have embroiled Ciudad Juárez.

Key amongst these is Néstor Jiménez’s video installation Los hermosos años del castigo [the beautiful years of punishment] (2014). The centerpiece of the work hoists a white sheet hung as if it were part of a childlike tent or fort that doubles as a projection surface. Contrary to any sense of lighthearted or innocent games, this makeshift theater instead screens a video of an attendant Jiménez beaten over and over by an actor in the role of the artist’s mother. While this piece suggests that perversion and violence often begins at home, Alejandro Luperca Morales’s Sin título [Untitled] (2009) wonderfully opposes the idea. Here, Morales’s light box assemblage superimposes two images; the first, an autobiographical photograph of the artist peeping through a toy stereoscope when he was just a boy, and the second, a diagnostic x-ray of his mother’s hands taken during her successful fight against cancer. Considering that an x-ray is analogous to a slide, this discursive pairing draws various associations, including the tender image of a child who plays doctor in order to heal his own debilitated mother. However, notions of both surrender and perseverance are complicated in Oscar Nodal’s Celebremos [Celebrate] (2011), a single-channel video documenting a group of white American Evangelicals as they descend on Ciudad Juárez preaching for submission to God and country.

Eschewing the clichéd idea that the “personal is political,” these works suggest that the best way to get around intractable collective memories is to find other modes of speech. Likewise, by alluding to shock, the exhibition might be trying to skirt claims that it merely sensationalizes recent history. Whatever the case, a sense of defiance can also be found in Antonio Bravo Avendaño’s Sin título [Untitled] (2014), a series of wonky makeshift tables composed of scavenged parts, each supporting some kind of projectile either made of, or surrounded by, broken glass. And while changing the subject can be a trusted way of inventing a new politics, this reviewer wonders if YONKE’s forthcoming exhibition program will ever move on from the past in order to look towards the future?

Tellingly, the exhibition’s title—which references the 1979 dystopian film Mad Max—brands its artists, and possibly the gallery’s endeavor as a whole, as a kind of “community” that seeks justice within a barren landscape still wrought by a past economic disaster. Narratively speaking, such a frame presents the world in medias res, or in the middle of things. In other words, this story is much more concerned with what comes next. And, as fate would have it, State Minister of Communications and Public Works Eduardo Esperón González tapped architect Fernando Romero to propose a new convention center as the lynchpin for a massive urban redevelopment master plan of Ciudad Juárez just days before the gallery opened.(4)

Whatever the political intentions of Romero—the son-in-law of multi-billionaire, monopolist Carlos Slim, who first acquired his public telecommunications empire in 1990 from the very same administration that sank the Mexican Peso and is currently the second largest stakeholder in the New York Times(5)—such top-down projects almost always signify a policy of institutional gentrification. And while it is clear that finding new markets, opening galleries, erecting malls, and the like might help a few individuals and contribute to a general sense of revitalization, rising tides do not always raise all boats. Certainly, it will be interesting to see if the gallery, and its community, stick to their lovable, vigilante-underdog characterization, or if they, like Mad Max, will devolve into just another slick corporate franchise.

1) For an analysis of the socio-economic background see: Helen Redmond, “The political economy of Mexico’s drug war.” International Socialist Review, vol. 90 (July 2013), isreview.org/issue/90/political-economy-mexicos-drug-war. 2) For a chronology of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s administration see: Peter Lupsha, “What’s going on in Mexico today is beyond fiction.” Frontline (April 1997), www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/mexico/etc/cron.html. 3) For example, see: Damien Cave, “Ciudad Juárez, a Border City Known for Killing, Gets Back to Living.” The New York Times (December 14, 2013), www.nytimes.com/2013/12/15/world/americas/a-border-city-known-for-killing-gets-back-to-living.html?_r=0. 4) “Será Fernando Romero, quien diseñe el Centro de Convenciones [Fernando Romero will design the Convention Center].” El Diaro (January 13, 2014), diario.mx/Local/2014-01-13_0e9d7fb5/sera-fernando-romero-quien-disene-el-centro-de-convenciones/. 5) Lawrence Wright, “SLIM’S TIME: Who is Carlos Slim, and Does He Want the Paper of Record?” The New Yorker (June 1, 2009), www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/06/01/090601fa_fact_wright?currentPage=all.