I have seen my fair share of innovative artwork, but I have never walked into an art exhibit to see a giant boxing ring in the middle of the room. A couple weeks ago, I visited the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach with a group of students from Occidental College and the museum featured Camilo Ontiveros’ exhibit, In The Ring.
This exhibit was unique, to say the least. In addition to the giant boxing ring in the middle of the room, the artist used creative techniques such as film and photography to show the boxing culture that exists within the Mexican and Filipino immigrant communities in the United States. There was one part of the exhibit in the corner of the room that featured a large mirror on the wall and a digital projection of a boxer on the adjacent wall. When you stood in the corner, not only could you see yourself in the mirror and the image of the boxer on the wall facing you, but you could also see the boxer reflected in a unique way in the mirror on the wall. The mirror allowed the viewer to see an in depth portrayal of all dimensions and angles of the boxer and depicted an understanding of the intense emotion and focus involved in the sport. It gave me a feel for the boxing environment as I could imagine myself standing in the gym, looking at the mirror and seeing the boxer practicing next to me looking at his reflection as well. The details of the boxing life were also illuminated in about six smaller screens lined up in a row that showed children practicing boxing. In addition, a couple other screens showed an interview with two prominent boxers and two women boxing in their neighborhood. Ontiveros featured large photographs of boxers on the walls surrounding the boxing ring that demonstrated the dynamic feeling and spirit of the sport through the vivid color and clear detail in each photograph.
I was intrigued, but also a bit confused by the various elements that made up this exhibit. I wondered, what does this all have to do with immigration? In addition the vivid detail and innovative techniques that Ontiveros employs to highlight the spirit of boxing, his work demonstrates his research on boxing and its impacts on the Mexican and Filipino communities in the United States. His research and art investigate the intersection between these two cultures through boxing and the ways in which boxing represents a form of cultural exchange through immigration. It also works to highlight how the United States stages illusions of competition and tension between immigrant communities under a rigid power structure that marginalizes immigrant groups.
The exhibit featured some interesting background information on the topic of boxing in the Filipino and Mexican communities in the United States. According to the exhibit’s curator, Idurre Alonso, the sport of boxing has a unique history embedded in Mexico and the Philippines that began in the 16th Century during Spanish colonial imposition, which lasted for three hundred years. During this time, a major maritime route existed between the city of Manila in the Philippines and Acapulco, Mexico. Established as a route to import products from Asia into America and Spain, this connection also created a space for the migration of people and the exchange of culture, language, and religion between these two different countries. This cultural intersection is not only apparent in boxing culture, but the United States has exacerbated an illusion of tension and exploited the sport to host million dollar boxing matches between Filipino and Mexican boxers in order to gain a significant profit. A relationship that was once a more natural, friendly exchange of culture and ideas, is now portrayed as one of extreme competition and intensity. Boxing culture in the United States has shaped the image of relations between Filipino and Mexican immigrant communities by heightening the perceived conflicts that exist through sport and showing how our country profits off an illusion of dispute between two communities.
Ontiveros’ interactive and engaging elements in his exhibit, In The Ring, highlight the pressure a boxer feels as the viewer stands in the ring, looks in the mirror, and sees the vivid detail of boxing life on film and in the photographs. The pressure of this intense competition can be translated to the tension that exists for immigrant communities in United States. Conflicting perspectives and challenges often emerge between a particular community and other immigrant groups under the power of the host country. In this case, the United States exploited and exaggerated a perceived relationship between two communities by staging high stake boxing matches and placing Mexicans and Filipinos against each other for economic gain. Essentially, this strategy works to marginalize both communities as they fight for power under a larger hierarchy that denies them the ability to truly have a strong political, economic, and social voice in this country. The exhibit also exposes the tension that exists between the host country and immigrants as the community struggles to assimilate into the United States while maintaining ties to their home culture. The staged boxing culture seems to highlight the power and authority the United States has over these communities as it controls the space available for Filipino and Mexican immigrants to enter the United States culture and shapes the lifestyle and way that these communities must interact and exist in our country.
My initial confusion wore off as I really began to understand the meaning of this exhibit and its significance for Mexican and Filipino immigrant communities. As a country made up of many immigrant groups, the United States has the potential to bring people together by creating powerful coalitions and establishing environments for friendly competition. It saddens me that the way in which we actually attempt to bring people together is through exacerbating extreme tension, staging high stakes competition, and promoting an illusion of culture clashes.