Curator Laura Copelin creates connections at MOCA Tucson in Arizona, where her work with artists prompts conversations that counter political rhetoric about immigration and the borderlands.
As anti-immigrant campaign advertisements flood the airwaves in Arizona, curator Laura Copelin is highlighting artists whose work explores the realities of life in the borderlands.
“I grew up in Southern California, so I was always in proximity to the border,” says Copelin, who’s based in Tucson, which is located just a one-hour drive from the United States–Mexico border. “I feel like conversations about the border can be very expansive or very reductive.”
Copelin currently serves as curator-at-large for the Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson, where her curatorial output is zeroed in on co-organizing exhibitions that address ecological destruction, colonization, and much more in the Southwest. In some ways, Copelin’s approach is a form of creative placemaking.
“My curatorial practice is based in the land and all the issues that that entails,” she explains. “I try to be in process with the artists I’m working with, to see where their curiosity lies, and help them find connections between that and this specific region in the Southwest. Art is a place of reciprocity, where everyone gives something and learns from each other.”
For the recent MOCA Tucson exhibition were-:Nenetech Forms, Copelin worked with rafa esparza and Timo Fahler to present pieces by eight artists addressing migration, transformation, and survival in the Sonoran Desert.
For another group exhibition titled Mujeres Nourishing Fronterizx Bodies: Resistance in the Time of Covid-19, she collaborated with Arizona-based artists Gabriela Muñoz and M. Jenea Sanchez to highlight Latinx transborder collectivity and identity.
Of course, Copelin, who has been with MOCA Tucson since January 2020, also works with other curatorial staff such as Alexis Wilkinson, the museum’s assistant curator.
Despite the common threads in her curatorial practice, Copelin says she doesn’t have a particular curatorial philosophy. “I feel like it changes all the time,” she says. “I just help to cultivate relationships between artists and place.”
The approach is particularly evident in Grace Rosario Perkins: The Relevance of Your Data, a solo exhibition featuring eight large-scale paintings by the New Mexico-based artist, who invited several additional artists to show their work alongside her own. The show opened April 2, 2022 and continues through October 16, 2022 at MOCA Tucson.
Copelin often elevates relationships to place and to the land, as well as connections between various artists. In some cases, she works with artists over time, presenting new iterations of their work in multiple settings.
That’s just what happened with esparza, whose work she previously showed at Ballroom Marfa, a contemporary arts space in Texas where Copelin spent several years working on curatorial projects that often focused on issues impacting the borderlands, from migration to climate change. Her final exhibition for Ballroom Marfa, which was organized with Daisy Nam, will open June 4, 2022.
Esparza created adobe installations for the were-:Nenetech Forms show in the Main Hall at MOCA Tucson, and the adobe was later incorporated into an opening performance for Perkins’s show in that same exhibition space, creating a connection through materiality. Meanwhile, the back of one of Perkins’s paintings was conceived as a projection screen for another artist’s film.
There’s no permanent collection at MOCA Tucson, an approach Copelin considers well-aligned with her own focus on commissioning and showing new works.
“You don’t have to be as tied to the market and there’s more room for experimentation and learning from failure,” she says of working for a smaller, non-collecting museum.
Copelin adds that her curatorial practice echoes her overall approach to life.
“One of the reasons I’m doing this is to be in community with other creative people, where I can explore the intersections of art with science, philosophy, and other fields,” she says. “It’s important to me to be part of an interdisciplinary program with as much diversity as possible, where there are people from different places, with different ages and life experiences.”
Recent events have amplified those feelings. “Especially during the pandemic, the creative ecology felt particularly important as a sustaining force,” she says. “It really reinforced the idea that making art is about more than making objects.”
She’s particularly intrigued by artists’ processes and how their ideas evolve. “My interest is not in the novelty of new ideas, it’s in the new strategies that artists can arrive at for opening up other ways of relating to others, to ourselves, to history, and to place.”
Hence, her work resonates amid dialogue about not only immigration, but also the relative merits of isolationism or global engagement, and the violence wrought by racism and sexism.
“What I’m really exploring is who we want to be as a culture,” she says. “Artists bring empathy, criticality, and expansiveness to that conversation.”
Copelin also hopes to prompt more conversations about the often-misunderstood border while elevating artist voices.
“Artists have the ability to make productive conversations about the borderlands,” she says. “Artists can teach us a lot about the complexities of the border within the culture of oversimplification with its stereotypes and sound bites.”