Art Without Borders

Entering Mexicains Sans Frontieres – the live/work space of figurative painter and musician Hugo Claudin – is like crossing over into Oz. It’s all Technicolor.

“I wanted to make an alternative art space here,” says Claudin, 43, sitting on a hot pink couch overshadowed by a green palm tree in his studio on South Division. There’s a lavender figurine suspended from the ceiling, a bowl of oranges, and a magenta and yellow birdcage nearby. The artist wears all black.

Claudin’s paintings, which are possibly even more vibrant than his decor, use the symbol of the Mexican wrestler as a vehicle to explore the lives of undocumented immigrants in West Michigan. His most recent series, also called Mexicains Sans Frontieres, is on display now at the Richard App Gallery in East Hills. Pieces range in size and retail from $90 to $1,500.

The name is a take on Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), an international nonprofit organization that provides medical relief in 60 countries to people in catastrophic situations. By reappropriating this group’s French name, Claudin makes an ironic statement about the borderless and multi-cultural existence of some Latino immigrants.  

“I just thought it was hilarious,” Claudin says of the name he coined. “Because these Mexicans really don’t have borders.”

Helping to translate
Claudin’s own emigration story is very different from the undocumented immigrants he helped during his time as a translator for the Hispanic Center of West Michigan. It was perfectly legal for him to come to the United States because his father, a jazz drummer and talent scout for Capitol Records now deceased, was American.  His mother continues to reside in Guadalajara in her native Mexico.

"I started meeting them and hearing their stories, seeing where they lived,” he says. “My experience was totally different from theirs. They go to work and then they hide.”  When he isn't pursuing his artistic interests, Claudin is a community health worker for Spectrum Health.

Claudin brings Mexicans into the foreground by casting them as “larger than life” wrestlers in his rainbow-colored paintings. For inspiration, he draws on Mexican superheroes like Santo and Blue Demon, who enjoyed careers as both wrestlers and B movie actors.

Incorporating whimsy and Mexican pop culture iconography takes the edge off the biting social satire and political commentary embedded in Claudin’s art. Yet for all their eye candy coating, the paintings still evoke a sense of displacement and isolation—a seminal characteristic of the undocumented immigrants’ experience in a new country.

“I want it to be playful and fun, but also something that makes you want to find out more,” he says.

Reactions to this series vary. People don’t always pick up on the subtext and have confused the wrestlers with clowns, bank robbers, and, as one reviewer did, “men in ski masks.”

The reaction from Latino audiences has also been mixed. Claudin suspects that some would prefer to be identified with more traditional cultural icons than the campy luchadores—a point well taken when you consider our own World Wrestling Federation.

“To them, they kind of see it as an insult,” he says of his critics. “They would rather see a mariachi on a horse.”

Despite his experience in coming to the United States and occasional criticism of his artworks, Claudin says he still strongly self-identifies with undocumented immigrants and will continue being a voice for this group that lives under the radar out of legal necessity.

“When I came here on the plane, my cousin said that I would be a ‘minority’. I didn’t know what that meant, but I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up,” Claudin says. “The only difference between me and an illegal alien is a piece of paper.”

Art as a calling
Claudin originally came to Grand Rapids from Guadalajara as a teenager with the dream of attending art school. When his cousins who lived in Grand Rapids told him about Kendall College of Art and Design, he decided to move here. After studying illustration and painting at Kendall, he immersed himself in the local art scene, painting and booking bands for the now defunct Arco Iris coffee shop. 

“We used to rent warehouses and do the whole Andy Warhol thing,” Claudin says. Pop artist Andy Warhol was known for studios like The Factory, where musicians, visual artists, and filmmakers would congregate to collaborate on projects.

A trip to Mexico six years ago re-energized Claudin artistically and inspired the vivid palette that defines his signature style.

“The trip to Mexico was pivotal,” he says. “I wanted to incorporate all the colors. They were like psychedelic drugs.”

While there, he met a number of colorful characters like a Jewish storyteller who helped him refocus his artistic vision, and an engraver who helped him settle on the name Mexicains Sans Frontieres.

After returning to Grand Rapids, Claudin quickly plugged back into the local arts scene. He participated in the Lorca Project, an interactive theater piece performed at UICA, and he continued playing in Latin band Cabildo, which has since reorganized under the name Villalobos. Claudin has also played with the End Times Orchestra, LSDudes, Rick Beerhoorst Trio, and local hiphop sensation La Famiglia.

When he heard about the Avenue for the Arts lofts from a friend, Claudin knew it would be the perfect site for performances -- much better than the apartment and studio that he rented at the time. The 1,300-square-foot, multi-purpose loft now serves as living quarters, studio, gallery, performance venue, and band rehearsal space.
“I committed myself to booking edgy jazz there,” says Claudin. “I wanted to make Grand Rapids a stop for that kind of music.” Mexicains Sans Frontieres has also featured butoh dance, spoken word, and video projections.

Claudin publicizes Mexicains Sans Frontieres via Facebook and MySpace, though often performers contact him after hearing about it through word of mouth. Claudin also rents it out for photo shoots.

“I just see everything as collaboration,” says Claudin. “I see people as sprockets. I try to hook them up. This opens doors for me too."

Claudin’s latest musical endeavor is pop rock band the Fainting Generals, in which he is joined by Juliet Bennett-Rylah, formerly of Super Happy Fun Time Burlesque. The group is currently recording an album that will be released August 8 at Founders Brewery.

Ruth Terry is a freelance writer living in the East Hills neighborhood. She also works as a grant writer for an international nonprofit organization.


Hugo Claudin (photo courtesy David McGowan)

Hugo's live/work loft doubles as a art gallery and concert hall

Hugo plays the piano at home

Hugo Claudin in red

Photographs by Brian Kelly (unless noted otherwise)
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