Exhibitions

The Donkey Show

Project Room 1 Jan 21–Apr 16, 2011

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The Donkey Show
Jan 21–Apr 16, 2011

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The Donkey Show, 2011, Installation view
The Donkey Show, 2011, Installation view, Santa Monica Museum of Art, Photo: Monica Orozco
The Donkey Show, 2011, Installation view
The Donkey Show, 2011, Installation view, Santa Monica Museum of Art, Photo: Monica Orozco
The Donkey Show, 2011, Installation view
The Donkey Show, 2011, Installation view, Santa Monica Museum of Art, Photo: Monica Orozco
The Donkey Show, 2011, Installation view
The Donkey Show, 2011, Installation view, Santa Monica Museum of Art, Photo: Monica Orozco
The Donkey Show, 2011, Installation view
The Donkey Show, 2011, Installation view, Santa Monica Museum of Art, Photo: Monica Orozco
The Donkey Show, 2011, Installation view
The Donkey Show, 2011, Installation view, Santa Monica Museum of Art, Photo: Monica Orozco
The Donkey Show, 2011, Installation view
The Donkey Show, 2011, Installation view, Santa Monica Museum of Art, Photo: Monica Orozco

Hey mister, which way to the donkey show?

If you don’t like the picture, blame the ass.

For over a century, millions of Americans have put on sombreros and posed for tourist photographs on top of donkeys in the border city of Tijuana, Mexico. For almost as long, one of the greatest urban legends in all of California history has been the Tijuana donkey show, the much-rumored, often-referenced, but never proven south of the border sex show that is perpetually re-invented in American high school locker rooms. The Donkey Show explores the border’s intersection of myth and reality through a blend of over 200 rare tourist photographs, vintage nightlife ephemera, and pop songs born of American myths of Tijuana. The exhibition is guest curated by cultural anthropologist and graphic design historian Jim Heimann and author and music critic Josh Kun.

The Donkey Show, one of the greatest urban legends in all of border history has been a key narrative of the American tourist since WWII. It has been referenced in songs, Hollywood films, and for decades has lurked in the dark corners of American fantasies about what lies just below the borderline-that capital of boundless vice and sombrero-clad savagery where morals drown in tequila, men offer their wives and sisters for the right price, and where only the taxi drivers (those tour guides of the forbidden) know the way to the donkey show. The myth of the donkey show proliferated as Tijuana’s reputation as a den of ill repute grew in the American mind, from U.S. sex comics such as Tijuana Bibles and early U.S. smut films set in Tijuana, to local burlesque and prostitution houses. The trip to Tijuana soon became a rite of passage for California teenagers, memorialized in movies such as Big Wednesday and Losin’ It (which featured Tom Cruise leading the Tijuana charge) and TV shows such as Moesha and The OC.

The other donkey is the one that the millions of tourists who’ve visited Tijuana actually get to know. That donkey is the one they sit on top of wearing sombreros lettered with “Just Married,” “On My Ass,” and “Still Drunk” in front of a painted backdrop of “Old Mexico,” posing for souvenir photographs snapped by the Mexican entrepreneurs who’ve been putting smiling Americans atop donkeys-day in, day out-since the turn of the 20th century. That donkey is a source of local business; that donkey is a local joke on American tourists looking for “the real thing” and getting Mexican make-believe.

Beginning in the late 1880s, Tijuana was fertile soil for American investment and American tourism, an early hub of hot springs, horse races, casinos and bullfights that exploded once Prohibition went into effect. American newspaper, railroad, and entertainment moguls poured money into the small dusty town (in 1900, Tijuana had a population of only 242) that was a short carriage ride from San Diego, creating a haven for vices unattainable on the opposite side of the border. Americans crossed the border to lose themselves in a fun house of racial stereotypes, seeing “native dances” and cock fights, donning serapes and sombreros, and posing with donkeys before they headed back home. It didn’t take long for Tjuana locals to start cashing in on the distortions that Americans were expecting to find, giving the tourists want they wanted to see: “old Mexico,” “the sleepy Mexican,” the Spanish señorita, the fat mustachioed bandido. By 1938, the Mexicans who ran the donkey cart photo stands began to paint black stripes on their animal stars so they could be better seen on the increasingly inferior film stock. Ever since, not only have millions of tourists sat on top of donkeys posing as “Mexicans,” they’ve sat on top of “zonkeys” posing as “Mexicans.”

The striped donkey has become something of an official Tijuana mascot, lending its name and image to local bars, local industry, and as of 2010, even to a new city basketball team (Los Zonkeys). “The striped donkey is characteristic of the city,” Tijuana journalist Aida Silva Hernandez once wrote, “It is the history of Tijuana.”

The Donkey Show assembles over 200 tourist donkey cart photos from the early 1900s-1980s (one that even includes F. Scott Fitzgerald), alongside rare Tijuana nightlife, burlesque, and vice ephemera. The images are joined by a soundtrack culled from dozens of US pop, rock, and blues songs about the imaginary Mexico that awaits American tourists once they head south of the border. Like the donkey show of legend, The Donkey Show plays with the power of the border’s bait and switch: the show promises the forbidden but delivers cultural history and critique.

What has driven millions of Americans of all backgrounds-white, Black, Latino, young, old-to have their picture taken on a donkey for well over a century? How have Mexican entrepreneurs turned American myth into local business and local culture? In a photo of a tourist and a donkey, which one is the ass?

And most importantly, how do you get to the donkey show?

Biographies of the guest curators:
Jim Heimann is a cultural anthropologist and graphic design historian who is Executive Editor for TASCHEN America. He is the author of numerous books on architecture, pop culture, and the history of the West Coast, Los Angeles and Hollywood. The Donkey Show draws heavily from his private collection of ephemera that has been featured in museum exhibitions around the world and in dozens of books.

Josh Kun is an author, music critic, and professor in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, where he directs the Popular Music Project of The Norman Lear Center. He has taught and written extensively on the cultural worlds connecting Southern California and Tijuana, Mexico.