‘People Have Been Kind of Slapped Awake’: Urgent New Art Show Shines a Light on Immigration


With talk of registries, roundups, and walls surging in political rhetoric, the question of sanctuary, which anchors a pair of immigration-themed shows currently at the Bronx Museum, is more urgent than ever. During the presidential campaign, cracking down on sanctuary cities — those, like New York, that decline to enforce or expend local resources on federal immigration laws when no other criminal offense has taken place — became a major Republican rallying cry. Since the election, alarmed activists have put fresh energy into initiatives to make more cities, states, and university campuses similar sanctuaries.

At the museum, “Sanctuary” is the name of an exhibition of works by the Los Angeles–based artist Andrea Bowers, and also of a specific piece made in 2007 — a solemn, silent video portrait of Elvira Arellano, an undocumented immigrant, and her son Saul, a U.S. citizen. At the time, the two had taken refuge in a church, Chicago’s Adalberto United Methodist — an actual sanctuary. Later, Arellano was deported, but not before spending a year sheltering there. Bowers also presents a video installation, An Act of Radical Hospitality, that fills in the story documentary-style, with protest footage and interviews with the pastor, Walter Coleman, a veteran of Chicago movement politics, and his spouse, the activist Emma Lozano.

Elsewhere in the show, Bowers presents four panels from a larger work, No Olvidado (Not Forgotten), a black-and-white installation that incorporates hundreds of names of people who died, whether from starvation or violence, while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. In a style that echoes Maya Lin’s Vietnam War memorial on the National Mall, the names fill the background of a drawing of a barbed-wire fence. Bowers got the names from the San Diego group Border Angels, which works to reduce border deaths as part of its advocacy for migrants; they would likely have been forgotten otherwise.

“I just try to focus on things I can do locally and get involved, and what I can do in terms of documentation,” Bowers says by phone from Los Angeles. “And then I see if there’s value in doing something like that as an artist.” Her process, which she has refined since the late 1990s and applied to issues including environmental protection and gender violence, involves immersive work with activist groups, and as an activist herself. Recently, Bowers spent time at the Standing Rock encampment in North Dakota, not necessarily to make art, but to pitch in. She’s also a member of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), for which she helps to organize part-time college faculty.

Though the Bronx Museum show was planned well before the election, its focus on immigration has proved timely. “It’s meaningful for me to see this body of work come up again,” Bowers says. “For a few years there was maybe a little less urgency. I wonder if we got a little complacent. People have been kind of slapped awake.”

Twinned with Bowers’s offerings is a series of photographic works, titled “Home,” by the Guatemalan artist Andrea Aragón, that looks at another set of lives often overlooked by immigration narratives: the people left behind, who watch relatives leave and who rely on the money they send back. This, too, is a sampler from a larger body of work that Aragón, based in Guatemala City, has made since 2000. Her images portray people holding photos of their relatives with their trucks or homes in the U.S.; women on the phone speaking to their loved ones across the border; new, near-empty houses, built with remesas (remittances), awaiting their owners’ return; the U.S. flag as a motif in clothing and décor in Guatemalan villages. They make clear that the tangling of cultures that immigration has produced will not be undone.

Since the election, Aragón says, Guatemalans have become concerned about a possible crackdown on relatives in the United States. “It’s a very important subject right now,” she says from Guatemala City. “What happens if a lot of people come back? It could lead to unemployment, or violence.” On the other hand, she says, “remesas aren’t always good.” It could be helpful in the long run to break the dependency that has set in for some families.

“There’s a hybrid culture in each of the photos,” says Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy, the Brooklyn-based curator who organized this dual exhibition — the second in a three-part series, titled “The Neighbors,” that the Bronx Museum invited her to present. “The effects of immigration are not just on who is here, how they grow, but also on who is left behind.”

In the immigration debates, “sanctuary” and “home,” beautiful words, have become shackled with narrow, politicized meanings. This exhibition stresses how much the two ideas have in common — both are fluid, yet they remain near-synonyms. The show also offers a timely reminder: of the decades of struggle, of the drastic change that looms ahead, of the possibilities for new movements. “At the end of 2016, sanctuary has to be readdressed,” says Hernández. “It can’t just be a symbolic term. We need to understand the historical precedents to begin to think of what it can be today.”

The Neighbors, Part II

‘Sanctuary’: Andrea Bowers, and ‘Home’: Andrea Aragón

At the Bronx Museum of the Arts, through February 12