By Rosa-Linda Fregoso
Piedad’s father was a border crosser who died the year she turned 15. She was watching television on the morning her uncles appeared with news of his death, and much later she would be tormented by the day of his return. “My father’s corpse arrived in a cardboard package tied with plastic bands, like a large addressed mail package.” He was one of those pilgrims Eduardo Galeano writes about, “shipwrecked by globalization,” who left because he couldn’t make a living in Mexico. After years of crisscrossing the U.S.-Mexico border the “dangerous way,” led by human smugglers in the hike across the perilous Sonora desert, he slipped and drowned in four feet of water, near Escondido, Calif.
Ten years after her father died in 1996, I traveled to the colonial city of Queretaro (in central Mexico) to see the Colectivo Malaleche’s latest project, “Muerte X Agua” (literally “Death by Water”), an installation on display at the Museo de la Ciudad, the city’s museum. Piedad is a member of Malaleche, a collective of women artists who design memorials to denounce the explosion of violence and human rights violations against women, migrants and other vulnerable groups in Mexico. Based in Querétaro, members of Malaleche met while students at the School of Fine Arts, formed the collective in 2003 and began collaborating on public installations that often combine conceptual, plastic and performance arts.
The Colectivo Malaleche members join a cadre of artists in Mexico who have transformed a sense of urgency and immediacy into a potent aesthetic for denouncing the social impact of the government’s embrace of market-led development strategies that so far have failed to “trickle down.” Socially committed artists like those of Malaleche are using art to rouse critical reflection about the state of affairs in Mexico: cutbacks in public welfare; a new wave of poverty, violence and crime; increased spending for militarization (aka “Colombianization”) of the country under the guise of the “war on drugs/terror”; and the alarming trend of human rights violations perpetrated by state and private actors against journalists, women, immigrants and the urban poor.
Since it was formed in 2003, Colectivo Malaleche’s work has dealt exclusively with the theme of death. Using “malaleche” as a model for social critique (in Spanish, a person with “malaleche” is one with a deliberately provocative and annoying attitude, aimed at upsetting others), one of its more recent public projects infuriated the conservative political elite of Querétaro.
In 2005, the city’s mayor ordered municipal garbage workers to dismantle Malaleche’s “Pasos en la Oscuridad” (“Steps in the Darkness”)—a five-part exhibition installed in public plazas in the historic center of the city and which dealt with the murder and disappearance of hundreds of women in the border city of Ciudad Juérez. Although Malaleche became the cause célèbre of local journalists and intellectuals, and even managed to collect a modest compensation for damages, the group can no longer obtain city permits for exhibiting its work in public plazas and spaces.
In making public art, Malaleche moved away from personal experiences and toward more socially relevant concerns. “The principal theme of our current work transcends personal references,” Piedad explains. “Death is implicit, but our concern is no longer with ‘natural’ or ‘accidental’ death. We now conceptualize death from another vantage point, from the system which provokes death by generating unemployment, migration, violence.”
* * *
Crossing the border without permission has long been a deadly venture. Today, migrants crossing the border are dying at an atrocious rate. More than 4,000 migrants—men, women and children—have perished crossing the border since the start of the most recent stage of border militarization in 1994. The U.S. military has not only joined traditional Border Patrol forces in policing the border, the Bush administration has used the pretext of the “war on terrorism” to boost resources for border fortification and security. There are plans for a border wall almost 2,000 miles long, and with the use of biometric technology, webcams, Black Hawk helicopters and Predator B unmanned aerial vehicles, the Border Patrol now resembles the military.
Border fortification seals off popular border crossings and redirects migrant traffic out of urban areas, where it had been easier to cross, into treacherous and remote areas where migrants are subject to exposure and other geographical dangers. Often, unauthorized migrants die in the Arizona desert, where temperatures top 120 degrees in the summer and fall below freezing in the winter; some drown in border rivers and canals. Immigrants are hunted by vigilante ranchers in Texas and Arizona, so-called “citizen patrols” and white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White Aryan Resistance. More recently, immigrants crossing in desolate areas have been kidnapped and held for ransom by drug cartels.
The Museo de la Ciudad is a stately colonial building in the city’s historic center. Built in the 18th century as the convent of the Capuchinas nuns, the Museo is notorious as the site where the Emperor Maximiliano was held prisoner prior to his execution at the Cerro de las Campanas. Its colonial architecture incorporates a lovely array of broad archways, stone walls and tiled floors, wrap-around corridors connecting exhibition halls that open into a spacious interior courtyard with a huge decorous water fountain in the center. The ancient look and feel of the place contrast with the museum’s more modern holdings, spawning a postmodern fusion of colonial and contemporary aesthetics that in essence reflects the museum director’s intent. As director Gabriel Horner Garcia tells me, “Our priority is art that pushes aesthetic boundaries mainly because the city’s conservativism, and Mexico’s in general, make it difficult for experimental artists like Malaleche to find exhibition spaces.”
Three years ago Garcia decided to push a different kind of boundary, reordering the museum’s spatial design in ways that dismantle the divide between “administrative” and “artistic” spaces. “In every museum there is a space for exhibition and another for administration,” Garcia explains, “which is very schizophrenic.” Garcia came up with an imaginative scheme for integrating space, inviting select artists to publicly exhibit their work in his administrative office. Museum visitors go in and out of Garcia’s office while he carries out his regular administrative duties. “This literalizes the types of work I perform on a daily basis, making them coexist,” Garcia adds. “Bureaucratic work and artwork become completely enmeshed in the space of my office.” Garcia is selective about the artists he invites into his workspace. “Muerte X Agua” is only the second exhibition to share tenancy with the museum director.
It is nonetheless disconcerting to walk into Garcia’s office and view the exhibit while he works, smoking, talking on the phone and drinking coffee, with papers in orderly stacks on top of his desk. Occupying the entire office space, Malaleche’s four-part installation consists of three-dimensional figures: a “corpse” and “body parts,” furniture, and human and industrial debris, as well as objects that were left behind in the border-crossing trek. The title “Muerte X Agua” refers to the intermingling of death and water on the border, for just as excess of water can cause death so too can its scarcity.
The duality of water is persistent, as personified by the ghastly corpse heads placed on opposite sides of the office.
As one enters, to the right of the spacious room, the visitor encounters a large water-bottle dispenser with a human skull suspended in water, and, just in case someone is thirsty, the artists placed paper cups besides the dispenser. Symmetrically aligned across the room is the second corpse head, in this case mounted on a sandy base, its face ghoulishly contorted and blistered from heat exposure and dehydration.
Facing Garcia’s desk is a vertical structure consisting of 71 water bottles connected in five rows by plastic tubing material. The largest piece in the installation, this upright structure suggests the so-called U.S. “Iron Curtain” or “American Berlin Wall,” as agents of the Border Patrol refer to the border wall planned for the U.S.-Mexico boundary line. For the viewer, Malaleche’s inventive use of water bottles conjures up a slew of contradictory associations about their ubiquity in the modern world, expressing, again, their dual nature as givers and takers of life: The water bottle is a means for better health yet also a culprit in polluting the environment.
Plastic bottles simultaneously ruin the aesthetics of urban landscapes, parks and pristine forests, aggravate ecological meltdown with their toxic plastics and rescue humans from the very toxicity they help generate.
Littering abandoned migrant campsites along the border, water bottles are one of the few items immigrants are instructed to bring on the border-crossing trek.
In some water bottles Malaleche inserted found objects left behind in migrant campsites and scattered across the desert: a hand-scrawled note, wedding picture, rosary, lover’s photograph, an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. In other bottles the artists have items floating in brown-tinged water similar to the toxic waters of the American Canal, the sewer system on the Arizona border, where dozens of immigrants drown each year while hiding from the Border Patrol or trying to cool themselves in the summer heat. In juxtaposing the personal with the industrial, personal objects and human debris with industrial waste, Malaleche created a heart-rending monument to human suffering on the border.
From the border wall structure, one turns 180 degrees to Garcia’s workspace, where Malaleche placed a piece that tells another story, in the most shocking way, of those who never return. Inside a vitrine-style functional desk and visible through its glass top is a grotesque replica of a male corpse. Using a friend of the artists as a model, Malaleche created the scene of a migrant’s death on the border, contorting his body in a pose of deadly exhaustion, the scaly, burned skin peeling from the unrelenting Sonoran sun, dehydration written on his face, clothes torn by the prickly mesquite bushes dotting the desert. Around the desk, the artists placed office chairs with words relevant to the installation’s theme etched onto their cushioned seats: racism, migrant, tomb, hunger, wetback, Mexican.
The replica of a dead migrant inside the museum’s administrative walls provokes entangled responses from viewers. This grimly familiar figure of a migrant’s corpse assaults the senses and forces viewers to confront the encounter between migration and its traumatic, often invisible underside. It induces those headed for the golden promised land to ponder what could be their impending destiny, the possibility of their own death as staged in “Muerte X Agua,” by dehydration or drowning. Some viewers may experience bewilderment at the sight of a death out-of-place; others, outrage at artists who would oddly aestheticize death; perhaps repugnance at the morbidity of the death scene; or even anger over its exploitation.
Even as its main purpose is to induce critical reflection about human suffering, this graphic image of a migrant’s corpse in the scene of his death raises a number of ethical questions. What warrant do artists have to represent the final moments of someone’s life? Is this replica of a migrant corpse disrespectful to family members of border-crossing victims? Does it violate the dignity of the dead? Is such a vivid reenactment pornographic, or even a further violation of migrants’ human rights? For the museum’s director, re-creating a migrant crossing death in such a realistic and graphic fashion transforms the image into a “metaphor for social indifference.” As Garcia explains, “Here I am, sitting down and working on exhibitions and I have a dead man underneath me. I am drinking my coffee, smoking my cigarette and I have this dead man underneath me. I really don’t have time to think about it.”
That is precisely the attitude that Colectivo Malaleche aims to disrupt, our complacency, the fact that most of us don’t have the time to think about the hundreds of migrants who die each year, and when we do think about them, we have no inkling of the horrors of their final experience. The images are too raw, too immediate, especially for family members of boundary crossers. For art museum and gallery visitors accustomed to art as contemplation and pleasure, Malaleche’s turbulent and disturbing work aims to move them into the space of critical engagement. At least that is what the great masters of the grotesque attempted to do. In depicting atrocious acts of violence, Goya’s series of etchings “The Disasters of War” denounced the grotesqueries of war. Like other installation and performance artists such as Vito Acconci, Ana Mendieta, Diego Catelan and Cindy Sherman, Malaleche revisits the strategies of the grotesque to address urgent social concerns. The more recent installations of London-based Dinos and Jake Chapman also come to mind as artists who feature the grotesque and macabre to address the social urgency of children’s exploitation.
Shocking and grotesque art has a way of imprinting itself on the psyche. An artist denounces atrocities she perceives in the world in the hope that we, too, can see injustice from her perspective and empathize with the human suffering depicted. But does greater awareness lead to critical encounter and, even more, to social action? That question has haunted philosophers and cultural critics for decades.
In painting the horrors perpetrated by U.S. soldiers against Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Colombian artist Fernando Botero aimed to do for Abu Ghraib what Pablo Picasso did for Guernica. “No one would have remembered the horrors of Guernica if not for the painting,” Botero notes. There is a similar impulse at work in “Muerte X Agua”: The point is to remember them, the boundary crossers who died, denied the right to life and livelihood. Without memory, their death and our forgetting would be among the great disasters of border crossing.
Malaleche’s newest installation, “Crosses and Crossroads: A Chain of Death and Suffering,” will be featured at the Fisher Gallery, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, on Oct. 24, 6:30-8 p.m. http://www.fishergallery.org/index.php?page=programs&action=currentExhibit
Rosa-Linda Fregoso teaches courses on human rights, violence studies, visual
media and culture in the School of Cinematic Arts, Annenberg School
of Communication and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University
of Southern California.
Photo by Arturo Perez y Perez / Courtesy of Malaleche