Undocumented Artists Exist, But When Will We Center Their Narratives?
A Response to JR’s “Conflict Zone” US/Mexico Border Installation
Early this September, I was swallowed by memories of my crossing the San Diego/Tijuana border as I scrolled through Instagram. An installation by French artist, JR, at the U.S./Mexico border immediately lit a flame in my body.
The installation is composed of a gigantic photograph of Kikito, a 1-year-old boy whose dark hair, curious expression and simple clothes reminds me of the children in my village. I was born in Mexico City, but I am from the Zapotec people of what is now known as Oaxaca, Mexico, and most of us kids look pretty similar: we proudly wear dark Indian hair or dark fluffy afros, dirt under our fingers, plain colored tank-tops, and faces full of mischief and curiosity.
In this installation, JR alludes to conflict, contradiction and systemic violence. Kikito’s image is positioned in the “Mexican” side of the border curiously looking into the “U.S.” side of the border. Kikito undoes the U.S.-American gaze for a moment. Here, Kikito, a non-White child, gazes at the U.S. Empire. The U.S. Empire does not gaze at Kikito.
After sitting with this image, I got a headache because I realized: I know so many undocumented artists who will never get the publicity that JR is receiving. Will we, migrants, refugees, the (un)documented, ever get to speak and create?
Undocumented artists have been invisibilized by the art world and the immigrant rights movement. They have been seen as “unprofessional” for not having MFAs; for being poor and not having the money to quit their jobs and live as “starving artists”; and for being disabled.
However, the immigrant rights movement has also dismissed artists. I have experienced immigrant organizers think of artists at last minute: when a poster is needed, when coding needs to be done, when a dj cancels on an event, etc. Undocumented artists have been invisibilized at multiple fronts: both inside and outside our communities.
When JR installed his piece at the border, I saw undocumented immigrants and art organizations widely share his piece.
I was conflicted.
Although the piece took me back to my crossing, I couldn’t find a convincing statement from the artist.
I urge us to ask: who gets to make art about the experiences of the marginalized? Who is allowed to construct migrant narratives? And, what are the ethics of creating art based on migrant trauma in dispossessed Indigenous land without ever recognizing the territory where that art installation is exhibited?
I say all this because I cannot look at JR’s work and feel sincerity from him; I cannot and do not trust him. Part of his bio and artist statement express a commitment to making art that identifies and addresses “conflict zones.” At first glance, this form of art-making has the potential to provide a liberatory art praxis. Some might call it “radical.” But, at the expense of whom?
Who must JR walk over to rise?
On October 9th, JR published a flash-video on his Instagram account where he is standing on the Mexican side of the border, and a border patrol agent stands on the U.S. side of the border. We then see a third person hand each a cup of tea. The two sip, and business-as-usual is carried out.
In his description, JR writes, “The picnic today was clearly forbidden, and yet it was not shut down.”
JR does not realize that borders are set up to keep certain bodies out. His body, in all of its thinness, Whiteness, masculinity and Western beauty standards is welcomed. For these reasons, his picnic was not shut down. Borders are set up to “protect” people like him.
In this video, JR is fully invested in the violences of borders, walls, fences, and frontiers.
JR shows us that “conflict zone”-art is only a trend. At the end of the day, there is no conflict in having tea with a governmental entity tasked with identifying, racializing, chasing, criminalizing and “catching” non-normative bodies by any means necessary.
As JR and the border security agent sip tea, over 50,000 unaccompanied minors will be crossing the border: some will die, some will lose a sibling, and some will become disabled during the process. At whose cost does JR’s installation profit?
In a Tedx talk JR delivered, he talks about art as the way in which he attempts to “turn the world inside out.” His art has been considered political art, reaching wide audiences that may have never entered a museum space, and it is clear that there are political statements in his piece. However, positionality is important.
Who is allowed to make political art? Who is given the “credentials” to enter the conversation of undocumented migration?
As a formerly undocumented Black and Indigenous queer artist, I know that the art the world has no space for me yet: I am not White; I do not have an MFA; I have no savings; but most importantly, I am not willing to use the trauma of an entire community as a means to gain social capital.
With this said, I want to introduce you to extraordinary (un)documented cultural workers whose art imagines multiple futures for those of us criminalized, illegalized, sexualized, exploited and oppressed by monetizing systems such as the law and the art world. These artists are rebellious, daring and “bad.”
I think of artists who wait for no one to tell them to create, they create because of a need to survive. Artists who know that art is not a hobby or a luxury.
Artists who create even though they can be deported at any moment. I am talking about undocumented trans, queer, Indigenous, Asian and Black artists.
I am thinking of undocumented queer artist of Yucatec Maya ancestry, Freddy Pech.
Freddy is a visual artist who is continually developing galaxies for queer and trans undocumented people to imagine when the world tries to tear us apart. He works his magic at the intersections of graphic design, photography, and film production.
Freddy is constantly tasked with the job of deciding what fonts, colors, and images to use when memorializing those killed in our communities. To give digital burials to those of us who cannot go back “home” after death.
What font is adequate to represent death? What colors will communicate that despite living as fugitive of the laws, there is still hope for the “illegal alien”? These are questions that undocumented visual artists like Freddy must think of every single day of their lives.
His work is also invested in reducing isolation. How can text-based visual art offer community? Through affirmation and reminders that one is still alive and existing despite the violences of the law.
Do you remember the #Pulse Orlando video of queer and trans Latinxs responding? Freddy filmed, edited and produced that art piece. His response came from a place of urgency and from a place of resistance. The world is not a safe space for LGBTQIA+ people of color. Freddy knows that, and he decided to bring that to the forefront.
Have you seen the viral photographs of undocumented queer and trans immigrants chained outside detention centers, blocking traffic, and interrupting public peace? That’s also Freddy’s work.
In capturing these images, Freddy speaks back to the legal system and to the immigrant rights movement. Freddy makes visible that which the law tries to silence. And, Freddy centers that which the immigrant rights movement has benefitted from, but never credited: undocumented trans, gender-non-conforming and queer organizers.
I am also thinking of undocumented Korean artist, Dillon, who has provided femmetorship to many undocumented organizers and artists without even knowing.
From personal conversations with other immigrants, Dillon has been identified as an artist of incredible value in the immigrant rights movement for her uncompromised vision of liberation.
Personal conversations with Dillon about survival, art and fashion continuously teach me that to be an artist is to be committed to liberation; that we create out of a necessity to live; we create to critique, denounce and undo violence.
Dillon is the artist behind major #Not1More deportation campaigns. She is the person tasked with the job of humanizing people who are criminalized by the law, the state, their communities, and by their own family members. Dillon is the undocumented artist providing us liberatory understandings that move away from a framework of criminality, and teach us how to see each other as humans.
Do you remember the #StandWithNanHui campaign? In a recent conversation with the visual artist, Dillon expressed to me that one of the hardest things she had to think through was a way in which to illustrate Nan-Hui as a person. Nan-Hui had been imprisoned after experiencing domestic violence, but Dillon did not want to illustrate her as a “victim,” “survivor,” or “oppressed woman of color.” Dillon wanted to move away from only seeing pain and trauma. Dillon wanted to avoid visual images of chains on wrists; images of children, teenagers, adults and elders handcuffed; physical violence, etc.
Dillon wanted to illustrate freedom.
In the art for Nan Hui’s campaign, we do not see trauma; we see two free figures: a mother and a child. That is all we need to advocate for liberation. We must not depend on violence to “convince” us to fight for justice.
Dillon is teaching us to decriminalize one another and decenter the oppressor in our art, and center those we want to fight next to without depending on the narratives of caring for someone only after they become “victims,” “survivors,” or “prisoners.”
Dillon’s art takes risks.
Dillon has also created visuals for the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition. In personal communication, Dillon explained that she is aware that working against surveillance means being heavily surveilled. As undocumented, the artist takes risks that some would not.
Dillon’s work has incredible lessons to teach the art world and the immigrant rights movement.
In conversation with the work of Freddy Pech and Dillon, we have also been gifted with the work of undocumented trans artist Rommy Torrico who comes to us from Chile. In their work, Rommy explores the personal as political. Perhaps one of the largest lessons Rommy has taught us is that what the undocumented need most right now is not “papers,” but care.
Rommy taught me something I somehow missed to see: even though the law categorizes us as “illegal,” we are still embodied subjects who feel the violence of illegalization.
Having been undocumented for almost 20 years, I sometimes did not allow myself to experience pleasure.
Rommy wants us to no longer do that. Rommy’s art is an urgent call for us to care for one another as they directly tells us to “PROTECT EACH OTHER,” and affirm us by stating, “we’re glad you’re queer!”
At a time when social movements constantly demand that we “organize,” “work,” and “organize,” Rommy reminds us to “protect” and affirm one another because no matter how much we organize, if we are not healthy, those oppressing us will have won.
Rommy provides us an art practice and a spiritual practice that attempts to shift the narrative of the undocumented experience. Undocumented people are often forced to only write, speak, or make art about trauma. Often times, undocumented people are not even allowed to speak for themselves.
Rommy asks us to speak our truth, and to change the cultural narrative on immigration. They are no longer invested in stories about being a “good American,” or a “hard worker.” Instead, Rommy wants us to meet our spirit and to be honest with one another.
How beautiful to be reminded that through feeling, we undo borders.
Although I write about feelings, artistic liberation and narrative changes now, I didn’t always think this way.
In 2014, Dreamers Adrift (a platform currently managed by undocuqueer comic artist, Julio Salgado, and undocumented photographer and videographer Jesus Iñiguez) released a series of videos to highlight undocumented queer experiences, and that’s where I first began to think about care, intimacy and feelings.
Soultree is an undocumented queer Filipinx immigrant who comes to us from the Marshall Island. In her lyrical spoken word video, Hum-Undocumented, she sings, “you are worth more than numbers and cards, so they treat you with less respect because you’ve lived a life to improve conditions back home” (1:52–20). In this piece, Soultree reminds us that being undocumented is not an identity, but a temporary status that can change at any moment.
We must redeem our hope. We must dream, imagine and create to change the world.
Soultree’s voice breaks borders.
When Soultree sings, she makes people think: how does an undocumented immigrant find time to sing when they are supposed to be hiding? Soultree refuses to hide. Because of her, I refuse to hide.
Within this idea of not hiding, Soultree makes us think further about the undocumented islander experience. In her art, she poses the questions: what happens if my homeland disappears under water? where will home be then?
It is only undocumented artist that can truly give us insight into the everyday lived reality that a violent immigration system has created for those deemed “alien.”
In this conservation of radical visionaries, I cannot help but think of undocumented Nigerian writer, Kemi Bello, who in 2014 wrote to us, the “bad” immigrants and “bad” artists: “when you are tired of crossing borders, migrate to me. We will not apologize for this pursuit of decolonial love…” In two sentences, Kemi told us that the world we live in right now is not the only world available. Kemi has promised us her care, and thus, has offered us a different form of existing. In many ways, Kemi’s work encourages us to have bigger visions and to not settle for crumbs. When I was undocumented, I would often feel guilty for complaining. Kemi teaches us to no longer have shame or guilt because we deserve to live.
In 2013, Kemi’s poem, “Battling Silence” won the “Things I’ll Never Say” contest when she fiercely explained that if her status ever shifted from “undocumented” to “documented,” “That this new piece of paper/ Would not magically heal the wounds of the struggle/ Wrought by lack of papers to begin with.”
As a fellow Black sibling, Kemi reminds us that policy will not protect us. Kemi, like myself, will still be Black in a country obsessed with race: Sandra Bland was a citizen, she was killed; Trayvon Martin was a citizen, he was killed.
Kemi’s narrative voice needs to be taken seriously. Through her poetry and storytelling, she creates theories of resistance in which the only borders present are her arms, tightly embracing and uplifting us.
In writing this piece, it is my hope that we realize the need to prioritize artists who create art out of their embodied experiences.
I say this because in the matter of hours, I saw citizen and undocumented friends of mine worship JR’s installation. I have a friend who drove through 3 states to see this piece, but that same friend had never heard of Freddy Pech, Dillon, Rommy Torrico, Soultree, or Kemi Bello. This is no coincidence, the art world has gatekeepers.
As (un)documented immigrants, our narratives are exploited and only seen as one-dimensional: the moment of the crossing. We only crossed once. Heck, some of us didn’t even cross. So, why can’t there be more to our narratives?
The work of undocumented and formerly undocumented artists needs to be prioritized because they have developed worlds in which to exist that don’t require papers or citizenship. I encourage you to listen to them, invest in them, uplift them, and fight alongside them. Only this way, can you help us create alternative futures where all of us are free.