CLEVELAND, Ohio — At the entrance of 100 Years, All New People, Brooklyn-based artist Jessica Segall’s exhibition at SPACES, is an enlarged headline and a snippet from an article that ran in a Miami newspaper on May 22, sometime between 1921 and 1924.
“To Deport Smuggled Jews to Cuba,” the headline reads. It is followed by a short item announcing the arrest of 14 Jewish immigrants who attempted to steal into the country, fleeing the Nazis. The immigrants, the article says, will be deported back to Cuba — which served then, as now, as a kind of way station for people trying to make an unsanctioned entry into the United States via the Florida Keys.
“Most of my work has been more environmental, and talking about immigration through other species, like birds and plants,” Segall explained in an interview with Hyperallergic. “With the changing administration, there’s been an impulse to be more overt [about immigration].”
The artist unearthed one of these abandoned sea crafts — or “chugs” — from an island where it was left after presumably bringing its human cargo close enough to the mainland to stake entry on the basis of “Wet Foot/Dry Foot.” This mid-1990s immigration policy stated that Cuban immigrants caught in vessels on the open water were deportable, but if they were able to place one foot on the ground they could claim asylum. Numerous small chugs proliferated on the outer islands of the Florida Keys during this time, abandoned after they served their purpose. The immigration policy was overturned under President Obama in 2016, which led to a final rush of people trying to enter the country, followed by a push to destroy the fleet of abandoned chugs and clear the islands. At this point, Segall was able to intervene on behalf of a vessel.
The resulting process was not just a metaphorical rescue, but a juggernaut of legal and legislative issues. In terms of government bureaucracy, it was nearly as hard for Segall to naturalize an undocumented boat as it can be to naturalize as an undocumented immigrant. A grainy video feed projected on a wall documents the retrieval of the vessel. Filmed from the aft of the tugboat pulling it ashore from the outer islands to mainland Florida, the craft bobs and jerks through darkened waters at night. The nighttime setting is a result of the all-day process of retrieving the chug, but it certainly lends a sense of apprehension and drama in its re-staging of what must have been a tense journey between Cuba and the outer Keys.
Segall’s preoccupation with artifacts that symbolize the circumvention of immigration policy is also seen in a pair of footprints, cast in concrete and set into the floor of the otherwise bare gallery. These impressions were made from forensic casts at a Northern border point for what Canadians call “irregular crossing” (unauthorized ports of entry) into Canada from the US. Segall traveled to the point in 2017 and 2020 to take footprint impressions around two rural farm roads where some 55,000 people have crossed over in the last three years. These are often asylum-seekers who hope for a better chance of being received in Canada. Segall says she saw a number of people making the crossing while she was documenting footprints.
The cyclical nature of immigration patterns is revealed in the triangulation of the headline, the chug, and the footprints. In an administratively complex but visually simple gesture, Segall charts the desire lines of immigration, those paths taken by humans for generations in their efforts to find home and safety in a foreign land.
“It’s just a time of such increasing restriction on immigration, I think there needs to be that empathy and understanding of those parallel stories,” she said. “So I took a random 100-year sample of immigration policy and [I’m] talking about it through a couple different archival pieces.”
There is something Rapture-like in this exhibition — in both the emptiness of the chug and footprint casts, haunted by the traces of people, and the relocation of these items from their places of origin to the nowhere space of the gallery. Segall presents work that toes the line between informative and mysterious, displaying the physical vestiges of someone’s journey, but with no real evidence of the individual. The lone chug, now stranded far from any ocean, serves as a kind of proxy for the beleaguered and displaced immigrant body — showing signs of wear and earmarks of scrappy ingenuity in making it this far, but beached in ambiguity, without even a guiding horizon in sight.
100 Years, All New People continues at SPACES (2900 Detroit Ave., Cleveland, Ohio) through March 13.