Art

Artists Defend Human Dignity in the Face of Institutional Dehumanization

70 miles north of the US–Mexico border, Other TARGET/s condemns migrant detention, mass incarceration, and the juvenile justice system, by reaffirming a sense of shared humanity.

sheri crider, “Cibola Detention Center, Five years, $150mil, Silence still equals death” (2018), gouache and enamel on paper (courtesy the University of Arizona Museum of Art)

TUCSON, Arizona — Amidst our sociopolitical environment of hostility, racism, dehumanization, and lack of compassion, there is an ongoing necessity to speak truth to power, to examine its mechanisms of division and domination, and its desperation to maintain the fragile legitimacy of social order. Simultaneously, the degrading manipulations and rhetorical schemes of entrenched power structures must be resisted by telling stories that instead reaffirm a sense of shared humanity, belonging, dignity, and respect for differences. The group exhibition Other TARGET/s at the University of Arizona Museum of Art — featuring work by sheri crider, Gabriela Muñoz, M. Jenea Sanchez, and Shontina Vernon — attempts to take on that dual task.

Displayed prominently in the gallery, crider’s “Nontactical Monument for Reparations” is a sculptural replica of rescue beacons that US Customs and Border Protection has mounted in the harsh deserts of Arizona where thousands of border crossers have died in the past 20 years. Beneath its blue siren, a bound stack of papers lists death reports of detainees who have perished in ICE custody. This combination by crider reinforces the complicated function of the beacons: yes, they can save lives, but rescue also often leads to detainment — and, increasingly, indefinite detention.

This and other pieces establish a certain place-specificity of the exhibition: Tucson is a major focal point in immigration debates, due to its location only 70 miles from the US-Mexico border and within an hour of five migrant detention centers — four of which are run by private for-profit companies.

Installation view: Other TARGET/s at the University of Arizona Museum of Art (courtesy the University of Arizona Museum of Art)
Installation view: sheri crider, “Arizona — The Grand Carceral State” (courtesy the University of Arizona Museum of Art)

The prison-industrial complex is addressed in crider’s wall installation “Arizona — The Grand Carceral State,” an array of 66 commemorative plates, 15 of which are commercial souvenirs crider gathered, and the rest are ceramic imitations she created. Their imagery ranges from tourist kitsch about the Grand Canyon, to incisive commentary on WWII internment camps, the anti-immigrant sheriff Joe Arpaio, and related issues. While the installation’s shape in the state outline may be a bit heavy-handed, its operative confusion of actual versus fictitious objects feels like a crucial caution against normalizing such dehumanizing actions and policies.

For crider, focusing on the scope of mass incarceration is informed by her own past experience of being imprisoned. Her painting “Cibola Detention Center, Five years, $150mil, Silence still equals death,” stitches together references to trans pride symbols, queer activism, and the mistreatment of transgender women and non-binary migrants held at the Cibola facility in New Mexico. Meanwhile, Vernon’s short film “Grrrl Justice” looks at girls and queer youth of color who have been impacted by the juvenile justice system. We see three protagonists move through vignettes of alienation, abuse, and homophobic harassment, but ultimately emerge to assert their own agency and voice.

M. Jenea Sanchez “Doña Euginia” (2016), C Print on Aluminum (courtesy the University of Arizona Museum of Art)

Such portraits of resiliency also connect to Sanchez and Muñoz’s work with women in the border town of Agua Prieta, Mexico. In particular, six large color photographs carry a commanding presence in the gallery. Part of Sanchez’s larger project “The Mexican Woman’s Post-Apocalyptic Survival Guide to the Southwest: Food, Clothing, Shelter, y la Migra,” these compelling images present women of color in a space of empowerment where they tend the land, hone energy conservation and water preservation techniques, and hold meetings and workshops in an adobe brick building they constructed themselves. Additional sculptures and a short video, all produced by Sanchez and Muñoz together, point to ways that the women preserve and pass along familial knowledge. While cumulatively documenting the generosity and shared labor through which these women thrive together, these works also accomplish something else beyond merely showing: depicting their subjects with grace and dignity, they hold space for the women to be active contributors to their own representation and craft bold counter-narratives to the forces that seek to diminish their humanity.

A virtual experience of Other TARGET/s is available on the University of Arizona Museum of Art (1031 North Olive Rd, Tucson, AZ) website through March 29, 2020. The exhibition was curated by sheri crider, assisted by Chelsea Farrar, Curator of Community Engagement at UAMA.

Editor’s note: Please note that viewing hours for this exhibition have permanently ended in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Discussions around art and culture remain important during this time, so we have opted to publish this review to enable readers to explore the exhibition virtually as many of us continue to self-isolate.

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