TUCSON, Arizona — Three long panels of Habotai silk hang from the ceiling inside Tucson Museum of Art, site of the 2023 Arizona Biennial. Text, printed onto the silk in archival pigment, documents migrant deaths in the desert. Photographer Elizabeth Z. Pineda sourced the information from the archives of the medical examiner for Pima County, where the museum resides, and the Tucson-based nonprofit Humane Borders.
Across the gallery hangs a tall stack of aloe shoots strung together with found wire by artist Nikki Berger Martinez. The two works are separated by an open space that suggests a chasm between the beauty and barbarism within the borderlands. Existing together as if under a shared desert sky, Pineda’s 2022 installation “Reverencia: Arizona Migrant Death Mapping (nos. 1–3 of 11)” and Berger Martinez’s 2021 “Untitled #2” signal the complexities of this region, with its layers of life and death, emergence and decay.
It’s a theme that resonates throughout this year’s iteration of the biennial. First organized in 1948, it has long featured both emerging and established artists throughout the state. Guest juror Taína Caragol, curator of painting, sculpture, and Latino art and history at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC selected 67 works created by 56 artists for this exhibition, which presents a powerful glimpse into relationships between the land and a vast array of entities (people, animals, and plants) grounded there, as well as myth, cosmology, and contested histories.
Although the museum didn’t call for art rooted in borderland environments, this year’s biennial nevertheless amplifies the ways a profound sense of place informs a significant number of Arizona-based artists working with a diverse spectrum of materials. One such piece is Alejandro Macias’s “Five Minutes of Solace (Self-portrait)” (2022), which reflects the difficult physical and cultural spaces traversed by migrants by interrupting the lower portion of his mixed media portraits with video of borderland terrains played on an iPad mounted behind the canvas.
The most impactful works include Estephania González’s 10:08-minute digital video “Huitzilopochtli” (2021), in which a celestial being’s “reverse migration journey” from northern Arizona to the borderlands speaks to the trauma the border wall inflicts on “the land, animals, and immigrants,” as well as “Oral History (of us)” (2022) by Pakistan-born Safwat Saleem. In the latter installation, cassettes feature the artist reading a letter recounting several generations of family history to his young daughter, accompanied by a trash can where listeners are instructed to discard the tape after they hear it. It’s a symbolic gesture suggesting expectations that migrants should discard or minimize their cultural identity as part of the assimilation process.
Additional themes reinforce the depth and breadth of Arizona artists’ interests and concerns, including the impact of COVID-19, escalating environmental crises, rampant materialism and consumerism, and the nation’s charged political landscape. With her insightful selections culled from 400 entries, Caragol illuminates both the talents of Arizona artists and the complex histories, cultures, and experiences that inform their work.
Arizona Biennial 2023 continues at Tucson Museum of Art (140 North Main Avenue, Tucson, Arizona) through October 1. The exhibition was guest juried by Taína Caragol.