Artist Valarie James repurposes the discarded objects of Latino undocumented immigrants in order to expose the humanitarian disaster in the U.S.-Mexico Border.
“Some aging hippy-dippy artist chick has invented a strange new high-brow mode of respect for illegal aliens. Their discarded wrappers, gloves, ripped jeans, and other trash is no longer ‘trash,’ ... [it] is actually advanced, brilliant art.” These are the disparaging words of conservative right-wing blogger, Debbie Schlussel, in her sarcastic and mocking indictment of the work of southern Arizona artist, Valarie James. Schlussel’s provocative blog is not really worthy of critical engagement. Rather than representing a nuanced perspective on the aesthetic properties of art, Schlussel’s knee-jerk rejection of James’ work represents a disavowal of the value of undocumented migrants as human beings. Schlussel acknowledges that James’ work reminds her of exhibits of personal belongings on display at a Nazi concentration camp, yet she immediately invalidates the comparison because of the alleged criminality of James’ undocumented subjects:
When I saw some of this “art,” it reminded me—as is her obvious purpose—of the collections of belongings on exhibit at Auschwitz. But these are illegal alien lawbreakers who are lowering wages and bringing a crime wave upon our nation, not innocents rounded up by the Third Reich and destined for ovens and lampshades.
For Schlussel, then, sub-human alien criminals do not even qualify as worthy subjects of artistic expression. Unlike the innocent victims of the Holocaust, she considers all undocumented immigrants universally guilty. For Schlussel, these “criminals,” like James’ work about them, are essentially “trash.”
While extreme, Schlussel’s denial of the humanity of undocumented migrants is not uncommon. The plight of undocumented people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border remains hidden from the public view, obscured behind a wall of political discourse and faux news. In mass media accounts and political speeches, migrants are dehumanized, represented as an invading mob of criminal aliens who threaten our “American” way of life.
To confront this dehumanization, Valarie James employs migrant trash artistically to make a very different, more compassionate point. James recontextualizes migrants’ discarded objects (objects commonly seen as garbage) and in so doing allows the viewer to perceive, recognize, and understand the human subjectivity of migrants. James reframes the political issue and thus brings into focus a different image, an image of people engaged in a desperate struggle for survival.
James employs at least three different artistic techniques in her representation of trash: In some cases, she exhibits “ready-made(s),” manufactured objects (jackets, shoes, bordados, etc.) which she presents, without mediation, as they were found. For other pieces, James displays “found objects” which she exhibits as part of an assemblage. As a third technique, James recycles the material or fiber of discarded trash—clothing—and incorporates it into the body of a new sculptural creation. Regardless of which technique she employs, the end result re-releases a chain of signifiers: James’ work redirects the viewer to contemplate not only the piece, but rather the work as a tangible connection to the object’s previous owner.
Before analyzing different pieces from each of these three techniques it is crucial to identify, and explore, the paradox of the objects’ previous owners. According to archaeologist Jason De León, the average undocumented migrant leaves eight pounds of trash in the desert. By the time James finds these artifacts the people are gone. Disappeared. With the exception of found photographs, ID cards and/or signed letters, we have no idea who left these objects in the desert. We don’t know if these individuals are alive. They may be working in the United States or they may have been detained, incarcerated, or deported to their country of origin (or another country, since Central Americans are sometimes deported to Mexico). Or, they may be dead.
Since 1994, More than 7,000 dead human remains have been encountered in the Borderlands, according to Kat Rodriguez, director of Coalición de Derechos Humanos. Humanitarians working in the field assert that the actual number of dead is likely much higher (perhaps two to ten times higher) since people dying in the desert wander away from trails. Due to the immensity of the desert, the elements, and the fact that wildlife scatter remains, it is clear that many who die in the Arizona desert are never found. Those found are often never identified—the morgue in Tucson currently houses approximately 800 unidentified human remains. Arizona, in the words of journalist Margaret Regan, has become a “killing field.” This, then, is the context from which James’ work emerges. Her art, furthermore, continually redirects our gaze back at this context—a humanitarian disaster that, as I asserted above, remains paradoxically hidden from the public view. Last year alone 179 people (that we know of) died in the Arizona desert, yet public discourse about the border and immigration swirls around the issues of border security and political policies, rarely even acknowledging the scope of this humanitarian catastrophe.
Holding a pair of dirty, torn blue jeans, Valarie James remarks “they carry the DNA of the journey.” This DNA is literal, since the DNA of the person who wore the pants remains, and at the same time, metaphoric. Rips on the inside of the upper leg recall a multitude of barbed-wire fences that migrants must pass in their journey northward. A tear in fabric is of course a negative presence—it is a separation of fibers, the trace of a fence that an undocumented person jumped as part of an attempt to cross a border and reach something or someone (a job? a family? a better life?) in the United States. Dirt, ground into the fabric, remains as a physical record of long days, sitting under scrub by day, hiding from the Border Patrol, running, and falling, on rocky trails at night.
Three of James’ sculptures (realized in collaboration with artists Antonia Gallegos, César López, and Debbi McCullough) represent life-size “madres,” on display on the east campus of Pima Community College in Tucson. In a custom-built machine, a “Hollander Beater,” James manipulated and pummeled jeans found in the desert until nothing remained except for extracted cotton fibers. She then mixed these fibers with plant material from the Sonoran desert and layered them over a form to create the bodies of three mothers. In reducing the found manufactured object/jeans to fibers, the artists symbolically evoke the organic, human experience of migration and death. At the time of installation, 2005, there existed no public memorial to the thousands of migrants who have died while crossing the border. The madres sculptures—comprised of the fibers of remnants, found clothing of border crossers no longer present—evoke the figures of mothers waiting, praying … to see them, to touch them again … dead or alive. At the same time the sculptures call attention to the increasing numbers of women migrants who cross the border in order to find work or reunite with their families (husbands and children). The sculptures have been left exposed to the elements, much like undocumented migrants who must endure the desert’s wrath during their journey. The sculptures were finished with a natural encaustic sealer. After one year on site, the madres began to weep “tears” of resin.
James’ piece, “Tea Leaves … A forecast,” combines found objects: a photograph of a young woman, reproduced 14 times arranged around a package of birth control pills, mounted in a box behind a brazier. The use of a photograph recalls the work of Chilean experimental artist Eugenio Dittborn who began to incorporate found photographs of “unknown individuals” in his work in 1976. Dittborn included photographs as a means to encourage viewers to contemplate the identities and histories of anonymous, forgotten Others. The fact that he did so during the Pinochet dictatorship immediately evoked the idea of the disappeared—los desaparecidos.
Similarly, James recalls los desaparecidos de la frontera, anonymous undocumented Others who have disappeared leaving little more than remnants, trash, in this case a photograph. Incorporating a found package of birth control pills with a bra highlights additional, context-specific layers of suffering from the border. A large percentage of migrant women are raped at some point while crossing the border. Though this gruesome fact is unknown to the majority of the public in the U.S., some migrant women—many of whom are devout Catholics—take birth control pills before and during the crossing to guard against the possible eventuality of an unwanted pregnancy as a result of rape. In the desert one sometimes encounters “rape trees”—trees on which a rapist hangs the undergarments of a women he has raped. James’ display of a suitcase full of bras—of different colors, sizes, materials, and weaves, reflects the diversity of the women who wore these found objects. The inclusion of a photograph of a girl at her first communion calls attention to the horrific violence occurring in the Borderlands—violence against women, against migrants, against people.
At a recent exhibition at the Coconino Center for the Arts in Flagstaff, James displayed a great number of “ready-mades” that some might dismiss as trash. These objects included a great number of found photographs, maps, and letters which were simply mounted to the wall of the gallery. By displaying the photographs of anonymous Others found in the desert, James underscores the humanity of these invisible, undocumented, disappeared (though not necessarily dead) migrants. As one contemplates these sun-faded, partially mutilated photos, one can appreciate the love that these subjects feel for their babies, their children, their husbands, their wives—their families. We can see the pride, not only in their faces as they pose in their most special clothing, but also in the very fact that they brought these photographs with them on their journey across the Arizona desert. Some carry letters from their children, wishing them well on the trip, telling them about their lives in school in the United States, expressing their longing to be together again.
These found objects—archaeologist De León calls them “artifacts”—carry embedded within them information about the invisible, unknown process of undocumented immigration. In James’ installation, “Walk a mile in my shoes,” composed of a pile of footwear (all found in the desert), the viewer can comprehend that many migrants undergo this journey tragically unprepared. Often told by coyotes that the trip will involve only a few hours of walking, many migrants embark with shoes wholly inadequate for the desert. Found water jugs, sometimes covered with canvas, sometimes blackened with shoe polish, sometimes made of black plastic (marketed specifically to migrants in border towns), exemplify migrants’ efforts to keep the Border Patrol from seeing the bottles’ reflection in the moonlight, to pass undetected through the desert. (As it turns out these efforts are counter-productive. Border Patrol uses heat-sensing technology and the dark bottles heat up significantly more in the sun. Black bottles in the summer reach such a high temperature the water is not drinkable).
In the extensive collection of bordados, we see, literally, the “fabric” of culture—textiles, decorated with embroidery, some of them overwritten with text. Indigenous people traditionally use these cloths to carry tortillas or medicinal herbs. “Te amo” (I love you) reads one bordado, “Tú eres mi sueño de amor” (You are the dream of my love) another. Contemplating these hand-crafted cloths, embroidered with care, one recognizes that these so-called “illegal alien criminals” are, in fact, people with dreams, people with families, people who love other people.
Other artists have employed clothing to call attention to absence. In Chile, for example, Finnish artist Kaarina Kaikkonen, arranged massive collections of shirts and jackets in her shows Huellas (in the Museo de la Memoria) and Diálogos (in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Arts). Kaikkonen’s displays of empty clothing paradoxically point towards absence—the “Disappeared,”—those who were killed and discarded during the dictatorship. By exhibiting a presence of unworn clothing—shirts and jackets that were used to cover bodies—Kaikkonen constitutes an inverted trace of bodies, now disappeared. Valarie James explores a similar concept, though her work signals intimate, personal traces. Kaikkonen purchases her clothing from thrift stores, markets, and donations. Her mass installations of arranged clothing create an image of los desaparecidos. Valarie James’ installations, on the other hand, invite the viewer to see, and understand, actual clothing and personal effects that migrants left behind in the desert. In this way James helps the viewer to understand migration as a human process.
This trash that James has found in the desert, mass-produced articles, items produced mostly in Thailand and China—backpacks decorated with Winnie the Pooh, small pants, Elmo overalls, Hello Kitty panties, diaper bags, stuffed animals, baby gloves and socks—underscores the globalized dynamics of the world economy. This global economy, specifically free trade (NAFTA), took away millions of people’s livelihoods in Mexico and Central America (when the U.S. started to flood the Mexican economy with cheap, government-subsidized corn). Globalization, then, forces impoverished people to risk their lives to cross borders in search for economic opportunities in order to sustain their families. Ironically, this same global economy of mass production unites “us” to “them”—children everywhere wear Hello Kitty panties.
Valarie James’ art, constructed of and with trash, recontextualizes “trash” and in this way helps us to see the larger context—the humanitarian tragedy on the border and our connection, both to this tragedy and to the victims of it. The material that James employs, castoffs and lost objects of undocumented migrants, reflects a reverse image of their lives and their suffering. Contemplating Valarie James’ re-framed migrant trash—whether ready-mades, found objects or recycled fibers—we glimpse traces of desaparecidos—traces of real people’s lives, traces of migrants’ desperate struggle for survival.
Robert Neustadt is Professor of Spanish and Director of Latin American Studies at Northern Arizona University. He co-produced, and performs on Border Songs, a 31-track double album, that features music and spoken word in English and Spanish about the border and immigration. To view more examples of Valarie James’ exhibit “Beyond the Border,” visit the Coconino Center’s virtual gallery.