Art Created From Undocumented Immigrants’ Discarded Objects

Artist Valarie James repurposes the discarded objects of Latino undocumented immigrants in order to expose the humanitarian disaster in the U.S.-Mexico Border.


| September/October 2013


“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.