May 5 – 27, 2017
Mill Contemporary, Santa Fe
Mayor Javier Gonzales knows as well as any Santa Fesino that we can ill afford to part with funding of any sort, but he, along with several other mayors across the nation, has maintained a steadfast stance against using city resources to arrest and/or otherwise detain or interfere with the lives of immigrant families in our town. In thinking about kicking off the summer season on Canyon Road, curator Ylise Kessler of Mill Contemporary decided that it was imperative to express support for Santa Fe’s official status as a sanctuary city, in spite of our current president’s threats to withdraw federal funding from such cities.
Kessler put out an open call to artists from other countries to show work in Sanctuary (May 5-27, 2017), the exhibition that opened on Cinco de Mayo, a minor Mexican holiday celebrating an unlikely nineteenth century victory for New World independence from European dominance. Co-opted for the purposes of selling alcohol to young gringos in the United States, our nation’s grasp of the Mexican holiday is perhaps as misguided as our immigration policies. Many undocumented immigrants in the United States are from Mexico, thanks to their longstanding poverty and its associated violence. However, with the brutal unrest in Central America, refugees are flooding in from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras as well. They seek the opportunity to live in relative safety, to earn a living, and, perhaps, to seek an education. As attorneys who specialize in immigration law are all too aware, the US legal system is so overloaded that most refugees have no hope of gaining legal status—at least not for decades.
Given most of our expectations about who immigrants are in this country, it may be surprising that Kessler’s call resulted in fifteen artists from eleven countries and that not all of those countries are Latin American. Wisely, Kessler chose against manufacturing a unilateral case for established notions of what immigrant and sanctuary policies look like. Images of longing ranged from the nostalgic to the poignant, with gorgeous photographs by Seiya Bowen of Japan and Chrissie Orr, who was born in Scotland and is known for her community-based art projects. The only non-immigrant in the show, East L.A.’s Israel Haros Lopez, collaborates with students to make murals that celebrate chicanidad, a Mexican-based culture unique to the Southwest. Cameroon’s exiled Issa Nyaphaga contributed a body of work based upon his own body—and subsequent to that physicality, his belief system. For the opening reception, Nyaphaga made a pilgrimage, complete with a police escort, from the Santa Fe Art Institute, where he is currently in residence, to the gallery, walking in traditional dress with a water gourd on his head.
The innocence and delicacy of the flowers contrasts appallingly with the blood-stained trash bin.
Despite the above, the urgent need for sanctuary for Central Americans was expressed as potently as a slam poet’s howl. Kemely Gomez, a promising young student at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, is an artist who escaped Guatemala. She contributed two striking installations to Sanctuary. El Cambray speaks to the recent history of the village that was destroyed by a mudslide, with scores dead or lost. But it is Gomez’s Las Memorias de mi Infancia that brings the viewer to the edge of heartbreak. In this piece, her childhood memory is merciless. Las Memorias tells the incomprehensible story of a young girl who was a friend of the artist. The friend went missing; days later, her body was found inside a barrel. The thirteen-year-old had been raped and tortured. Gomez narrates her memory with strings of embroidered white fabric flowers hanging over a barrel stained red. The innocence and delicacy of the flowers contrasts appallingly with the blood-stained trash bin. Knowing that this happened to one of Kemely’s girlhood friends brings home the impossibility of apprehending this kind of cruelty. The only certainty the viewer can come away with is that the need for sanctuary, from Syrians to citizens of Central America, is well worth supporting here in our own little town.