Artists in Tucson are breaking the ice on immigrants’ rights by portraying life the shadows of the detention system. At Industria Studios, the exhibit, a benefit for the legal advocacy group Florence Project, captures the emotional and social traumas of the federal ICE agency’s regime of terror: police crackdowns, mass deportations, family separation, and the everyday struggle of the undocumented to maintain their dignity in the face of discrimination and poverty. It doesn’t always fit neatly onto a canvas, but the artists of the Painting by Numbers Project–representing Tucson, Oakland and New York City–document these experiences in a variety of media and cultural vernaculars.
Here are works by some of the featured artists, along with personal statements explaining how they seek to depict the sense of isolation imposed by the immigration regime, and the pain of systematic humiliation and maltreatment.
Amy Hagemeier on the experience of women caught up in the immigration dragnet:
“The Shame” explores the unique space women occupy in immigration and incarceration. Not only do immigrant women deal with racial and economic inequality, they must also confront gender violence. This compounds the amount of abuses to their bodies and their spirits- to be separated from children, to be sexually assaulted.
“The Shame,” through the hands in the background, also acknowledges that incarceration could be extended to include the economic system that has determined what roles we are to play (ie. economic refugee), leaving us with no viable alternatives.”
Tucson-born, Brooklyn based artist Simon Arizpe examines the physicality of imprisonment:
For many detainees the first right that is stripped away from them is control of their bodily fluids. A common practice for interrogators is to deny the person water for long periods of time or conversely, to give them water and then restrict their ability to urinate.
To illustrate how politics can overshadow the basic human right of having a working, healthy body I will look to a practice used by illegal border crossers in the Sonoran dessert. These travelers are able to thwart dehydration by filtering their own urine through a simple process of two cup evaporation. I will use this same technique, which is talked about but rarely seen on this side of the border, to put into perspective the humility and isolation people go through when detained.
I will build a large-scale two-cup evaporative system 3′ x 3′ x 2′, mounting it in such a way that it appears as a beautiful design object and a working evaporator, instilling it with the weight and magnitude that the object has when it makes a life or death difference for detainees and refugees.
Wesley Creigh looks at the challenges facing immigrants trapped in the detention system:
There is a desperate case for reforming the way ICE conducts their detention of migrants. Women migrants in particular make up a large, unseen population on the outskirts of our communities whose specific medical, emotional and familial needs are not being met. As women continue to be subjected to these indefinite and non-criminal incarcerations families will continue to be separated and children will continue to be caught up in the equally bureaucratic and convoluted CPS (Child Protective Services) system. The trauma that occurs from these separations and imprisonment is long lasting and severely damaging. Yet this is something that we are ignorant about because we do not have to face it at all. ICE has made sure this population is virtually invisible to us. The more we can inform ourselves the more we can begin to struggle for reform.