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Nogales art exhibit challenges U.S. border politics with spirituality and nature

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The Hilltop Gallery in Nogales, Az is hosting 'Donde Mueren los Sueños' or 'Where Dreams Die' until Oct. 14. The show features artists from both Mexico and Arizona whose art is critical of policies at the border, but the curator emphasized the theme of spirituality in the exhibit's artwork. - Courtesy of Michele Maggiora

A border-focused art exhibit is running until October 14 at the Hilltop Gallery in Nogales, Ariz., presenting mixed media from Arizona and Mexican artists. The curator of the exhibit said the attitude of the art, which includes sculptures, paintings and photography, takes a critical stance towards current and recent border policy, but emphasizes its spiritual themes as much as its political statements.

The exhibit, titled “Donde Mueren Los Sueños” or “Where Dreams Die,” features the work of artist Alvaro Enciso, who has been working with the Tucson Samaritans for the past seven years to place crosses near the border where migrants have died, and the work of 11 other artists from both sides of the border.

The curator, Michele Maggiora, said the gallery focuses on topics like violence against women in Mexico, immigration at the southwest border and the environment around the border. She said she wants the show to inspire activism and spirituality in its visitors.

“I’m hoping maybe people feel ignited to share their feelings and their sense of things, whether it’s with religion or politics,” she said. “I hope the art helps put people in touch with how they feel about what's going on there, at the border and in Mexico, and gets them to think about it and how they feel about it and how they understand their connection to it and what they can do.”

Maggiora said there are many ways to be an activist and hopes that the exhibit creates a personal sense of activism.

Enciso's main work on display is a large painted abstract triptych, or a panel painting with three parts. The subject of the triptych is violence against women and women who have died crossing the border. He is also displaying smaller pieces, but Maggioria said his colorful panels are one of the exhibit's main attractions.

The artist Carlos Cabrera is presenting similarly large drawings and paintings that comment on the idea of evolution though it's not focused on the border. One of his drawings is called “Involution,” and Maggioria said the idea of the piece is to challenge the notion that society is constantly improving itself and that there are signs that modern society has made itself worse off.

“His stuff has a lot to do with life and death,” she said. “But it also has to do with the psyche of humanity and how many people today have no foundation — they don’t have religion, a spiritual view, a philosophical view, they don’t have a psyche with a foundation to guide them, and he sees this really as a detriment.”

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One of the artists from Sonora, Marisela Moreno, has two sculptures and eight monotype prints. Moreno’s focus, like Enciso, is on violence against women.

Monotype prints are done by drawing on a plate then running the plate through a press with a thin canvass on top of the plate. This removes the ink from the plate, meaning only one copy can be made of each print unlike with other presses. It's Moreno's monotypes that focus on violence against women in Mexico as a topic.

Moreno's sculptures take on the border wall as their subject. One of the sculptures by Moreno is a small sculpture painted green that hangs on the wall as the background of a smaller metal sculpture of a section of border wall. The green wall, Maggiora said, creates a feeling of nature that contrasts with Moreno’s sculpture of the wall.

Similarly, textile artist Maxie Adler is showing a textile representation of the border wall that includes photographs depicting scenes from the border. Textile artists use fabric material like yarns or threads to create designs, and Adler weaves with various types of thread to create her art.

Adler’s main piece on display is a fabric life-size recreation of one of the bollards from the border wall. Maggiora said that Adler went to the border wall to create the weaving that now extends from the gallery’s ceiling, along its wall and across its floor.

The artist Gustavo Zamarripa is from Merida in the Yucatan Peninsula, and he has mixed media on display of ink, pencil, watercolor and graphite that are glazed over. The art he’s presenting is all part of a series called “Capitalismo.”

The Kansas-born photographer from New York, David Whitmer, has three photographs on display with a focus on how the border affects the environment around it. His previous work shows Saguaros and landscapes affected by the border. Maggioria said that theme is carried over in the work he shared for this exhibit.

“His photographs show the simplicity of nature, the purity of nature, and contrasts it with images of how it’s interrupted by the border, and more broadly, by human conflict,” she said.

The photographer Terry Stanford has digitized photographs from trips she’s made into the desert around the border as a member of the Tucson Samaritans. Stanford also works with Enciso to place crosses in the desert where migrants have died. The subjects of her photos include objects left behind in the desert by migrants like personal crosses, backpacks and shoes found around the border.

Maggiora describes Stanford’s digitized photos as “very colorful, vivid.”

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Another photographer, Raechel Running, is presenting a series of photo art at the exhibit called “Eight Days a Week.” The focus of her photographs are women who have crossed the border and women who have been violated at the border. Running presents her photos, which include portraits, with designs rather than presenting them as stand alone photos.

The artist Alyssa Quintanilla is showing still photographs that she captured while working in the desert with Enciso and the Tucson Samaritans. The stills by Quintanilla, who has a Ph.D in critical and cultural studies from the University of Pittsburgh, were taken in the desert around the border and come from a series of 360-degree videos that she made while working with Enciso for the “Vistas de la Frontera” project, whose subject is the deaths of migrants in the desert. Each of the videos from that series shows where individual migrants have died near the border.

The president of the gallery, Ricardo Hernandez, is presenting a large graphite piece that is also painted in parts. The idea of the piece, Maggiora said, is that humans have learned their way around the desert.

The artist Ricardo Luis Sotero has large realist paintings that depict Border Patrol. His attitude in those depictions, Maggiora said, is very critical, with one painting showing an agent with his gun to the head of Jesus, who's fallen down and bloodied in the desert with a black jug next to him. 

The 12th artist is Maggiora. For the exhibit she’s curating, Maggiora used paper mache to create a life-sized fictional antlered animal whose body is a mix of other animals whose migratory patterns were either lost or disrupted by the border wall.

She has two other pieces, and they also make statements against recent border policy. One is a collection of dolls stuffed in a rabbit’s cage, which she said is meant to be an obvious representation of migrant children kept in warehouses by border officials. The title of the display is “Inocentes de la Frontera” or the “Innocent of the Border.”

Her other piece is called “Falling through the Cracks,” and it has a broader topic than just the border. The piece is a three-foot sculpture of two arms and hands reaching up that look like stone and have filament lines hanging from the fingers with ceramic silhouettes of men, women and children tied to them. Maggiora said it was inspired by her time teaching art in a California penitentiary and is meant to ask why people are allowed to be forgotten in large government systems like the immigration or justice system.

The exhibit has been showing since early September and wraps up in two and half weeks. The Hilltop Gallery is open on Tuesdays through Fridays from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. and on Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The gallery is at 730 N. Hilltop Dr. in Nogales, Ariz., just a few minutes from the border.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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