CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Stories of migration, refugees and human rights are frequently in the news, but they rarely focus on Central America. A new exhibition at Krannert Art Museum looks at those issues as they relate to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – a region known as the Northern Triangle.
The exhibition, titled “Northern Triangle,” opened Aug. 26 and runs through Dec. 22. It was originally commissioned by Blue Star Contemporary in San Antonio in response to a migration crisis in 2014, when 68,000 unaccompanied children from the Northern Triangle countries were taken into custody trying to cross into the U.S. at the Mexican border. The exhibition examines the visual representations of the region, and it goes beyond the migration crisis to look at the history of U.S. intervention there.
“We wanted to express the complexity of this issue. It’s not black and white. There are so many layers involved in why a 10-year-old boy might get on a train for two months to get to the U.S.,” said Jason Reed, a photography professor at Texas State University and a member of Borderland Collective, an artist group that created the exhibition.
Borderland Collective is a social art program that uses art to explore geographic and cultural borders through collaborations between artists, educators, young people and community members. Its projects have looked at the issues of migration and human rights, particularly in the borderland region of west Texas, from various perspectives.
Reed said “Northern Triangle” is not just an exhibition, but a conversation. The aim is to get viewers talking about and looking at the issues from different points of view.
“The way we tend to consume information now is in small bites or Facebook posts. I think we tend to reaffirm our positions – we share things we like and we have friends on Facebook that agree with us. We hope that by providing access to these different layers of the larger story of immigration, and Central America in particular, people might be able to think in deeper terms about it,” Reed said.
The exhibition – which was on view in Chicago last spring after opening in San Antonio in December 2014 – aims to look at the use of visual images to construct particular narratives about the region and support U.S. policy there. It includes photographs taken by 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge in Guatemala that promoted the interests of coffee and banana producers, as well as modern images showing the buildup of law enforcement along the U.S.-Mexican border, and a 2014 song produced by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and released in the Northern Triangle countries, discouraging people from hopping freight trains to the U.S.
Other items are historical documents from sources such as the Library of Congress, the National Archives and U.S. Customs and Border Protection; rubbings created from court documents related to human rights violations; videos; and artifacts including a 40-gallon water barrel used as part of a project by a Texas activist to provide water in remote areas where many migrants have died.
“We’re thinking about the ways in which we think about the present and its relationship to the past, and how that’s largely obscured when we talk about the Central American migration crisis just as problems that are another aspect of immigration. There’s a much more complex history that is completely obscured by the rhetoric (around immigration),” said Erina Duganne, an art history professor at Texas State University and a member of Borderland Collective. “We’re trying to get viewers to be aware of how complicated the issue is, and (look at) U.S. investments in the region and the way we use power to influence the region.
“We see the exhibition as a kind of archive we’ve created. It has an archival feel to it,” she said. “We want viewers to really think about what they see and hopefully start to make connections.”
A gallery conversation on the issues raised by the exhibition is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Sept. 15 at the museum. The conversation will include urban and regional planning professor Faranak Miraftab, anthropology professor Ellen Moodie and Asian American studies professor Junaid Rana. It will be moderated by Amy Powell, the curator of modern and contemporary art at the museum, and art history professor Terri Weissman.
One of the members of Borderland Collective, Mark Menjivar, will collect oral histories of migrants during the Collective’s October residency on campus – not just from people who came from Latin America, but anyone who has a story of moving to a new place. He’ll explore issues of displacement, trauma and return. From noon to 5 p.m. Oct. 7, Menjivar will be at Anniversary Plaza, between the Illini Union and the Quad, for his Migration Stories project. He’ll work with students to collect oral histories of how people arrived where they are now and where they came from.
Menjivar lived for a time in El Salvador as a child, and he has returned there to photograph refugee communities that were repatriated. His photographs are included in the exhibition.
A new addition to the exhibition when it comes to Krannert Art Museum is a reading area where visitors can sit and look at research material related to migration and borders.
“It’s how to get people to think beyond the tornado of social media news we’re in,” Reed said. “You can still conclude that we should build a wall, but at least you have all this information and ways to think about it in more complex terms.”
Members of Borderland Collective – Reed, Duganne, Menjivar and artist Adriana Corral – will be at the U. of I. for a three-day residency Oct. 5-7. They’ll participate in a dinner workshop at La Casa Cultural Latina from 6 to 8 p.m. on Oct. 5. Corral will be part of a lunch discussion at La Casa on Oct. 6, and Reed, Duganne and Menjivar will give an artist talk at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 6 at Krannert Art Museum.
In addition to the Borderland Collective residency, a second artist residency Oct. 26-28 will host Jen Hofer and Gelare Khoshgozaran of Antena, a collaborative project that looks critically at language and how art and social justice work are linked. La Casa Cultural Latina will host a dinner conversation from 6 to 8 p.m. Oct. 26 with Hofer, a poet, and Khoshgozaran, an interdisciplinary artist and writer. Hofer will give a brown bag lunch workshop at noon Oct. 27 hosted by the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at Levis Faculty Center. Hofer and Khoshgozaran will give an artist talk at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 27 at Krannert Art Museum.