Things That Matter

Migrant Portraits Won A Prestigious Smithsonian Art Award And The Artist Is The First Latino To Win

How do you illustrate the emotion of the U.S. immigration story without using any words? Artist Hugo Crosthwaite won the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition Friday, for accomplishing exactly that. Crosthwaite is the First Latino to win the competition, held every three years since 2006 by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

Born in Tijuana, Crosthwaite grew up familiar with the starting point of the Mexico to U.S. immigration story. Today, he lives in San Diego, California, where he was able to interview Latinos living on the other side. The work that won him a $25,000 grant, is just one part of a series of interviews. 

Meet Berenice Sarmiento Chávez.

Credit: National Portrait Gallery / YouTube

“Set to the soundtrack of a dissonant guitar and a raspy voice singing in Spanish,” The National Portrait Gallery describes the video on YouTube. “This animated video reveals the dreams and experiences of a young woman from Tijuana who seeks to take part in the American Dream. Black ink, gray wash, and white paint—applied by the invisible hand of the artist— take turns to expose Berenice Sarmiento Chávez’s humble background and the threat of violence in her home country that pushed her to immigrate to the United States. The film suggests that the immigration journey is seeded with constant danger, especially for women and children.”

While the video editing work conveys a story, Crosthwaite’s drawings are improvisational.

Credit: National Portrait Gallery / YouTube

We first meet Chávez in her Mexican home. Then, a calavera is drawn into the backdrop, seeming to either place an idea onto Chávez or minimize her story to that of a cartoon. The American Dream, as depicted by a Micky Mouse lookalike, seems to be a familiar character to this angel of death.

Crosthwaite captured at least 1,400 images to create the video.

Credit: National Portrait Gallery / YouTube

Crosthwaite told CNN that Chávez honored her story as she told it, with embellishments and all. “We are defined by the stories that we tell ourselves, either real or imagined, to deal with difficult situations in our lives,” he told CNN. “Rather than playing the role of journalist where I recount a factual event, I have left the video open to interpretation just as Berenice left me with her vague and unsettling story.”

One by one, the women and children that migrated alongside her died.

Credit: National Portrait Gallery / YouTube

Chávez continues on, with her head down, carrying just a couple bags. Soon, the black cloaks of her lost friends overwhelm the image. Surrounded in a deep shadow of presumable grief, her delicately drawn face is covered in the thick swipe of deep black paint in a single moment.

The next scene shows Chávez trying to make her life in the U.S., surrounded by unseen wealth.

Credit: National Portrait Gallery / YouTube

Soon, these men, too, are cloaked in dark black paint. Then, their faces are embellished with the symbol of U.S. currency: a white dollar sign. This time, the rest of the portrait is overwhelmed by white paint. Instead of being overshadowed by the black paint that marked the death of her fellow migrant Latinos, Chávez’s face is covered by a stark white paint. She’s in America now.

Then, we finally see an intimate look at her face, only to watch a gun be painted inside her world.

Credit: National Portrait Gallery / YouTube

In an instant, the gun fires, and she’s once again overtaken by a stark white paint, that erases the detail of her person. It’s almost as if the gun has a similar perspective to the grim reaper. The details of her life, or why she is fleeing everything she’s known, are no matter. To the grim reaper, to the gun, to ICE, she is a caricature of what ‘migrant’ means.

Finally, we see a small child, living under a dome of black paint.

Credit: National Portrait Gallery / YouTube

Is it Chávez as a child? Is it her own child, who seems to be dressed in American fashion, left behind, alone? There are no words to this story. Our guess is as good as yours.

The last jolt of emotion is felt in the credits.

Credit: National Portrait Gallery / YouTube

After watching Chávez’s migration story – its hope, its deaths, and the resultant family separation – the video tells us this simple fact. The cheerful audio and traditional Mexican music we hear may be the beginning of someone else’s story. The cycle continues. Hope that is lost to U.S. immigration policies that result in migrants being deported without their children.

READ: David Zambrano of “DezCustomz” Talks to Us About Family, Art, And When He Finally Thought He’d “Made It”

A Duct-Taped Banana Sold For $120,000 At Miami Art Basel Then Somebody Ate It

Things That Matter

A Duct-Taped Banana Sold For $120,000 At Miami Art Basel Then Somebody Ate It

Cindy Ord / Getty

You read that correctly: a banana duct-taped to a wall sold for $120,000 to a French art collector at Art Basel in Miami Beach and then a man walked right up to it and ate it. Now, we don’t have a $15 minimum wage and the United States’ poorest people paid more in taxes than its billionaires last year, but no need to worry everything is fine. 

The artwork was entitled “Comedian” by Italian artist Maurizo Cattelan. Cattelan is also responsible for creating an 18-karat gold toilet called “America” that was shown in the Guggenheim’s public restroom in 2016. 

Rest assured, this work of art is not about the banana, it’s about the concept — something you don’t need a material object to understand so why buy it, but OK. 

An artist eats the banana and turns the piece into performance art.

Performance artist David Datuna took the duct-taped banana off the wall and ate it on camera. He called the piece “Hungry Artist.” I don’t know which person we should resent more in this scenario, the person who sold the banana, the person who ate the banana, or the person who bought it? Probably, the person who bought it. 

“It’s not about the piece. It’s an art performance. Maurizio Cattelan, I love him. One artist eats another artist. It’s fun,” Datuna said.

It’s always great when rich people can remind us that everything we need like water and agriculture already belongs to us and is being sold back to us at completely arbitrary prices and there’s nothing we can do about it (just kidding vote for a Democrat, that’s something you can do).  

The gallery truly did not care that someone ate his banana. 

Lucien Terras told the New York Post the artwork was still intact because the Certificate of Authenticity that came with the work of art said owners may replace the banana as needed. Not only do you have to $120,000 for this banana, but you also have to keep replacing it for the rest of your life. 

“He did not destroy the artwork. The banana is the idea,” Terras said. “This has brought a lot of tension and attention to the booth and we’re not into spectacles. But the response has been great. It brings a smile to a lot of people’s faces.”

I am not smiling. 

The piece is from Emmanuel Perrotin’s outer gallery wall art at Art Basel and Perrotin was not pleased that his perishable item immediately perished in someone’s belly. According to the New York Post, when he heard the banana had been eaten Perrotin, who was on his way to the airport turned back in fury. An attendee gave him a banana to cheer him up. These are adults. 

People can’t stop talking about how dumb this whole banana thing which just keeps increasing its power. The banana is our king. 

“That banana has been more photographed than the Mona Lisa,” Terras told the Miami Herald in jest.

There were so many people clamoring to take a photo of an ugly banana with duct tape on at Art Basel that police had to come in to do crowd control. 

“This has been interesting,” said Miami Beach police Capt. Steven Feldman. “The gallery is OK with people taking pictures of the banana. It is a delicate balancing act. We just want to make sure the area is secure.”

According to the Miami Herald for $120,000, Cattelan can buy 631,579 bananas at Trader Joe’s. That’s exactly what I would do if I had that money. I’d just buy more bananas, bring them to Art Basel, sell ’em for $120,000 each, boom – it’s called flipping the package, fam. 

On a more serious note, some folks believe the banana does the entire art community a disservice, while other experts wondered if it was a money-laundering scheme (which is not uncommon in the art world according to the New York Times). 

I think we can all agree that whether the art industry is a joke or not is irrelevant to the fact that the joke is always on poor people. 

Border Patrol Agents Threw Away Meaningful Items Belonging To Migrants, Now There’s An Art Show Displaying Dozens Of Items

Things That Matter

Border Patrol Agents Threw Away Meaningful Items Belonging To Migrants, Now There’s An Art Show Displaying Dozens Of Items

Tomkiefer.photographe / Instagram

Photographer Tom Kiefer worked as a custodian at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Southern Arizona from 2003 to 2014. When migrants and asylum seekers crossed the Southern border officials would throw away their belongings, medications, and nonessentials during processing. Kiefer collected all of those belongs, arranged them systematically, and photographed them.

The photos will be displayed in the exhibition “El Sueño Americano / The American Dream: Photographs by Tom Kiefer” at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. 

The result is eye-catching and colorful art that, upon closer inspection, reveals the rich inner lives of migrants. Kiefer’s photographs of the CDs they were listening to, the medications they were on, and even diary entries provide insight into the almost ordinariness of migrants. These were just people carrying things that meant something to them the way anyone else going somewhere would. Then the U.S. government deemed those personal and sentimental items trash. 

What Kiefer provides is a rarely seen snapshot of what migrants cared about when they came to the United States looking for a better shot. 

Kiefer was documenting American history through his lens and labor. 

“It was my way of documenting a piece of our nation’s history,” Kiefer told the Washington Post

In one of his haunting photos, there are 32 CDs lined up. Some CDs are from artists like Trapt but others are mixed CDs with intimate labels like “Brown Pride” or “Super Sappy Songs for Issa 2.” The image reminds the viewer that these migrants were real people — and we don’t know who any of them are and because of the United States’ ever-changing immigration policies, we don’t know if they’re even OK. 

Kiefer began to find the belongings when he asked if he could donate the canned goods that Border Patrol authorities seized to food pantries. He went through the trash bins to look for the nonperishables, but what he found instead was a wealth of humanity. 

“The Bibles, the rosaries, the family photographs. I was shocked,” he said. “And I didn’t know what to do, because it was obviously being condoned.”

Kiefer knew he would get into trouble if he took other items so everything he gathered was by intuition. Altogether in his years working there he collected 100,000 items. 

“I had to do it all very quick, discreet,” he said. “It was just rapid-fire, split-second decisions about what I could keep and what had to go in the trash, stay in the trash.”

Throwing away migrants’ possessions is particularly cruel, Kiefer feels.

 “[It] underscores the cruelty of the tentative punishment that the government feels the need to levy against these people. It’s clear the majority of which are decent, contributing and who want nothing more than a better life for themselves or for their family,” he told the Los Angeles TimesWhen Kiefer first began going through the trash looking for cans, he found mostly toothbrushes. However, when things appeared to be more personal like religious items and diaries, he felt compelled to save them because, he says, “no one would believe me if I had not collected these items.” He purposefully used colorful backgrounds to humanize the items. He didn’t want a cold, white background that would make things look sterile, more like products than personal items. 
“[The photos are] like a knife to the gut, and that’s precisely something that I think gives this work its power — that it draws you in with its beauty and then it has this really profoundly sad backstory,” Laura Mart, Skirball curator, told the Los Angeles Times.

He hopes the legacy of his exhibition is empathy above all else. 

“Dora the Explorer. A personal belonging carried by a migrant or someone seeking asylum. When apprehended by USCBP while crossing the desert most personal belongings considered non-essential or potentially lethal are confiscated and discarded,” Kiefer wrote in a caption of a children’s Dora the Explorer purse. 

Things like children’s toys, backpacks, and clothing items are enough to infuriate and sadden just about anybody.

“Whether it’s an individual object, shoelaces, I present them in a way that I hope the viewer can not just identify, but just kind of be empathetic, or put themselves in the person or persons’ shoes: ‘Wow, a person carried that.’ ‘That’s the same cologne I use, the same toothbrush or toothpaste,” Kiefer said. 

While he was a custodian during the Obama administration, Kiefer says he didn’t witness the abuses of powers reported under the current president. Kiefer personally condemns the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants and hopes his exhibition will change some peoples’ stances. 

“Is this the nation we want to be?” He said. “The way things are now is not sustainable.”