Every artwork in the Raices Taller 222 exhibition How Brown Am I? comes with a cautionary label: "Warning, This Artist May Be Illegal."
Illegal or not, the artists have channeled their fury over SB 1070—the anti-immigrant bill—into a wild array of artworks, from over-the-top installations inspired by Mexican shrines for the dead to more conventional paintings and prints. The 60-some pieces teem with Day of the Dead skeletons and the corpses of the desert's migrant dead; the 54 artists howl their rage at the hatred directed toward America's immigrant workers and at America's betrayal of its own ideals.
Glory Tacheenie-Campoy, for instance, puts Miss Liberty behind bars in "Justice," a mixed media in colored pencil, ink, watercolor and collage. Liberty is still holding the familiar torch that welcomed generations of immigrants, the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free," but she's been detained, locked up in the county jail. Evidently, she doesn't have the proper papers.
Pancho Medina goes even further in his furious untitled mixed-media installation. His skeleton, painted the red, white and green of the Mexican flag, has been stabbed through the heart by a knife colored red, white and blue.
Ceci Garcia of Raices says the Latino co-op gallery put out a call for art once Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070. Set to go into effect at the end of this month, the law will allow police who have stopped a person to ask for ID papers if the officer has a "reasonable suspicion" the person is in the U.S. illegally.
"I've never seen it this bad, ever," Garcia says of the wave of anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican hysteria sweeping the state and the nation. "We thought, 'We have got to do this show.'"
The exhibition title comes from a piece by Alfred Quiroz, Tucson's resident political artist. Quiroz specializes in outrageous large-scale paintings that uncover the seamy underside of history, but the work here is personal. His "How Brown Am I?" is a Warhol-esque trio of self-portraits in neon-colored silkscreen.
Quiroz is Tucson-born, a Vietnam War veteran, a University of Arizona art professor, a brown-skinned Mexican American—and a victim of racial profiling. One time, Quiroz was doing an arts residency in an Arizona border town and casually crossed over to Mexico for lunch. When he tried to return, he was detained for hours by customs officers who doubted his claims of U.S. citizenship.
In "How Brown Am I?" Quiroz readily answers the question: too brown. He paints his hair coal-black and his skin an incriminating deep, deep brown.
Cynthia Moreno of Phoenix also takes a look at skin tones. Her acrylic on canvas, "Shades of Brown," offers color swatches that might come in handy for investigating officers like those in the Quiroz case. Any one of her shades could trigger 1070's legally required suspicion (though a revised version of the law forbids police to use race or ethnicity as a criterion). The lightest skin tone, café con leche (coffee with milk), gives way to azucar (brown sugar), then canela (cinnamon), la morenita (dark brown) and finally, the worst of all, "Joe Arpaio's dirty brown," the color of cynical politicking and rabble-rousing.
"Papers?" by Emily Stern Düwel, a Rancho Linda Vista artist, envisions a scary nighttime stop on the dark road to Oracle. Mountains hug the horizon, and the road curves vertically down the paper in big charcoal strokes. Roadside, barely visible in the inky night, two cars are parked. A lone figure—the officer?—stands outside of the vehicles in this lonely place. The vibe is dangerous: Anything could happen; anything could go wrong.
A paletas salesman is the target of another police stop in "Got Papers," an acrylic on canvas by Roberto Martinez of Phoenix. Three white cops tower over the hapless man, caught red-handed with his suspicious handcart of Mexican ice treats. One officer has his hand out, demanding the man's identity papers. A citizen stands on his front porch in the background, bearing witness, a look of disbelief on his face as he watches officers of the law fritter away their shift chasing down an ice-cream guy.
Francisco Bañuelos' rather sweet "Somos America," naively painted in acrylic on canvas, lionizes the Mexican workers who contribute to the American economy. The faces of a construction worker, a farm worker, a fast-food worker and a female worker whose trade is undefined float across the sky, an American flag waving behind them.
Beyond them, two Mexicans bend over in backbreaking toil in the fields, picking the food that feeds America. The steel bars of a building under construction pay homage to the Mexican laborers who construct our buildings. And a billboard praising "folklore and tradición" pictures a guitar and violin, drawing gentle attention to the Mexican culture that has enlivened life in these United States, particularly here in the borderlands.
Under current immigration policy, these workers must risk their lives on their way to pick Americans' lettuce or put new roofs on their houses or play mariachi music in their restaurants. Thousands of workers have died in the attempt to get here. The latest numbers for fiscal 2010 came out over the weekend from Derechos Humanos: 153 border crossers perished in Southern Arizona between Oct. 1 and June 30, including a migrant mother, Maria Reyes Ramirez, and her unborn child, on June 3. The new death toll is way ahead of last year's figure of 124 for those same nine months.
SB 1070 does nothing to address the deaths—as Stephen Colbert has noted, its sole intent is to harass Latinos—and quite a few of the artists confront this failure by drawing attention to the annual harvest of migrant corpses. Martin Quintanilla, who just closed a solo show at Contreras Gallery, painted migrants struggling over the border wall in "Hispanic Panic," a large-scale oil on canvas. It's unclear whether they're coming into the U.S. or fleeing back home, but skulls of the lost litter the ground.
Similarly, a little watercolor by Randall Hobbs, "Death at the Border," pictures the desert as a graveyard. Beyond, the Nogales hills roll across the horizon in a muted yellow and pink, and a gray border wall climbs up their ridges and down into the gullies. A few saguaros here and there signal that this is Arizona—and so do the bones. Front and center is a pile of bodies, their open mouths signaling the wretchedness of their deaths by heat stroke or exposure.
Michael Hyatt pulled out a grim photo from 2005 for the show. "Funeral for Migrant Mother Lucrecia Dominguez Luna" is a black-and-white image of Tucson activists wheeling Dominguez's coffin toward a hearse. Lucrecia was a 35-year-old Mexican mother of two who died in the Altar Valley, in the shadow of Baboquivari.
Her body lay in the desert for weeks until her father found her, with the help of No More Deaths. Her flesh had weathered to bones, and he recognized her only by the rings on what was left of her hands.