Arizona Artists Taking on Immigration: Postcommodity, Julio Cesar Morales, Rachel Bowditch | Phoenix New Times

Meet 10 Arizona Artists Who Put Immigration Front and Center

“Art does best when it creates important and necessary dialogue.”
L to R: Postcommodity artists Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist.
L to R: Postcommodity artists Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist. Courtesy of Postcommodity
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As national discourse rages about building walls, banning particular groups of people, and rolling back human rights, artists in Arizona are fostering conversations about immigration in some pretty creative ways.

Rachel Bowditch, a multidisciplinary artist based at Arizona State University, created The Conference of the Birds. It's a work of poetry, movement, and digital art meant to convey the beauty and rich diversity of immigrant cultures. Margarita Cabrera gathered immigrants and others for a shared arts experience that gave them a chance to talk about their diverse backgrounds, using art and conversation as a means of fostering mutual respect and understanding.

“Art can be a reflection of who we are, and must be a tool for transformation and change,” Cabrera says. “Art does best when it creates important and necessary dialogue.”

While debates continue across America and beyond, several Arizona artists are using their art practice to promote dialogue and diversity. Here are 10 of the many artists whose work is making a difference in our community.

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Scene from Rachel Bowditch's The Conference of the Birds.
Tim Trumble
Rachel Bowditch
An associate professor at the School of Film, Dance, and Theatre at Arizona State University, Bowditch recently completed a two-year project called The Conference of the Birds, working with a team of 10 artists to reinterpret a 12th-century Persian poem. For Bowditch, whose work includes portrayals of Syrian refugees fleeing their homeland, the immersive performance is a counterpoint to negative portrayals of Middle Eastern cultures. The Conference of the Birds is being performed through Saturday, February 25, at downtown Phoenix's Unexpected Art Gallery.

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Part of a photographic series by Taylor James exploring borders and immigration.
Taylor James
Taylor James
A photographer and MFA student at ASU, James has spent the last year and a half visiting sites where people have died while crossing the border from Mexico into the United States. When he arrives at each site, James photographs the specific place where the person died, the surrounding landscape, and artifacts he finds there. Sometimes, he discovers and photographs human remains. In doing so, he calls attention to the plight of immigrants seeking a new life — and the consequences of creating walls to separate people and cultures.

Casandra Hernández Faham, curator for ASU Art Museum's CALA Alliance.
Pablo Robles
Casandra Hernández Faham
Faham hails from Hermosillo in the Mexican state of Sonora, and recalls how people routinely traveled between Mexico and the United States. After moving to America, Faham was shocked to discover that few people she met had ever been to Mexico. Today, she's the curator of ASU Art Museum's CALA Initiatives, where she works on projects that help make cross-border connections. This year, CALA Alliance will partner with a Guadalajara-based organization to host artist-in-residence exchanges. By highlighting cultural exchange, Faham reminds people that immigration is crucial to sharing ideas.

Douglas Miles, whose work reminds viewers that most Americans have immigrant roots.
Courtesy of Douglas Miles
Douglas Miles
Through painting, printmaking, and photography, Miles creates powerful images of Native Americans in historical and contemporary context. The Apache artist's work is currently featured in the "Western POP: Facts and Fiction of the American West" exhibition that continues through May 6 at the Gallery at Tempe Center for the Arts. Without directly addressing immigration-related issues, Miles' work reminds people that many Americans have immigrant roots. In doing so, he challenges viewers to consider their own immigrant identity while respecting the heritage of those from diverse cultures.

Recent Annie Lopez exhibition that included work referencing her family's immigrant roots.
Lynn Trimble
Annie Lopez
Artist Lopez has been active in the Phoenix art scene since 1982, when she helped to start a collective called Movimento Artistico del Rio Salado (MARS) for Chicano artists. It’s since disbanded, but Lopez is one of many MARS artists continuing to address immigration-related issues. For Lopez, it takes the form of dresses created using cyanotype photographs on tamale paper. Often, Lopez's cyanotype images reference her family’s own immigrant history, or social justice issues surrounding immigration. Recently, her work was featured in “Annie Lopez: True Blue” presented by R. Pela Contemporary at Walter Art Gallery.

Read on for more artists addressing immigration issues through their work.

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Neon art by Julio César Morales recently featured in "This Machine Kills ________."
Lynn Trimble
Julio César Morales
As curator for the ASU Art Museum, Morales often presents works exploring immigration and border-related issues. But he’s also an artist specializing in “social-based abstracted artwork that uses whatever medium necessary." In recent months, his watercolor paintings of people being smuggled across the Mexico/United States border have been shown at Palabra in downtown Phoenix, and his neon work featuring the word “Invaders” was featured in the "This Machine Kills ________" exhibition at Fine Art Complex 1101.

The Repellent Fence installation reminded viewers of the long history of immigration in the Americas.
Courtesy of Postcommodity
This artist collective, with members based in Arizona and New Mexico, created a temporary cross-border land art installation called Repellent Fence in October 2015. The installation, created using large-scale balloons, prompted reflection on why so many people attempt to create artificial barriers between cultures and landscapes. Postcommodity artists Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist will be showing another work during the prestigious Whitney Biennial that opens March 17 in New York City. Through the Repellent Fence: A Land Art Film follows the artists at work along the U.S./Mexico border. The film's first Arizona screening is on Saturday, April 22, at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.

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Artwork featured in the recent "Margarita Cabrera: Space In Between" exhibition at the Desert Botanical Garden.
Mike Lundgren
Margarita Cabrera
During a September 2015 artist residency at ASU Art Museum’s Combine Studios, Margarita Cabrera worked with community members to create soft sculptures with an immigration-related twist. About 30 people, including many immigrants, worked with Cabrera to create saguaro cactus sculptures made of Border Patrol agent uniforms. Every cactus was also decorated with words or images taken from stories of actual immigrant experiences. ASU Art Museum collaborated with Desert Botanical Garden, which showed the works in a recent exhibition called “Margarita Cabrera: Space In Between.” Cabrera recently joined the faculty at ASU School of Art, and her work is part of the ASU Art Museum collection.

Mata Ruda's paintings capture the humanity and inherent worth of immigrants.
Lynn Trimble
Mata Ruda
Artist Karlito Miller Espinosa, a.k.a. Mata Ruda, moved from New Jersey to Arizona in 2015. He frequently paints portraits of immigrants. During July 2015, he painted part of a collaborative immigration-themed mural on Grand Avenue. It depicts a mother holding a photograph of her daughter who died while attempting to cross the U.S./Mexico border. His many portraits of immigrants remind viewers that anti-immigrant rhetoric effects real people.

Mary Stephens, producing director for ASU's Performance in the Borderlands.
Courtesy of Mary Stephens
Mary Stephens
As producing director for ASU's Performance in the Borderlands initiative, Stephens pulls together diverse artists whose work explores life in borderland regions, where immigration has long been a part of everyday life. Each season, Performance in the Borderlands presents performances, workshops, lectures, and community engagement projects that inspire greater appreciation for different cultures, histories, and artistic traditions.
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