1/14/2019 Peter Durantine

Phillips Museum of Art’s Exhibit Covers the Hostile Ground Immigrants Face

To research border migration between Mexico and Arizona, Jason De León, photographer Mike Wells, and a guide hiked the trails of the vast Sonoran Desert that immigrants follow to attempt illegal entry into the United States.

“Sweat beads up and rolls off my chin, leaving behind a trail of droplets on the ground as I walk,” De León, an anthropologist, writes in “The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail,” his acclaimed 2015 book. “It takes only a few second for these splashes to evaporate.

“My clothes, on the other hand, are soaking wet. I find myself periodically shivering and getting dizzy; my body is working hard to make sense of this inferno.”

De León, Wells and visual artist Lucy Cahill have collaborated on the exhibition, “Hostile Terrain,” that goeson display from Jan. 24 to March 8 in the Dana Gallery at the Phillips Museum of Art at Franklin & Marshall College. 

  • The abandoned belongings of desperate migrants, somewhere in the desert along the American southwest border. The abandoned belongings of desperate migrants, somewhere in the desert along the American southwest border. Image Credit: Michael Wells

Depicting the arduous journey, at once heroic and tragic, of the migrant, the exhibit features photographs, found objects, videos and installations from fieldwork along the migration trail, the exhibitsheds light on the violent process of clandestine border crossings. 

“A conservative estimate is that 5,596 people died while attempting to migrate between 1998 and 2012, and between 2000 and September 2014, the bodies of 2,771 people were found in southern Arizona,” De León wrote. “Enough corpses to fill the seats on 54 Greyhound buses.”

Designed by the three artists, the exhibit includes a large map that details the people who died on the trail, including more than 3,000 toe tags.

“The toe tags are the centerpiece of the exhibit,” De León said in an interview. “To me, it’s the most important part of the exhibit and the most powerful.” 

De León, who staged a similar exhibit at The New School in New York in 2017, is an anthropology professor at the University of Michigan and director of the Undocumented Migration Project.

“The Phillips Museum is committed to presenting work that underscores timely and important current events. We hope that ‘Hostile Terrain’ will give visitors pause to consider the heroic efforts, often unsuccessful, that migrants undertake to survive,” said Amy Moorefield, director of the museum. 

As U.S. policy and strategy, Prevention Through Deterrence forces migrants to journey the remote, unforgiving desert, where Border Patrol agents erase trail footprints to deter other migrants from following. De León says PTD contributes to the deaths in crossings.

“My argument is quite simple,” he writes in “Land of Open Graves.” “The terrible things that this mass of migrating people experience en route are neither random nor senseless, but rather part of a strategic federal plan that has rarely been illuminated and exposed for what it is: a killing machine that simultaneously uses and hides behind the viciousness of the Sonoran Desert.”

To coincide with the exhibit’s Jan. 24 opening,De León will talk and then take questions at F&M’s Common Hour about his research, “The Land of Open Graves: Understanding American Politics and U.S./Mexico Border Enforcement through the Lives and Deaths of Migrants.” A reception will immediately follow at the Phillips Museum.

The event starts at 11:30 a.m. in Mayser Gymnasium.

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