Gallery  July 24, 2023  Sarah Bochicchio

How These Artists Reimagine the Immigration Process

Credit: Courtesy of PS122 Gallery, NY. Photo: Argenis Apolinario

Installation view of Eligible/Illegible, an exhibition at PS122 Gallery in New York. 

At the center of the gallery, there was a portrait of a succulent potted in a recycled Café Bustelo tin. Hyper-realistic, fleshy, tear-drop-shaped leaves seemed to peel off from the background. Around this portrait were many more: an aloe plant, a split-leaf philodendron, more succulents. These were not the 18th century botanical prints  you might find framed and displayed in an antique shop. Each work was rendered on a brown mailing envelope, its corners lightly pleated from use, and the packing label—complete with barcode, address, and postmarks—still visible. 

These works comprise Dacaments (2016-2023), a series by Fidencio Fifield-Perez that transforms the envelopes that were used during his immigration process. The title references the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), an Obama-era immigration policy that protects eligible young adults who came to the U.S. as children from deportation.

Courtesy of PS122 Gallery, NY. Photo: Argenis Apolinario

Fidencio Fifield-Perez, Dacament #7 (2017) in Eligible / Illegible at PS122 Gallery.

Dacaments was the heart of Eligible/Illegible, a recent exhibition at PS122 Gallery in New York, that brought together artists working with and refashioning state-sponsored documents. Fifield-Perez imbued these seemingly banal objects with the intensity of personal experience suggesting a non-linear timeline of what the co-curators, artist Francisco Donoso and poet danilo machado, who are both DACA recipients, call an “unarticulated search for home.”

When someone applies to DACA, says Donoso, “you have to prove you have been in the US every day of every year. You don’t even realize you’re doing it, but we learn from our parents to collect every ounce of evidence that you exist.”

For Eligible/Illegible, Donoso and machado communicated how the immigration process creates a sense of illegibility from being forced to question your own eligibility. As Donoso explains, “These are artists who are somehow interacting with the paper trail left behind by that process.” What we end up with is a profound sense of the labor involved, how the most interior versions of oneself end up being shuffled around and repurposed, like a priority mail envelope. 

 “We’re both tired of being the face of the movement,” explains Donoso, who with machado conceived of Eligible/Illegible as part of an ongoing series that pushes beyond purely identity-based exhibitions.. “We want to support what people are actually doing, making, so as to uplift their work.” It is a sentiment that many marginalized communities have vocalized; in the exhibition, Donoso and machado carefully brought out the nuances of each individual artist. Their ongoing curatorial practice continues to focus on migrant, undocumented, and queer artists within larger intellectual and aesthetic frameworks.

Courtesy of PS122 Gallery, NY. Photo: Argenis Apolinario

Installation view of Eligible/Illegible at PS122 Gallery in New York.

Donoso’s own artistic practice revolves around the cyclone fence (i.e. the chain link fence). The cyclone fence is an anti-migration emblem, a symbol of restriction, but it is also the boundary-keeper of playgrounds. And in his hands, it is a transparent checkerboard, a magic carpet, and a portal to a world beyond. His works, which feel like being underwater and in outer space at the same time, express what he calls “undocumented futurity.” In Eligible/Illegible, Donoso and machado demonstrated the heaviness and labor of persuading others of your right to exist. Donoso’s push towards spaces that are free from the force of gravity feels all the more potent. 

Much of the work in Eligible/Illegible engaged with how the artists might redirect a gaze, seek protection, or rewrite themselves within the very structures that had rendered them illegible. Like Fifield-Perez, Rodrigo Moreira’s work comes from a place of hyper-engagement with documentation and the visual language of power. Moreira began working on The Department of No Strings Attached (NSA) when he was living in Brazil and applying for a US visa. To get the visa, Moreira explains, “There was a lot of unilateral information sharing at that point requested by the American government…I started imagining being in a relationship with an immigration officer who would know a lot about me but didn't give much in return. What type of relationship would that be?”

Courtesy of PS122 Gallery, NY. Photo: Argenis Apolinario

Installation view of Eligible/Illegible, an exhibition at PS122 Gallery in New York. 

In Office Memos, a series of silk-screened documents, Moreira elaborates on NSA through a process that mimics and challenges visa procedures. He looked for other queer immigrants online and interviewed them as a way to learn about their experiences and to make sense of his own. He explains, “I would play the role of the NSA/immigration office this time and request an interview about their relationship with the U.S., American culture, everyday interactions, bureaucracy, and plans for the future.” 

Moreira’s “official” documents register all the visual cues of government papers; muted blues, greens, and grays layered over images of, say, the Statue of Liberty. The redacted conversations—which make up the majority of the documents—offer an enticing glimpse into a person and an identity you cannot quite make out, a reproduction of another self that has been hidden from view. 

Courtesy of PS122 Gallery, NY. Photo: Argenis Apolinario

Installation view of Eligible/Illegible at PS122 Gallery in New York featuring Jonathan Molina Garcia's Hyperpassport/Superpasaporte. 

Nearby, Jonathan Molina Garcia’s work explored government processes by way of speculative fiction and, like Moreira, they appropriate the rigid bureaucratic aesthetic. The Hyperpassport/ Superpasaporte is a one-page passport that Molina Garcia designed to protect El Salvadoran citizens, complete with originally-designed anti-theft patterns.

“I think the only way to exist and survive in America is as a pirate,” Molina Garcia said. “I’ve always felt like I've had to wear multiple layers of disguises in America, and now in my adulthood, my interest in counterfeits is perhaps attached to these memories of clandestine travel.” The Hyperpassport / Superpasaporte abstracts “the surveillant gaze,” allowing its user to carve out a new space that can accommodate, rather than suppress, their different identities.

The last artist in the exhibition, Nancy Rivera, presented an ongoing series that recreates her family’s passport and green card ID photos in needlework. Rivera was inspired by watching her grandmother embroider servilletas de tortillas (tortilla warmers), yet another deeply time-consuming process. The actual portraits capture a lineage of family dynamics, of each person sitting one by one, tied up in personal and lateral histories. Her work also highlights the emotionless, context-less photos that serve as the basis of the government’s archives. “I ask the source material to code-switch from its original context to works of art that explore a diasporic identity.”

Photo: Argenis Apolinario. Courtesy of PS122 Gallery, NY.

Installation view of Eligible/Illegible at PS122 Gallery in New York.

Rivera’s portraits are only six inches long, representing the intimate scale in which most of the artists in the show worked. Some of the works could be held in one’s hand, sit on a family’s mantlepiece, or hang above a desk. In their scale, the works by Rivera, Molina Garcia, Moreira, and Fifield-Perez all refuse an abstracted scan; they are meant to be looked at one by one, with sensitivity to their great depth and humanity. Yet with so much redacted information, the viewer actually cannot access all of the artworks’ context. “They’re building a beautiful refusal,” says Donoso. Legibility, here, is not the priority.

The various artists’ practices challenge the surveillant gaze by staring back at the structures that consistently demand they explain themselves. What comes out very clearly is that the language of power is not always vibrant or overwhelming. Its color palette is bureaucratic, innocuous, bloodless, and muted. It is meant to bore and, inherently, to flatten out the people who engage with it. These artists subvert the visual language of power not just by co-opting it, but by infusing it with real meaning, aesthetic interest, and their ever-changing selves. 

“Utopia and hope aren’t a far-off land or a fool’s errand of idealism and romanticism,” says Garcia. “We are, in ourselves and together in the communities that we belong to, pockets of real, actualized hope.”

About the Author

Sarah Bochicchio

Sarah Bochicchio is a New York-based writer and researcher. She focuses on history, fashion, art, and gender—and where all of those things intersect.

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