Tender R/age::Rabia Tierna
By Laurel Ahnert, Georgia State University
This past summer, the Atlanta community arts center WonderRoot hosted the pop-up exhibit Tender R/age::Rabia Tierna (Adela C. Licona, August 24-25, 2018). The exhibit derives its title from the so-called “tender age” facilities built for migrant children separated from their families at the border. The separation and imprisonment of children was a direct result of a series of Trump Administration policies implemented in the spring and summer months of 2018. A response to these events, the pop-up exhibit is “an interventionist art project that participates visually, textually, and sonically in the collective outcry against the forced separation of migrant and refugee children from their families at the US/Mexico border.”
Upon entering the small gallery space, the viewer must first pass through a narrow, darkened hallway. On the wall immediately next to the entrance are two definitions for “jail” and “cage” printed in large black lettering against a white background. With this opening, the exhibit sets itself up as a commentary on the United States’ generations-long project to police and imprison certain bodies while asserting the rights and freedoms of others. As the viewer enters the space, the abstract soundscape of muffled children’s voices and metallic bangs and screeches fills the room. These sounds fade, overtaken by birds or the chirps of loud summer insects before reemerging again, indecipherable and distant. Like a radio unable to find a clear station, the sound montage leaves the listener with no opportunities for clear recognition or interpretation.
The gallery space is populated by photographs of children posing with or without other family members. These appear alongside written reflections about families, childhood, and abandonment written in large font and hung on the walls. Combined, these elements form a disjointed collage of imagery and text throughout the space. The reflections, definitions, and quoted passages vary between first-person recollection and detached third-person commentary. Some of the passages contain snippets of wordplay, such as purposeful misspellings like “steal workers” and “steeling children,” which, in combination with the layered soundscape, emphasize miscommunication while also wedding together the history of migrant labor in the U.S. and the racist policies that have shaped it.
On the floor, portraits of smiling children stand upright in the middle of the room, yet the backs of the standees are entirely blank, stark white like the space on the floor where they are attached. In effect, the photographs transform into paper doll cutouts, and memories become playthings that embody the innocence of the times they represent. Yet upon closer inspection, these pop-up photographs are surrounded by dark black borders drawn on the floor. The innocence of childhood is visually contained. The white backdrop evokes the overexposure and hyper-surveillance facing the immigrant community emptied of their particularity when turned over and scrutinized.
Moving through the space, it becomes clear some of the written reflections refer directly to photographs within the space. The words and images appear in different places in the room, however, each effectively detached and displaced from their referents. One written statement on the wall begins, “this 1944 photo, which was taken of my family at Heart Mountain, an internment camp in Wyoming.” Across the room the viewer can find a black and white photograph that seems to match—a large Japanese family pose together in front of a cabin, smiling for the camera. Disciplined in how to pose for the camera, everyone in the photograph looks forward with the exception of one little boy in the front who bites his lip and looks downward. Below this image, there is a statement written by a Navajo woman who describes the U.S. policy to forcibly remove American Indian children from their families. She explains the children were robbed of their native languages and cultures in boarding schools. The statement speaks to lasting generational trauma caused by policies of separation that affect her family to this day.
Looking back up at the little boy in the Heart Mountain photograph, a disturbing resonance emerges. Children in the internment camps were also separated from their parents for extended periods of the day, forced to attend schools designed to assimilate of Japanese immigrants in an effort to neutralize their perceived threat to American society. The historical parallels between these earlier polices of child separation and the most recent one become apparent through the juxtaposition of disjointed images and text throughout the gallery space. Like the writers of these statements recalling childhood memories, the viewer must activate her own memory to make these connections across texts, countering historical erasure with collective memory.
As the artist Adela Licona makes explicit with her work, child separation has its roots in an American history of colonization, slavery, internment and mass incarceration. Indeed, the project was inspired by what Licona describes as “the ever-expanding Migration Industrial Complex.” After the child separation policy came to light to massive public outcry, the government policy shifted to interning entire families together. This latest policy will be funded using money robbed from FEMA, the organization that largely failed to give lifesaving assistance to American citizens in Puerto Rico. With this cascading series of decisions affecting documented and undocumented Latin Americans in the U.S., the administration’s devaluation of life is made clear.
In her talk, Licona explains she was “haunted” by the image of the child crying for her mother who was photographed after being detained and searched by border patrol agents. This child, Licona reminds the viewer, did not give her permission to be photographed. In response to this image, Licona crowd-sourced childhood photographs and “declarations” from friends and colleagues who shared her outrage. The artist made a concerted ethical stance, deciding not to exploit and reproduce the images that so often accompany news stories about human rights abuses. News media tend to frame these events in terms of victimhood and abject suffering, effectively promoting “compassion fatigue” among viewers who feel passive and helpless in the face of tragedy. Rather than using these highly recognizable and exhausting images of suffering, Tender R/age aims for an empathetic understanding of the events among participant-viewers of exhibit. Tender R/age compiles together a variety of experiences in an effort to effectuate, as Licona says, an “intersectional consciousness.” Inspired by the direct action of the gay and lesbian liberation movement—the artist herself identifies as a member of the queer community—she designed the work to build coalitions, raise awareness and enact change.
At the same time, the choice to use crowd-sourced images and testimonies is an act of substitution that displaces the individual stories of those directly affected by the Trump Administration’s policies. In this Tender R/age is not alone. There are numerous examples of artworks that depict migrants and refugees through these types of object-substitutions. For example, Tom Kiefer’s photographs capture objects confiscated from undocumented immigrants apprehended near the border. Jami Porter Lara’s Border Crossing similarly photographs abandoned objects, in this case the detritus and belongings left behind in the desert along the border in Arizona. Her work parallels the stacks of abandoned objects in the State of Exception Exhibit sponsored by the Undocumented Migration Project. Other examples include Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo’s Border Cantos, and the morbid gallery of objects captured by forensic photographers at the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office. Like these other artworks and galleries, Tender R/age uses objects—in this case childhood photographs of those connected with the artist—to stand in for the children and families separated at the border.
Based on this pattern of artworks, it seems we can only engage with these liminal subjects through the disconnected traces they leave behind. The artworks raise questions about how artists can document the undocumented in order to bear witness to their marginalization and oppression. In these artworks, substitute objects give presence to the absent bodies who otherwise remain underground, “in the shadows” or behind bars. Though they are fragmentary, the substitute testimonials and photographs in Tender R/age similarly serve as “documentary” evidence insofar as they index the traumatic history of child separation in the United States. Rather than material linkages, the Tender R/age images serve as affective markers that connect disparate histories and recurring patterns of trauma. Viewers are invited to engage reflexively—connecting images and text, personal and political, news narratives and individual testimony—as they survey the fragmented collage of the exhibit.
Tender R/age invites viewers to think critically about U.S. policies on immigration in the Trump era, while also connecting these polices to a longer history of separating children from families justified by racist laws that seemingly advocate for what is “best” for children. Tender R/age also invites viewers to contemplate how images of migrants and broader human rights considerations circulate in the news. It raises ethical questions about exploitation and substitution, refusing to give the viewer an easy answer.