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Search “U.S.-Mexico border” on Google and the image results are what you might expect: Photos of the border landscape, split right in half by a wall, embodying the rhetoric of “us and them.” Such generalizations of the area that connects Mexico and the U.S. are what three photographers aim to dismantle in La Frontera de Cristal, a new exhibition opening on October 11 at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center.
The artists—Tom Kiefer, Elliot Ross, and Griselda San Martin—approached the subject of the border for different reasons, but their work lays bare the realities of both migrants and near-border residents, whose stories have been veiled by the wall. The show’s title, La Frontera de Cristal, or The Crystal Frontier, is also the name of Carlos Fuentes’ 1995 novel, which explores U.S.-Mexico relationships in nine stories. Like Fuentes’ book, the CPAC exhibit zooms in on individual experiences, and in doing so, paints a larger picture of what the border really means for Americans.
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Elliot Ross’s American Backyard shows long expanses of the country’s Southern border, as well as the actual yards of locals. Many of his photos are stunning—the lands along the border wall are made up of washed-out pale pinks and greens and appear soft to the touch. Ross says that showing the beauty of the ecosystems and communities abutting the border not only help the viewer connect to the subject, but also emphasize the wall’s ugliness, as it disrupts undulating hills and rocky deserts.
Ross set out on a five-month trek with his now-fiancée, journalist Genevieve Allison, to uncover whether border narratives from both sides of the aisle were authentic. What he and Allison repeatedly encountered were that residents of the area were more concerned with health care and education rather than immigration.
Tom Kiefer, a transplant from Kansas to the small town of Ajo, Arizona, uses the power of numbers to evoke a visceral reaction from his art. Kiefer was four years into a 14-year stint as a part-time janitor in an Arizona customs and border patrol facility when he says he couldn’t take any more of watching quality canned food end up in the dumpster. Kiefer was granted permission to collect the nonperishables, and ended up discovering more than he could have imagined—wallets, belts, shoelaces, pocket knives, hairbrushes, makeup kits, sunglasses, and personal bibles riddled the trash piles. These were the confiscated belongings of migrants and asylum-seekers, items which Kiefer says are “unconscionable to take away” from anyone.
For more than 10 years, Kiefer has been adding to his series, El Sueño Americano. He often arranges familiar items into rows or stacks to emphasize abundance. “I’m photographing items that were cruelly and unlawfully taken away from people to make them less human,” Keifer says. He hopes that by sharing what he has found, he can give some of that humanity back.
The work of photojournalist Griselda San Martin is perhaps the most literal in its portrayal of the border as a meeting point. The Wall, part of her larger exploration of “borderlands,” shows friends and family separated by the border coming together at the wall. The Other Side, the series’ complementary documentary, which has been featured at film festivals across Europe, Asia, and North and South America, hones in on a musician named Jose Marquez, who has been separated from his daughter for a decade and a half. Like many of the families in San Martin’s photos, Marquez and his daughter and grandson meet once a month at the wall.
In this way, San Martin illustrates the contradictions of the border—how in separating people, the wall becomes the very place where separated families must meet. Ross and Kiefer’s work does the same. Ross illuminates the communities and natural landscapes that are ignored by government policies, even when officials claim the opposite, and Kiefer presents “precious belongings” with devastating backstories.
Like a crystal, this exhibit refracts what we believe to be true about our Southern Border, and in doing so, hopes to shape new perceptions of the wall and our relationships with our southern neighbors.
If you go: La Frontera de Cristal (The Crystal Frontier) opens Friday, October 11, at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, 1070 Bannock St. An opening reception will be held that evening from 6–9 p.m. and is free and open to the public.