From the news reports about family separation at the border to the rising anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe, few issues in contemporary society have been more present, highly contested and emotionally charged than immigration. It is fitting, then, that the winner of the 2018 Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize has tackled the topic head-on.
In a gripping multimedia installation called Esta Tierra Es Tu Tierra (This Land is Your Land), artist Erick Antonio Benitez places viewers in the landscape of the U.S./Mexico border. Items collected from his two trips along the entirety of the border (first in winter 2015, then summer 2016) are scattered across sand, dirt and stones, evoking the scene with visceral potency; audio-visual elements and carefully curated arrangements demand empathy.
“I think it is important to respond to the time you are living in, whether that is on a personal level or from a more global or universal outlook,” Benitez says. “As an artist, I am interested in nature and landscape. The view and environment we are in becomes political without us even realizing it. When you step back, you can see that there is this repeated cycle in the way we interact with the landscape and make it very complex.”
Though this particular landscape resonates with him, it is not the root of his own family’s immigrant experience. Benitez is a first-generation American, but his family migrated from El Salvador.
“My mother [was] a refugee in the ’80s,” he says. “At that time, there was an 11-year-long civil war going on in El Salvador… It was a very militant government and the revolution made it really hard for people in the middle. There were murder squads. A lot of innocent people died.”
Through the installation, Benitez was able to draw connections between his own familial history and the larger history of immigration, in the U.S. and elsewhere (as well as throughout history — he spoke of the many man-made borders that have caused cultural tension in the past, such as the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall and the Israel/Palestine divide).
“I am understanding all these connections…these things that were going on in the ’80s are all coming back now and here people are experiencing the aftershock,” he says. “The central idea is to put people in the shoes of others. When I went down there and was in the landscape and experiencing the climate, I learned so many things. It doesn’t hit you as much until you are actually there. This work is very challenging, you know, it is affecting so many peoples’ lives and so I have to be careful with the way I approach it. It’s heavy. And it is also continuous.”
Rarely, he says, do we have the capacity to truly digest the continuous bombardment of horrific events we are hearing. He hopes that the installation will serve as a space to reflect and reveal the truths of immigration at the U.S. border and beyond.
In the future, Benitez hopes to continue to expand and grow Esta Tierra Es Tu Tierra, as well as to bring it to museums, galleries, educations centers and universities so that more and more people can see and experience it.
“It is still in the beginning stages as far as the visual aesthetic,” he say. “I ideally want it to grow more, and add to the land material. I want to do more research and probably bring more people with me when I go [to the border] again. I want to dive in more…so much has happened. When I was there before, that was the time that Trump was trying to get into office, so obviously things have drastically changed since then. I don’t think it will ever be finished.”
Esta Tierra Es Tu Tierra will be on display along with the other award finalists at the Baltimore Museum of Art until August 5th.