'El Sueño Americano' runs through November 5 in the Warehouse Arts District by Cathy Salustri.
SWEET DREAMS: Tom Kiefer’s 'El Sueño Americano' — translated, The American Dream — paints a darker dream.
If you see one art show this year — or in your life — you need to see Tom Kiefer’s El Sueño Americano at the ArtsXchange.
America’s immigration narrative, shaped by years of Americans telling themselves the story of their existence, revolves around the pursuit of the American Dream. Historian James Truslow Adams defined this American trope as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.” Before the United States enacted its first immigration law — the 1870 Page act — most Americans arrived as immigrants. As generations drifted further and further away from their homeland, ideas — and laws — about immigration changed.
Let’s gently wade backward, before the past two years of presidential narratives about walls, rapists and criminals; El Sueño Americano predates the narrative, and it predates President Barack Obama, too: In the summer of 2003, Kiefer began working part-time as a janitor at U.S. Customs and Border Patrol in Ajo, Arizona. That’s when he began collecting the images on exhibit at The ArtsXchange.
Each image — more than 60 small images and a handful of larger ones — are of things carried by immigrants. The owners of these items packed sparsely in preparation for their odyssey. They would have to; according to the US Customs and Border Patrol website, “to effect an illegal entry within the Ajo area of responsibility, illegal aliens are often committing to several days in the remote desert, with little to offer in relief... Rough, rocky terrain, flat desert covered in cactus and brush, and numerous mountainous regions are predominant in the area and make travel, even in accessible areas, difficult.”
The area under this office’s control encompasses 7,000 square miles.
The predominant consideration, then, is to ensure you and your family have enough water. But smaller things get carried, too — rosaries, a small portrait, perhaps, of family left behind. Birth control pills get packed, as do one or two small — quite small — toys for a child.
What would you take if you were leaving everything to pursue such a dream?
In 2012, Customs and Border Patrol agents arrested more than 364,000 people attempting to enter America illegally, which is a misdemeanor for first-time offenders. Immigrants not immediately deported stay in detention centers, where agents relieve them of any of their belongings considered “nonessential.”
In theory, immigrants will get reunited with these belongings when they’re released or deported. In reality, while working at Ajo, Kiefer found many of these items in the garbage, seized and discarded by border patrol agents. He began photographing what the U.S. government called “non-essential” items: Bars of soap. Collections of rosaries. Heart-shaped lockets. Combs.
Agents consider combs “potentially lethal,” Kiefer explains, and throw them out. Logical, until your eye catches an image of tiny pink combs, the kind used on baby hair.
Toothpaste and toothbrushes could also be used to kill someone and so agents throw them out. No, immigrants do not have access to oral hygiene products while at detention centers, Kiefer says.
The American Dream, indeed.
Wallets. Condoms. New Testaments, one inscribed with the dates where one immigrant had tried — and failed — to become American.
Rubber ducks. A tiny pink giraffe. A black-and-white stuffed kitten. Children’s toys.
The tiny children’s toys are what broke me, but it’s the gestalt of the exhibit that worked on me until, when my eye caught the small image of a toy that no doubt fit into a child’s grubby palm, I started to cry.
This, the Warehouse Art District’s executive director Diane Bailey Morton tells me, is not an unusual reaction. As the ArtsXchange installed the exhibit, people had the same reaction — and they weren’t taking in the cumulative effect.
For her, it was the change purse featuring three Disney princesses.
“I had one just like it” as a child, she says.
I think back to my Raggedy Ann, given to me as a baby. I’ve had her my whole life. Had my family’s immigration come two generations later, I would have brought her with me as my family chased the American Dream. Had a customs agent taken her from me, I would have been inconsolable. A scene from The Goonies comes to mind, the one where Martha Plimpton’s character says the coins in the wishing well are someone else’s dreams and it wouldn’t be right to take them.
Kiefer’s compositions — some almost dispassionately mathematical in their mise-en-scène placement — reveal his thoughts on our treatment of these dream-seekers. He would, Morton says, bring detainees cans of tuna fish, with the agents’ blessing. But he couldn’t bring them their most intimate belongings, those chosen from a life left behind to accompany these families on their quest for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So he photographed them instead; he arranged these weathered, water-stained, hard-loved objects on colorful backgrounds, and he let them tell their side of our American Dream narrative.
It is not their dream to have, Kiefer’s work seems to tell us. That was our dream.
They are non-essential.
El Sueño Americano
The ArtsXchange at the Warehouse Arts District, 515 22nd St. S., St. Petersburg | Through Nov. 5: Thurs.-Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. | $10; free, members | 727-826-7211 | warehouseartsdistrictstpete.org