One of the aspects that seems most missing from socially engaged art is the purpose. Not the roundabout, overarching purpose but the direct, underlying one?the face to the force. In an effort to engage a broad audience, a socially engaged artist might cast a wide net, and in turn lose the overriding message. There also exists the possibility that outside forces can use defocused intent as a critique.
As an example, the Occupy Wall Street movement was criticized for its lack of “face,” though the tactic was methodical and intentional, perhaps because it took on all concerns at once. But the undocumented immigrant movement has shone like an arrow in its trajectory. And it has always seemed guided by a fletching of people-powered art.
Despite obvious objections from many, the undocumented youth movement was integral in convincing President Barack Obama to pass a policy of deferred action this past June that will allow them to apply for work permits and avoid deportation. The controversial policy was met with clamorous discourse from both sides regarding the value of immigrant youth in US society, especially those who happen to be undocumented.
President Barack Obama at Democratic Rally / Via Neon Tommy, Flickr
Political stances aside, DREAMers, as well as other undocumented immigrants and immigrant supporters, have demonstrated the type of resilience their most ardent critics would admire in anyone else. Like their ideological compatriots, the Occupiers, the undocumented youth movement has tackled corporate abuse of employees, namely at the hands of Walmart, started youth poetry slams in Tucson to combat anti-ethnic studies sentiments, and most recently, flew kites bearing their own images to materialize their struggles in an act of artistic protest.
Example of Kites Flown By Undocumented Activists & Supporters / Via CultureStrike tumblr
They’ve taken on these socially engaged endeavors all while facing the very real threats of societal backlash and the dreaded risk of deportation.
The latest action was pursued in conjunction with an exhibition currently housed at the Art Museum of the Americas titled “The Ripple Effect: Currents of Socially Engaged Art.” Working with artist Miguel Luciano, a group of undocumented activists drew branded kites in the air as a symbol of a perceived but refused freedom. Fastened with life-size pictures of some of its participants, the kites appropriately flew over the Washington Monument skyline.
One of the kites flying near the Washington Monument / Via CultureStrike tumblr
As one participant noted to the Washington Post, he, 10-year-old Andy Guinansaca, has been an activist since the age of six. Present to support his older sister, Sonia Guinansaca, an undocumented youth activist, Andy is involved in political issues that are dear to him, something that only art might be able to address in a growingly apolitical climate. As his sister added, the experience was “fun” for Andy.
The Dream Kites project helped round out “The Ripple Effect” as part of a group exhibition organized around social engagement. Pieces like “The Mask of the Shoe Shiner,” which documented a public action in La Paz, Bolivia that sought to highlight the plight of shoe shiners in the poverty-stricken nation, and “Palas por Pistolas,” a collection of shovels made from 1,527 guns collected in Mexico City, reached beyond the walls of a gallery to help transcend art from an adornment into a collective experience.
The Dream Kites project is but one example of the undocumented youth movement’s approach to art as a unifier. Long absent from past immigrant movements, this current movement has expressly looked to use art as a tool with two purposes. The first being to provide a voice for those not in traditional positions of power as a means to better document the experience of those living undocumented. The second being to help unite active members in an effort to help recruit and mobilize others. Art becomes the social glue of what was once a disenfranchised community.
Support and funding for “The Ripple Effect” was provided by the Art Museum of the Americas, as well as the Washington Project for the Arts, and CultureStrike.
CultureStrike is a digital magazine and arts organization that has been at the forefront of many of the undocumented youth movement’s boldest and most impactful demonstrations. One of their central missions is to “support the national and global arts movement around immigration.” They understand that at the spine of any political or societal shift, art must, and usually does, take a central role in the transformation.
CultureStrike operates from the standpoint that an immigrant’s legal status is inconsequential when it exists within a broken, discriminatory, and psychologically debilitating legal system. By funding and promoting art that exposes the broken shards of the U.S. immigration complex, CultureStrike seeks to educate the public on the real problem in the immigration equation: a faulty legal code, not the people who have no choice but to operate around it.
Beyond the power of personal determination, the undocumented youth movement might offer artistic communities a lesson in social engagement and mobilization. While the rest of us gaze at the abyss set forth by a looming fiscal cliff, undocumented youth activists have soared to new horizons of affectability.