Art Culture

Alejandro Santiago’s “2501 Migrantes” in Oaxaca

| February 25, 2022 | 0 Comments
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Several years ago the Mexican artist Alejandro Santiago began sculpting 2500 not-quite-life-sized human figures out of clay. Hewn in part with a machete and daubed in the colors of peasants’ clothing, the crude but ingeniously expressive figures are lifelike both in their collectivity and their subdued individuality. They gaze at you in a way that many more formally composed statues do not, their flattened arms and hands often folded across their hearts.

They are lost souls, or rather, lost men, women and children. The figures of Santiago’s 2501 Migrantes stand for those departed in real life, migrants driven by poverty and economic dislocation to leave their homes and families and go searching for a way to live. Even as statues they seem compelled by forces, they have little power to resist. Currently, hundreds crowd the cavernous lower-level display space in one of Mexico’s most unusual art venues, the magnificent Centro de las Artes de San Agustín (CASA) in Oaxaca.

The installation marks the three-year anniversary of the center, a project initiated by Oaxacan artist and “Alternative Nobel Prize” winner Francisco Toledo. Located in a small hill town 6 miles north of Oaxaca City, the arts and environmental center occupies a 19th century textile factory that has been elegantly restored and converted into a series of galleries, studios and teaching spaces. In addition to the opening of 2501 Migrantes, CASA’s three-year celebration last month featured a talk and discussion by Mexican contemporary art superstar Gabriel Orozco.

Alejandro Santiago was born in 1964 and grew up in the small farming community of San Pedro Teococuilco, in the Ixtlan district of Oaxaca. Working primarily as a painter in the 1980s and 1990s, he became one of Oaxaca’s better-known artists and a figure in the growing Mexican contemporary art scene. But Santiago’s career took an unexpected turn when he returned to his native village, after having been living abroad (mostly in Europe) for many years.

The story told about the origin of 2501 Migrantes is mythical. According to gallery guides and biographical information on the project’s website, upon returning to Teococuilco Santiago was shocked to find that the village was a shell of its former self, decimated by the outward migration of most of its working-age adults to other parts of Mexico and the United States. Inspired by a dream, the artist vowed to “repopulate” Teococuilco with 2500 clay figures (plus one, himself) representing the village’s lost inhabitants.

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Whether literally true or a clever bit of stage-setting, this origin myth frames the way the project to be viewed. In interviews Santiago has said that “Migrantes” carries no overtly political message. The work addresses immigration not as an “issue” or sociological phenomenon, but squarely and painstakingly at the level of individual human experience: hence the project’s reliance on physicality and case-by-case enumeration, rather than abstraction and emblematic representation. (It comes as no surprise to learn that Santiago himself, in preparation for the work, undertook a migrant’s journey north and secret border crossing.) Whatever lessons may be drawn from the work are left to the viewer to discern.

Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño does something similar, in the long section of his epic novel 2666 based on the serial killings of poor and displaced women in Ciudad Juarez, on the U.S. – Mexican border. I was reading 2666 at the time when I viewed the new installation of 2501 Migrantes, and the connections were striking. Surely among these exiles from the poverty of Oaxaca, rendered in clay by Santiago, were some of the same individuals whose fate would be recorded in Bolaño’s reality-based fiction.

Questions of fate swirl like an invisible cloud over the entire exhibition. In giving form and identity to the migrants, Santiago makes their presence before the viewer almost inexplicable, almost ghostly. Are we viewing the living or the dead? The ones who found jobs in the north and are sending money back home, or the ones who died crossing the desert? Why are they here, these few hundred, and where are all the rest–the many hundreds more implied by the title?

The figures reveal nothing directly, though their bodies often appear stooped by past deprivations and long journeys, their faces scarred by leavings. For the most part they ignore you, to an extent that it may occur to you that you feel safe among them. And there precisely lies the work’s originality and power. Not content to merely represent a crowd, Santiago has summoned forth the very thing. Something emerges from that totality that goes even beyond the artist’s laudable and bold gesture of enumerating the individual subjectivities of the migrants.

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To view Santiago’s figures you must literally join them and walk among them. Doing so triggers the same kind of awareness that emerges in any crowd setting: one is both alone among strangers and part of some larger human whole. This sense is only enhanced by the statues’ lack of realism. The fact that the figures are small, incomplete, almost two-dimensional is psychologically consistent with the experience of being in a real crowd, surrounded by a sea of half-seen faces.

Viewing 2501 Migrantes is a memorable experience, and a sad one. The work elicits an emotional reaction from many visitors, but not in a way that feels contrived or cheap. The CASA installation includes a video documentary running on a small monitor at one end of the large, dimly lit hall. While distracting at first, the detailed account of Santiago’s involvement with the project and the construction of the figures is fascinating.

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As a work in progress 2501 Migrantes has previously shown at the Oaxaca Museum of Contemporary Art and elsewhere in Mexico. Its new setting is spectacular, and for anyone traveling to Oaxaca the show should not be missed. But it’s a pity that 2501 Migrantes, like the reality that inspired it, remains largely out of view to a broader North American audience. It is an artistically ambitious and richly informative work.

(links to sites in Spanish)

Centro de las Artes de San Augustin

Alejandro Santiago

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