Documenting the Undocumented: Blurring the lines between artist and activist

A group of people stand motionless, gazing forlornly through the metal bars surrounding the White House. No one acknowledges them, save the guard moving through them through the milling crowd. In one swift movement he lifts the little group up and into the nearby trashcan, pushing down the cardboard cutouts until they fit into the dark, dank space. These “people” were just as ignored and thrown away as the actual people they represent.

Undocumented immigrants often find themselves under represented in terms of positive and empowering messages. Often times the only information the general public receives about these individuals portrays them in the negative light of the mainstream media. Their humanity is lost amongst the cries for border protection and increased deportations. Though it seems unlikely when looking through the lens of the war on immigration, there are people in this country seeking change. Outside of policy reform, there is a needto call attention to the dehumanization of those seeking shelter on our soil.

Thankfully, many are attempting To break through utilizing the power of visual art. Ramiro Gomez is an Los Angeles based artist who focuses on infusing scenes of American culture with images of faceless human cutouts representative of the unrepresented undocumented.

Favianna Rodriguez, the subject of the YouTube docuseries Immigration is Beautiful, creates images with the recurring motif of the butterfly, symbolic of migration as natural and beautiful. Both artists seek to illuminate the human rights issues inherent in immigration that are so often ignored by the general population.

Ramiro Gomez creates life-size cardboard cutouts and positions them in highly trafficked areas such as the Bel Air, California, intersection which was described in Brian de los Santos’ article for NPR on the young artist. Therein, Gomez describes his work as “’documenting the undocumented’ by placing his art in affluent communities, places where these workers are often invisible.” In February, Gomez took his talents to Washington, DC where he installed his cutouts in such locations as the White House and the Capitol’s East Lawn. Of the idea behind his art, Gomez says “Think about this: when someone comes to work for you, that person has humanity.”

“Art can spark the imagination like nothing else can,” says Favianna Rodriguez in an interview with Katherine Brooks of The Huffington Post, “and yet I think that progressives do not fully understand the powerful role that artists can play

in social change.” Her docuseries Immigration is Beautiful spotlights artists working towards social change through their art. Filmed last year, the series focuses on putting pressure on politicians and raising awareness in the general public of issues faced by immigrants. The movement took on the symbol of the monarch butterfly, described by Rodriguez as “[representing] the beauty of migration and the right that living beings have to freely move.”

Both artists use a visual medium to call attention to often ignored issues faced by immigrants in America. While Rodriguez demands social change and action, Gomez seeks simply to show the general population that these people exist and face real hardships every day. Compared with more traditional activist efforts, art is an alternative form of resistance. As stated by Rodriguez, “Art is always reflective of an experience and a world view. Politics is so often the most grotesque form of humans trying to shape their human existence. Art is also about us shaping our human experience, but through beauty, form, reflection, and critical analysis. Artists have a unique responsibility to recognize the power and impact of what we can create, not only can we expose and critique, we can also be visionary.”

Maggie McManus is a student at Randolph College and is a summer 2014 RESIST intern.