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Art on Armitage:The Bleeding Border

Armitage Avenue, west of Pulaski is a bustling street, full of small businesses and foot traffic—the perfect place for the window gallery, Art on Armitage. The most recent display/exhibition is the
Bleeding Border by artist Sergio Gomez. In it, he uses powerful imagery to raise awareness  of the dangers children face as they cross the border to be reunited with their parents—an important topic as Congress considers legislation that would increase the militarization of the border. Two children’s silhouettes run towards the viewer against a backdrop that highlights the terrifying and dangerous experience of trying to find a new home. Piglet and Minnie Mouse toys are discarded amongst dried branches, viscerally evoking the sense of leaving all comfort behind for the viewers, while also bringing to mind those who are discarded by “coyotes” during the tumultuous crossing.

Jennifer Patiño (JP): How did this project come about with Art on Armitage and how do you feel the location of the window in a majority Latino community affects your message?

Sergio Gomez (SG): Mary Ellen Croteau invited me to participate in Art on Armitage last year. Since then, I had been thinking about what to do. Looking at my work, I decided to do an installation around my painting “Bleeding Border” which depicts two children running away from the US/Mexico border and towards the viewer while a helicopter beams its light towards them. I thought this painting would be a perfect fit for a community with a strong Latino presence.

JP: When you created this piece, were you coming at it from an activist perspective? If so, please tell us about how you express or negotiate that activism in your art.

SG: I came to it as an artist and immigrant myself. One day I was reading an article in the New York Times titled “Crossing with Strangers” that specifically focused on how many children die in the border as they are left behind by smugglers. Because they are children, no one knows who they are. Although I knew about the struggles people endured to cross the border, I never thought about children also crossing along. As a father of two kids, that article moved me to take the activist role and say something about in a scale that could not be ignored. The children depicted are life size and the work measures 77 x 112 inches. Since 2008, it has been exhibited in art galleries, cultural centers, churches, conferences, and now in Armitage Avenue. I am glad it continues to raise a voice for the silent children of the bleeding border.

JP: The part of your statement that describes the children you are representing in your piece as “Someone’s children, anonymous shadows to the rest of us” is especially powerful. Can you talk a little bit about your text and how it works with the piece?

SG: The text around the painting reads:

Illusion and deception. One door opens, another one closes before their eyes. In the silence of the night, “mojaditos” crying as they cross the line. The “coyote” is on the run. They don’t understand why. Dream and reality is their wonderland in disguise. Someone’s children, anonymous shadows to the rest of us. Thousands of unspoken and ignored inconveniences. One bleeding border, one more night.

I wanted the work to be understood in many levels. The written word adds another layer of meaning and content. I assume that not everyone where this piece is shown may be familiar with the issue. The text does not only complement the work but poetically adds context to it. I wrote the text as I made the work. Additional to the main text surrounding the work, there are other smaller words identifying the small towns around the border line. A lot of the names I used to identify the towns are made up and sometimes humorous such as “Terminatorville” in California’s border, “Point of No Return,” “Almost There,” “Mi Casa Es Su Casa,” etc.

Border detail, Sergio Gomez, The Bleeding Border, 2013. Mixed media, Art on Armitage, Chicago, IL. Courtesy of Sergio Gomez

JP: Your use of silhouettes in the piece has a humanizing effect that is distinctly different from the usual effect of the figures of the immigrant crossing sign. In the racially charged immigration debate, the sign has lost some of its avowed universality and seems to have become shorthand for “Latino,” in the same way that “illegal” sometimes feels like it has. In your piece, the sign regains some of its universality, and when combined with the larger silhouettes, they both take on a more personal dimension. Can you please tell us a little bit about the challenges of using these silhouettes, why they’re so effective and what role, if any, race plays in this installation piece?

SG: The immigrant crossing sign is used in my painting in two ways. First, literally as a sign by the border line. Second, I used the silhouettes and made them the actual immigrants at the distance crossing the fence and running into US soil. The fact that they are all exactly the same as the sign identifies them as the main subjects of persecution. “They” are the sign and sign is “them.” There is no question that the sign is racially charged. The fact that they lack a personal identity in my painting adds to the immigration debate and questions who they are. Often times, these individuals are seen as nothing more than “illegal” anonymous figures. Yet, they carry incredible stories of persistence and courage, leaving their homeland and everything they love in search for a better future for their families and their children. Identity has always been a big element in my work and I love playing around with identity issues and roles when I can.

JP: The plight of unaccompanied minors seems to be a growing issue since the number crossing has tripled in the past three years, and they are sometimes detained in deplorable conditions. The Bleeding Border seems like it has come at a crucial time to raise awareness. Do you envision yourself tackling this issue again in the future?

SG: I am not sure if I will follow up the issue with another piece in the future. For now, “Bleeding Border” is doing what I always intended it to do, create a conversation. Mary Ellen has told me of many people stopping in front of the window at Art in Armitage to discuss the piece. The issue of immigration is certainly not going away anytime soon and I will take any opportunity I have to raise awareness of the little ones. But it is not only about what I am going to do in the future. Just as the children in the painting run to you (the viewer), I ask the question, what are you going to do about it?

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