A Venezuelan artist once detained for entering the United States illegally hopes his exhibit at the Boca Raton Museum of Art eases the shroud of anonymity often cast over those referred to as “undocumented immigrants.”
“People need to know all of the horrific kinds of circumstances that families are willing to put even their babies [through] just trying to find an opportunity,” explained Jose Alvarez. “I think anonymity, the silence, the being hidden creates an abstract notion about all of these people.”
Alvarez was locked up at Miami’s Krome Detention Center in the middle of 2012 for entering the country with a false passport. At the time, Alvarez recalls being depressed and refusing to talk with fellow detainees. After a few days, a bunkmate told the disheartened artist that he had to shake off his depression and “be a warrior.”
Alvarez took the words to heart and began to draw his newfound friend, thereby giving him the inspiration for what became the present-day exhibit – “Jose Alvarez (D.O.P.A.), Krome” – which is on display at the Boca Raton museum through January.
Making use of pens and any paper he could find within the detainment facility, Alvarez ended up creating sketches of about 30 men he lived with during his two-month internment at Krome. Along the way, he said, he uncovered their stories of hardship, confusion and misfortune that culminated in their arrests and eventual detention there.
One of the more striking narratives captured by Alvarez is the story of a detainee from the Ivory Coast named Brahima. As retold by the artist, Brahima remained in his bunk for nearly two months before being approached as a potential subject of the project. After agreeing to take part, the detainee cried as he was being sketched, which Alvarez understood as the man’s joy at finally being fully seen and recognized as an equal human being.
Almost all of the men sketched by Alvarez have been deported back to countries including Guatemala, Hungary and Morocco, leaving the artwork at the Boca museum as the only evidence of their failed attempt to garner a piece of the American Dream.
“I think that it serves many purposes, not only for me, but for [the subjects] as well. It isn’t really about me — it’s about all of us trying to cope with that situation. Art was the instrument that gave hope and dignified us,” Alvarez expressed.
The timing of the exhibit is fortuitous, given the tenor of the rhetoric surrounding U.S. immigration policies in the current presidential campaign. Republican nominee Donald Trump has been very vocal about his desire to strictly enforce existing immigration laws, calling for mass deportation of undocumented immigrants living in the United States as well as constructing a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Boca Raton museum officials, however, noted that the timing of the exhibit is coincidental, as they began planning for it two years ago.
Alvarez said there is a general lack of knowledge about deportation, and the people whose ambitions are stopped at the border.
“These people are people with families, kids and grandparents. I’m not saying by any means that anyone is free of fault — I only want people to position themselves in [the subjects’] shoes,” he commented.
Regardless of the effect he hopes to make through his artwork, Alvarez was quick to provide a full perspective on the number of pieces he created.
“These are just 30 of [thousands of stories]. This was just my experience, what I witnessed and what I felt.”