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In July 2003, fine art photographer Tom Kiefer started working part-time as a janitor and groundskeeper at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility near Ajo, Arizona. In mid-2007, he was given permission to collect food confiscated from migrants and asylum seekers and donate it to a local food pantry. He was deeply moved at finding personal belongings in the trash bins along with the food. These items, necessary for hygiene, comfort and survival, were deemed “non-essential” or “potentially lethal” and seized and discarded by officials. Kiefer began to quietly rescue what items he could, and he resigned from his job in August 2014 to focus on photographing and documenting them in an ongoing project titled El Sueño Americano / The American Dream.
Kiefer approaches the objects he photographs without pretense. The people who carried these items to the Mexico-U.S. border are bodily absent, but their stories are encoded in the objects, so that Kiefer’s “portraits” of individual objects prompt viewers to imagine the lives and journeys of the people who carried them. Meanwhile, his “mass assemblies” evoke both the great numbers of people arriving from diverse points of origin and the failure of convoluted immigration policies and systems.
Pertenencias / Belongings places Kiefer’s photographs within a broader consideration of the human need to migrate, driven by the need not only to survive, but to flourish in body, mind and spirit. This human drive often draws on the power of hope and faith, which are reflected and manifested in many of the objects Kiefer documents. The exhibition invites reflection on what it means to possess and what it means to lose, and what it means to belong: how we define who is included and who is excluded, how we distinguish between the sacred and the ordinary, and how those boundaries are enforced.
Pertenencias / Belongings features 80 photographs, many newly created for the exhibition, and 6 mantas bordadas (embroidered textiles) selected from among the dozens of handcrafted cloths Kiefer recovered at the CBP facility. A significant feature of the exhibition is a series of photographs of backpacks that evoke the Christian devotional practice of the Stations of the Cross. Backpacks are an essential element of the migrant journey, and Kiefer found a compelling connection between Jesus carrying his cross and migrants carrying all their worldly possessions on their backs across the desert. As visitors walk the perimeter of the gallery—which was originally a chapel—contemplating each backpack, they will engage a rhythm of movement and meditation similar to the traditional Stations of the Cross.
About the Artist: Tom Kiefer (b. 1959, Wichita, KS) is an artist based in Ajo, Arizona. Kiefer’s photographic projects explore the infrastructure and cultural landscapes of the United States, blending fine art and documentary modes. His previous project Journey West Exhibit (2007) chronicled the landscape, structures, and cultural markers connecting the Arizona cities of Phoenix, Tucson, and Ajo. Kiefer’s work has been exhibited across the US, including the Fuller Craft Museum (Boston, MA); the Saugatuck Center for the Arts (Saugatuck, MI); the Northlight Gallery at Arizona State University (Phoenix, AZ); ArtsXchange (St. Petersburg, FL); and ArtPrize 2018 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In 2015, Kiefer was included in LensCulture’s Top 50 Emerging Photographers and Photolucida’s Top 50 Critical Mass lists, and has been featured in news publications nationally and internationally.
This article was originally published on slu.edu.