“Untethered: Our Journey Beyond Borders” is on display through May 14.
Photos by Elizabeth Lang.
Right now you are at the Leslie and Johanna Garfield Gallery at the Chazen Museum of Art. You first notice some purple vinyl stickers on the floor. You stare at your feet and wonder where you will fly with these birds.
But then, you notice on the wall some big purple words that read “Untethered: Our Journey Beyond Borders” or “Sin Atadura: Nuestro Viaje Más Allá de las Fronteras” in Spanish. You discover that you will explore, in two languages the commonalities between human and animal migration through Roberto Torres Mata’s art, on display at the Chazen through May 14.
You step inside Torres Mata’s exhibition. An MFA student at UW-Madison with a specialization in printmaking, Torres Mata draws on his family background and identity to explore the complexities of migration.
He was born in California to Mexican parents who migrated to the U.S. in search of a better life. He spent much time traveling to Mexico meeting the Zapotec and Mixtec people of Oaxaca, where he completed a three-month internship granted by the School of Human Ecology.
“Their use of folk art was very powerful through their textiles. They have a lot more history in the land because of the ruins of Mesoamerica,” Torres Mata says. “That is a driving force of my inspiration and influence with the work that I have in the show.”
That sprouted his interest in exploring his background, family, what being from Mexico means as well as the issues of migration in the United States, and the stories that migrants bring with them here.
Now, take this into account and you can probably get an idea of where you will be traveling. Maybe it is Latin America. You just have to follow the flock of birds to enter the room to your right.
Once you are there, you will notice that within the purple flock of birds, various faceless human figures join the journey, building on the concept of the animal and human relationship.
“When I was in California, the monarch butterflies were traveling from California to Mexico. When I moved to the Midwest you can see those similarities with the birds and nature,” Torres Mata says. “A lot of ecosystems play a role in how animals migrate. It’s about survival. It is also in our human nature to find ways to survive.”
Now, look at the prints on the four walls that surround you. You see humans and animals crafted through mediums including screen print, lithograph, spit-bite with aquatint, and graphite.
You see recognizable Latin American iconography and symbolisms, like the print named “Bird Migration” or “Migración de Aves.” You see the Virgin Mary praying—drawn in black with a contrasting yellow background located in the center of the upper third of the print. To her right and left, two eyes are staring at you with the sun and the moon as pupils.
Once again, you see the flock of birds, which have been your guide through the exhibition, moving through the desert going from a mountain and flying over a fence while an adult figure holds the hand of a child.
To your right, there is a wall with 10 prints in black and white that have one-word names. It is as if Torres Mata is describing the phases of migration in the simple words of: hope, mourning, hunger, wisdom, future, spirit, birth, escape, bystanders, and pray. It is a powerful description portrayed in black and white that creates a strong contrast with the rest of the colorful prints in the room.
To your left there are two large prints. One done with a combination of reds, oranges, and yellows with faceless human figures flowing with birds is called “And Already Want to Fly” or “Ya Quieres Volar.”
There are now snakes and coyotes coming into vision. But they are not the only new symbols to appear, upon approaching, you see a cross.
“You see a lot of crosses there. It’s referencing Catholicism, but also the North Star,” Torres Mata says. “If we want to go North, we find the North Star and that’s sort of our path to go by; our guide, in that sense.”
The other print on this wall is done with tones of blues and yellow that create a starry sky. This one is called “You Don’t Have Wings Yet” or “Aún No Tienes Alas.” Again, you notice the human figures and animals together as if they were dancing at night.
But then, you turn toward the fourth wall of the room where three more prints hang in bright red, lilac, and yellow with contrasting human figures and flocks of birds done in black in spit-bite with aquatint. In these prints a new element appears: realistic human hands that portray the concepts of giving and being together.
The flocks of birds in these prints depict movement as if directing you to the next room by following the birds and human figures on the floor. You pass through a small hall that has two purple vinyl humans on either wall with a poplar wood spoon in the center.
You continue on your journey and find a wall with 12 black walnut and cherry wood pieces with hand-carved human figures, snakes, birds, armadillos, butterflies, jaguars, and deer all accompanied with stars in the background. This is the clear depiction of Torres Mata’s idea of human and animal coexistence in reference to the fauna at the southern border between the U.S. and Mexico.
After carefully looking at the beautiful wood pieces, you turn around and find a wall full of mixed media handmade paper pieces. Torres Mata created all these in a manner reminiscent of Latin American indigenous cultures. His pieces resemble stone, gold, and bone textures.
But there is a secret ingredient to this series called “We Are All Human Beings Making Our Way Through Life” or “Somos Humanos y En El Caminamos.”
“I used acrylic paints, blacks, and cooking mediums like cinnamon, cumin, chili pepper, turmeric, and brown sugar,” Torres Mata says. “I used those spices to also reference our traditional cooking. Where do those plates come from? Who made those plates? Where did our moms get those recipes? You can almost smell the spices too and that brings in sensations.”
It takes me back home to Costa Rica.
The journey has not yet ended. You turn around and are struck by an installation of vibrant hand-dyed silk organza pieces with blue acrylic paint hanging from the ceiling titled “If You Search You Will Find” or “El Que Busca Encuentra.”
The silk organza pieces are assembled in a manner in which the wall with the human figures and birds interacts with the stories and the frontal layer with suns and stars.
You lean in and take a closer look to find yourself reading powerful and emotional migrant stories. Torres Mata created the pieces in collaboration with Argentinian artist Dani Zelko and it chronicles stories of migrants from Myanmar, Mexico, and El Salvador.
“Sometimes the hidden voice of that person is also a story that we don’t know about; a story that we have yet to find, read, or interview,” Torres Mata says. “It’s ephemeral in that sense: those are voices that are ghosted or hidden away. We have to get close up and see it in person or hear it close enough to understand what’s going on.”
And here, Torres Mata references the current migration issue the U.S. is facing with Mexico. Right now, U.S. authorities are reporting an increase in the number of unaccompanied migrant children coming to the southern border. According to The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Protection reported some 172,300 encounters in the southern border. These include 18,890 unaccompanied children and more than 53,600 family units.
Torres Mata gives us the context so often lacking in panicked discussions about immigration, using his art to address issues of climate change, violence, and government corruption.
“Right now with Central America, the climate change itself, with the hurricanes, it’s driving a lot of people North. It’s driving people to leave their children behind in order to find better opportunities because there are no jobs for them there. There are no resources,” Torres Mata says.
To fully appreciate Torres Mata’s work, viewers from the United States will need to remind themselves that the Central America region actually comprises seven countries: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. Despite Central America’s complex politics and varied cultures, U.S. media outlets often push a cliche, degrading narrative that acknowledges only some of these countries—usually Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—depicted the whole region as a dump or hellhole.
This narrative also overlooks the impacts of climate change and extreme weather. In November 2020, two category four hurricanes, Eta and Iota, hit the region hard—especially Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala—in a span of two weeks. Such events add to the forces driving citizens north from Central America’s “Northern Triangle”—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador— hence the record-breaking number of people coming to the Mexico-U.S. border. The “Northern Triangle” countries have long been described as suffering from gang-related violence, frequent extortion, government corruption, and high levels of poverty. These factors do push citizens to migrate, but natural disasters introduce yet another volatile element.
Torres Mata captures the flight from fear and violence in a silk organza that tells the story of Carlos, a citizen of El Salvador who migrated to the U.S. before civil war exploded in his home country. In a letter that Torres Mata has incorporated into the show, Carlos writes that he got out of El Salvador before one of the pivotal events that set off the civil war: a right-wing death squad’s March 24, 1980 assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero, who advocated for investigating human rights abuses and openly denounced the violence of leftist and rightist forces. According to NPR, “Romero’s assassination accelerated the conflict in El Salvador. Violence erupted at his funeral and the country soon spiraled into civil war. The U.S. backed the anti-communist military regime.”
Given this context, the story of Carlos’ journey in Torres Mata’s artwork elicits a painful feeling peacefully depicted with vibrant colors to create a relaxing feeling in the room.
Personally, reading such a powerful story reminded me that being born and raised in Costa Rica is a privilege. We have no military. We have one of Latin America’s most stable democracies and pacifism is ingrained in our culture. We are located in the same region as the complex brother nations of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, but have no idea what it is like to live with such high levels of violence.
This reflection would not have come to my mind if it had not been for Torres Mata’s art, which takes us on a journey; a journey that is shared among humans and nature. Torres Mata’s work also earned him the 2021 Russell and Paula Panczenko MFA Prize. Canadian artist Shannon R. Stratton, who served as the juror for this year’s prize, cited Torres Mata’s treatment of migration “not only as an urgent political issue where livelihoods, families, and continuity of community hang in the balance, but also as an enduring, shared narrative that has the power to bridge the differences.”
Just as Torres Mata says, “I’m very fortunate to have people look at the show, but I also have this important representation and start a conversation with migration while having it at a platform in a very famous museum.”
Untethered: Our Journey Beyond Borders will be up at the Chazen Museum of Art until May 14. Hours are Tuesday through Wednesday, 12 to 5 p.m. and Thursday through Friday, 12 to 7 p.m. You can visit by making an appointment through the Chazen’s website.