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As enforcement tightens and border tensions rise, art and immigration meld

This burgeoning genre of art cuts across political lines, but most of it is driven by resistance to President Donald Trump's immigration policies.

Emily Smith, executive director of Philadelphia's Magic Gardens on South Street, holds an artwork made by Concepcion Aguilar, which she collected in Oaxaca Mexico. The work will be added to the garden installation, which features huge swirls of mosaics, glass and mirrors.
Emily Smith, executive director of Philadelphia's Magic Gardens on South Street, holds an artwork made by Concepcion Aguilar, which she collected in Oaxaca Mexico. The work will be added to the garden installation, which features huge swirls of mosaics, glass and mirrors.Read moreMARGO REED / Staff Photographer

Everybody loves Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, the swirling mosaic wonderland built from mirrors, glass, and tile on South Street.

But not everyone knows they’re getting a tutorial in cross-border relations when they visit.

For among the works embedded in the walls are striking pieces created by folk-art masters in Mexico and then brought north, where they enliven the ever-evolving installation — and bind the Gardens to this nation’s southern neighbor at a historically divisive moment.

“It’s easy to get caught up in the rhetoric. But this is our sister country," said Emily Smith, the Gardens’ executive director, who met only peace and friendship during a recent two-week buying trip to Oaxaca and Mexico City.

When she was there, Smith said, everyone seemed to be talking about the conflict and crisis at the border, and how brilliant artists could not get visas to cross the line. Their art was traveling to America in their stead.

Today, the Trump administration’s hard-line crackdown on immigration is fueling an explosion of art that springs from border, migration, and enforcement experiences. It’s showing up in poetry, murals, and feature films, on the walls of expansive galleries and the skinny screens of cell phones.

Two scholars grabbed national headlines this summer when they installed custom pink seesaws on the slatted steel fence that separates the United States from Mexico, allowing children on both sides to play together. Ronald Rael, a University of California at Berkeley architecture professor, and Virginia San Fratello, a San Jose State University associate design professor, said their project turned the wall into a fulcrum for U.S.-Mexico relations, showing that what happens on one side directly affects the other.

“It often seems when we talk about art and immigration, we talk about it as separate, [but] one really blurs into the other,” said Richard Rinehart, director of Bucknell University’s Samek Art Museum, where “Border Cantos/Sonic Border” recently became a hugely popular exhibit. “It struck a nerve, and I wasn’t surprised. … People not only know about this issue, but they’re passionate, one way or the other.”

In “Border Cantos/Sonic Border,” American photographer Richard Misrach and Mexican American artist and composer Guillermo Galindo explored the complexities of the 1,900-mile line by way of models, photography, and found objects.

Galindo created sound-producing sculptures from the discarded artifacts of migration: empty water bottles, backpacks, ladders, flashlights, animal bones.

This burgeoning genre of art cuts across political lines — one print depicts a heroic President Trump astride a battle tank, a huge American flag waving behind — but most of it is driven by resistance to his immigration policies.

In Milwaukee this month, a transit public-art project for teenagers was criticized as “anti-law enforcement” when the youths wrapped a county bus with images depicting federal immigration agents separating children from their parents.

On Tuesday, Mural Arts Philadelphia will dedicate a follow-up to its pro-immigrant “Families Belong Together” painting in Fairhill, while in Las Vegas a new mural portrays the Statue of Liberty handcuffed and shoved across the hood of a police car.

“My purpose,” Nevada artist Izaac Zevalking told TV station KTNV, “is to try and draw analogies with America’s past and how it was founded and how it was largely built by immigrants.”

Some artists return again and again to immigration themes.

“For me, it’s not a passing phase,” said Olga Livshin, a Russian American poet in Philadelphia.

She was 14 when her family fled Moscow in 1993. As she grew, she said, she found there are two Americas, “one that welcomes and one that pushes away.”

Today, she and fellow poet Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach organize Across the Waters, a pop-up poetry project that invites people to gather outside Philadelphia libraries and read stanzas, tell stories, or share experiences.

It’s not the most aggressive act of resistance, but, Livshin said, “I think it’s better to do this than do nothing.”

For a long time, artist Shachi Kale didn’t feel her immigration story deserved attention. She didn’t struggle to shore aboard a leaky boat, or trek through the killing heat of a southern desert.

She flew here from India with her husband in 2001.

Friends told her she was lucky, a 27-year-old princess embarked on a grand adventure with her Prince Charming.

But under U.S. immigration law, Kale was considered a dependent spouse. So the woman who ran her own graphic-design studio in Mumbai was not allowed to work.

She didn’t know how to drive. Besides, the couple had one car, and her husband needed it for his job. The big public-transit system that readily carried her from place to place in Mumbai, India, did not exist in Chandler, Ariz., so she was generally stuck at home.

“It creeps on you so slowly, you don’t even know that you are friendless and isolated,” Kale said. “I was made invisible, and I felt invisible, for many years.”

In January, with Trump’s demand for a border wall in full cry, Kale wondered if the crush of national stories might allow room for a more personal tale.

She created a series of paintings that depict her journey as a fairy tale, with a sad princess trapped in an adobe castle, her golden crown of little comfort. This summer, Scottsdale Public Art unveiled “Before Ever After: My American Fairytale,” which Kale, 45, intends as “a little message of hope.”

Because things did get better. She took classes at a community college to brush up on graphic design, then began shifting toward becoming a visual artist. She got a work permit and a green card.

Today, Kale, her husband, and their two young sons are U.S. citizens who enjoy a wide circle of friends.

“I have a lot of gratitude that I can be visible again,” Kale said. “There is a happily ever after.”

Much of the folk art at the Magic Gardens, at 1020 South St., stems from the collaborations that creator Isaiah Zagar nurtured over decades as he used bottles, bowls, and bicycle wheels to create a huge, immersive art environment.

It was in the 1960s that he and his wife, Julia, first connected with folk artists in Peru. Other pieces flowed from Guatemala, India, and Indonesia. Now, the Gardens staff makes annual trips to Mexico to buy pieces, support the artists, and bring back stories and traditions to share with visitors.

Some of the terra-cotta objects illustrate everyday life — a man and woman on a bench. Others are whimsical, like the double-winged angel-mermaid that floats on a south wall. Others are playfully ominous, such as the devil-man steering a wagon full of skulls.

At the Magic Gardens, that work is seen by 150,000 visitors a year.

“I hope people get a glimmer, a little understanding," said director Smith, "of a world that might be different from theirs.”