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A human parade of loss

Mexico's Alejandro Santiago evokes the toll of immigration with his growing population of clay figures.

April 07, 2006|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

OAXACA, Mexico — Watch out, there's one sneaking up right behind you: stubby brown body, big googly eyes, quizzical expression plastered onto the flat, ceramic face.

And over there, against the wall, a cluster of five, 10, 20 fellow beings, plus who knows how many more still to come? Elbowing their way into your consciousness, encroaching on your personal space -- or perhaps it is we who are intruding on them.

Looking a bit like C-3PO's long-lost pre-Columbian ancestors, the almost-human creatures are everywhere as you stroll through the white-walled galleries of the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo in this stylish colonial city six hours south of the Mexican capital. The work in progress, "2501 Migrantes" (2501 Migrants) by local painter and sculptor Alejandro Santiago, represents one artist's obsessive attempt to grapple with the human and social toll of mass immigration.

That theme runs deep in Oaxaca state, a poor, mainly rural region heavily populated by Indians, that over the years has lost large numbers of desperate farmers and low-skill laborers who've gone to work in Mexico City, the United States and elsewhere. Since it opened at the end of February, Santiago's installation has drawn more than 7,000 visitors.

And though the show's title is a bit of a misnomer -- only about 380 of Santiago's clay figures are on display here -- that's surely enough of a crowd to start a passionate debate on what in recent weeks has become a divisive topic on both sides of the border.

Yet Santiago believes that his large-scale, labor-intensive work, which is on view through May 8, can steer clear of the type of facile arguments being batted around by politicians and blowhard commentators. "Right now, important things have occurred on this subject, a subject that is very powerful," says the 42-year-old. "My theme doesn't embrace much in the way of solutions. It only makes a call to the people. It offers a little reflection, in order to propose some other good alternatives."Aside from Iraq, few current issues split Americans more than immigration policy. The halls of Congress and radio airwaves crackle with angry diatribes on the subject. Last month, hundreds of thousands of native and immigrant Latin Americans, most of Mexican origin, took to the streets in Los Angeles and other cities to protest proposed federal legislation that could classify illegal immigrants as felons and prompt mass deportations.

Santiago's own views on immigration are multifaceted, and he says he wanted to avoid making "2501 Migrantes" into a polemical piece. But the theme is close to his personal history, and his heart. Like scores of other Mexican and Central American towns, Santiago's native village of Teococuilco de Marcos Perez, in a remote mountain area of Oaxaca state, has lost about half of its population to emigration in recent decades.

At present, Santiago has completed about 500 of the sculptures for "2501 Migrantes." When the work is complete, he intends to take all 2,501 of his homely, strangely poignant figures to Teococuilco and "repopulate" the decimated village by placing the sculptures on the patio of each house and in the local church, municipal square and other public places. He hopes to finish all the sculptures by November of this year.

"It's a theme that has obsessed Alejandro," says Femaria Abad, director of the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, which is hosting the work's first museum outing. "With this work, in a way, he is summoning the absent ones."

At the spare, pristine Oaxaca museum, the "migrants" confront you in stairwells and startle you as you come upon them huddled in claustrophobic corners of the galleries. A number of the figures have elaborate markings, like tattoos, on their bodies. A few bear boot prints on their backsides. Most are about three-quarters the size of a typical adult, others no bigger than a child.

Mutely expressive, they communicate through body language and facial contortions. In a side courtyard on the ground floor of the two-story museum, some lie stretched out in crude wooden coffins. Another room chillingly displays a pile of sculpted "body" parts -- arms, legs, torsos.

Whether alone or packed into loose scrums of three, four or a dozen or more, Santiago's figures dance on a thin line between individuality and anonymity, the autonomous subject versus the statistical mass. The closer you look, the more singular each appears. "They overflow their condition of stone and transmit their humanity," says museum director Abad.

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