Charlene Teters: Way of Sorrows at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

04/02/2020

The following review was originally published by Southwest Contemporary in March 2020.

The gallery is partially bisected by a chain-link fence. Three pairs of children’s shoes hang on or sit near it. A few rosary necklaces and beaded bracelets are tied to the fence as well, like quiet memorials. Brown luminarias pepper the fence line with handwritten notes on their sides: “May we see ourselves in the ‘other,’” says one. Another simply bears a heart. Overhead, a series of animal balloons hangs from the ceiling, revolving slightly from an air vent by the floor. These eighteen inflated bears, pigs, and rabbits—each the size and proportion of the stuffed toys one might win at a fair—are made from reflective emergency blankets. They catch the light in the room as they turn, drawing visitors from the gallery entrance inwards, towards another wall wrapped in the same metallic fabric. Despite its festive sheen, the material evokes an immediate sense of distress, associated with sharp, unexpected tragedies, when the only materials of comfort are lightweight, cheap, industrial, and typically offered by strangers: firemen, medics, police, or government officials. While emergency blankets might help a physical body in shock, they nevertheless re-inscribe dislocation and loss. Other elements in the installation amplify that effect. Two wall-mounted photographs capture the artist in beautiful but inhospitable landscapes. In both instances, she wears an emergency blanket like a mantle, calling to mind the iconography of saints. The first photomural, where Teters stands in the foreground of a seemingly endless desert, fills the entire wall. In her arms, she carries one of the stuffed animals from the installation, holding an inflated dog like a child. The landscape surrounding them is beautiful but unaccommodating, with little foliage except for low-lying scrub brush and endlessly receding white-washed sands. Distant pale blue mountains soften the composition along the horizon but seem impossibly far away, suggesting no return. Teters has her back to those mountains, facing the camera instead, the viewer in the gallery, the dividing chain link fence, and finally, the other photograph on the opposing wall.

In the second picture, Teters again appears to be carrying something like a child close to her chest, though this time the form is concealed within her mantle. Here, she stands in front of the immense border wall and gate, a perpendicular plane scoured burnt umber and orange by exposure to the elements. She looks directly at the camera, confrontational. This saint-like persona appears like a visitation in appeal, protesting the catastrophic violence of today’s border politics, contextualizing them in a history of forced marches, concentration camps, and bureaucratic violence.

Teters asks the audience to contribute to the installation. Two child-sized chairs standing beside a low wooden table hold a can of crayons and a stack of flat, brown paper bags. On an adjacent wall, three shelves provide additional writing surfaces, these offering permanent markers, electric candles, and more bags. The materials are an invitation: Make a farolito. Make a wish, a hope for the future, a prayer for the present.

The federal government reported nearly three thousand children were forcibly separated from their parents in the last year as a result of the “zero tolerance” policy. That does not include prior family separations that took place during an influx of migration in 2017. But Teters’s Way of Sorrows not only looks at current border crises, it also challenges the future of border regulations, acknowledging the expectation of more and more displaced people. According to the United Nations, “forced displacements across international borders continues to rise. Between 2010 and 2017, the global number of refugees and asylum seekers increased by about thirteen million, accounting for close to a quarter of the increase in the number of all international migrants.” This statistic is expected to increase further as climate change adds stress to local resources and political systems. What we see at the southern U.S. border is only the beginning of a larger, global tide. Teters’s installation calls for new strategies of accommodation, decency, and protection. Way of Sorrows reproduces and installs objects that evoke the border. Like walking onto a set, visitors are invited into the space of division. Still, it is hard to feel a sense of agency—perhaps that is the point. The vision of Teters in the desert seems to call for something more: to work with patterns of mass-migration as an imminent condition of the future.