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Labor Tea

The Black Box of Immigration - By Carolina Ponce de León, Executive Director

The Invisible Nation features a series of photo-based installations created by Salvadoran artist, Victor Cartagena. Utilizing hybrid photographic formats as well as video, Cartagena’s projects call upon the great distance between the quintessential human dimension of economic displacement and the dehumanized and “faceless” accounts of the immigration debate that pervade the media.

The works featured in Invisible Nation are based on the emblematic black and white ID photos frequently used in Latin America to identify individuals both in official documents and in obituaries. This duality is particularly poignant in the context of San Francisco’s Mission District, due to the link that the large Central American immigrant population has to the 1970s and 80s civil wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala.

Cartagena’s project enhances the evocative power of the black and white passport photo to visualize the spiritual, dramatic, and deeply human dimensions of migration. The rigid and frontal poses of the photographed subjects, and their hypnotic gaze looking straight at the lens, produce grim yet disturbing mementos of the endless displacement north. These photos capture the psychological and metaphysical dimensions of this archetypal ritual of passage. What sense of future comes from a past burdened by despair and conflict? Fate is defied at the very moment the photographic shutter clicks. In one unique instant past and future, life and death, and loss and endurance coalesce.

By manipulating and multiplying these found images — drawn from the artist’s collection of 1970 and 80’s photographic archives from Latin America — Cartagena confirms the focus of his art: to question the profound absence of these personal identities and histories in the national discourse, as well as precarious living conditions of migrant workers and the disposable value given to their labor force as signified in his teabags and pills in the bottles of “Patrón”.

Cartagena’s photographic installations serve as a deceptively simple yet eloquent reminder that forgetting is an organic component of memory. Yet his works speak about the "strategic" forgetting of an issue too charged to keep active in the institutional visual archive. By replicating ad infinitum these portraits, the invisibility of the immigrant becomes evermore dismaying. Invisible Nation takes these portraits temporarily out of the dark room of memory and sheds light on the plight of the thousands who have dared to defy their fate and become an integral part of our everyday existence.

Victor Cartagena © 2013