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Leaving a Trace Adriana Corral on her Installation of "Unearthed: Desenterrado" in Rural Virginia

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Students enrolled in Andrea Lepage’s Spring Term course, Chicano Art and Muralism: From the Street to Staniar Gallery, interviewed artist Adriana Corral, whose exhibition “Unearthed: Desenterrado” was on display in Staniar Gallery. Here is a collaborative essay written by three of the students and the professor, followed by an edited version of the interview.

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Adriana Corral conceived Unearthed: Desenterrado as an outdoor, site-responsive installation at the Rio Vista Farm in Socorro, Texas—the location of a key Bracero Program processing center near the U.S.-Mexico border. The Bracero Program was a government-sponsored guest worker program that functioned from 1942 to 1964. Established during World War II to address labor shortages, Mexican laborers (braceros) signed over 4.2 million contracts to support U.S. railroads, farmlands, and other agricultural sites. Reviving accounts of mistreatment and human rights violations committed against braceros upon entry into the United States, the installation, according to Corral’s artist statement, “endeavors to inspire deeper conversations about past—and future—border control along the United States-Mexico divide.”

During its original installation, which was curated by Black Cube’s Cortney Stell in 2018, the large white, cotton flag flew sixty feet above the ground over cotton fields once worked by braceros. Corral’s collaborator, Vincent Valdez, provided the designs for a Mexican golden eagle and an American bald eagle that are embroidered in white on opposing sides of the flag, their talons locked in conflict. While it flew above the Rio Vista Farm, Unearthed: Desenterrado temporarily memorialized hundreds of thousands of Mexican laborers who passed through the processing facility.

Across the country in rural Virginia, an exhibition at Washington and Lee University’s Staniar Gallery gives the flag a second life. After flying at Rio Vista for three months (the life-span of an all-cotton flag), the flag now hangs in its deteriorated state—bearing the faint traces of soil embedded into its cotton threads now frayed from exposure to the harsh Texas sun and wind. Here, Unearthed: Desenterrado is situated alongside a series of blind debossed prints featuring the barely legible text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The prints are positioned as witnesses to the flag, silently testifying to the “inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” (UDHR preamble).

The programming for the Staniar Gallery’s exhibition of Corral’s Unearthed: Desenterrado sought to fill a gap in public knowledge about bracero contributions and their mistreatment. Today’s public high school textbooks still largely reflect Bracero Program-era government propaganda that cast the bilateral program—which endured for nearly two decades after the conclusion of the WWII—as a joint effort to fight fascism. Current high school textbooks like The Americans, Texas Edition, for example, feature the smiling faces of braceros waving goodbye to their loved ones from the windows of trains destined for the U.S.

Yet photographs like those taken by Leonard Nadel (1916-1990) reveal more sinister facets of the Bracero Program. In the course of her research, Corral consulted a collection of Nadel’s photographs taken in 1956 and archived at the National Museum of American History. The photographs depict officials spraying pesticides like DDT into the faces of Mexican laborers. Workers are shown stripped to the waist, their hands raised in the air, while their bodies are examined. Officials check the braceros’ hands and mouths in photographs that equate the men with livestock. Nadel’s images record forced vaccinations and exposure to potentially dangerous x-rays. Nadel’s photographs show that upon entering the U.S., workers faced difficult work conditions in the hot sun, long hours of work with the back-breaking short hoe, and cramped and unsanitary living conditions.

In its recontextualized setting, Unearthed: Desenterrado comments on the transient nature of human memory by capturing aspects of the bracero narrative far from the U.S.-Mexico border. Demonstrating the crucial function of the setting in the bracero story, Corral incorporated soil from the Rio Vista site into the Staniar Gallery exhibition to imbue the distant Virginia location with the place in which the bracero story originally took place. Four small soil prints sourced from the Rio Vista Farm accompany a wall drawing of the Rio Vista processing center blueprints (from 1947), also made from soil Corral collected from the site.

At this distant locale, the Staniar Gallery utilizes Corral’s work to educate the public and draw attention to the human rights violations that occurred at the bracero processing center at Rio Vista Farm in Socorro, Texas. Staniar Gallery director Clover Archer explained that the exhibition provided the university with the opportunity to “explore historical themes that resonate with our contemporary socio-political climate making it a productive generator for discussion.”

Unearthed: Desenterrado was on view at Washington and Lee University’s Staniar Gallery (Lexington, Virginia) from April 22 to May 24, 2019.

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Interview with Adriana Corral 

Original interviews conducted on April 23, 2019 by Washington and Lee University students Adit Ahmed, Grace Amaden, Caitlin Anderson, Sarah Barnett, George Frank, Emma Grice, Margaret Hayworth, Kitty Lambrechts, Justin Littlejohn, Victoria Morgan, Reid Ostrom, Emma Pollard, Katherine Reid, James Ricks, Lydia Ruffin, David Salchert, Janie Stillwell, Annie Zou, Isabel Zungailia. The questions and responses have been edited for brevity and clarity by James Ricks, David Salchert, and Andrea Lepage.

How do you transform your research and interest in social issues into artworks and how do you choose your forms?

I am a very curious person, and I’m constantly observing and reading. My ideas usually start as little seedlings growing, and it’s about maintaining them and feeding them. That’s when I go into research mode. A lot of the works that I end up creating derive from questions that I have. Why are the events happening, or why didn’t I know about this sooner, or how can I learn more about it? And not that my work is an answer to, necessarily, many of these injustices. Instead, how can the work be a vehicle for another conversation, a more in-depth conversation?

As I’m nurturing and growing the idea, I then go out and conduct field work. That field work usually consists of traveling, taking photographs, or maybe conducting research at the Smithsonian, going through a photographer’s archives, or the history archives of a specific time period. It’s about looking at history more holistically than just from one vantage point. And then as I’m going to each of these different locations, I collect documents, paint chips, soil, recordings, or interviews. I take each remnant of a larger historical archive into the studio and create something like an investigation wall.

I’m really trying to push the boundaries of the material. For example, for a long time I was using sifted soil, and I was really adamant about figuring out, “How can I harden soil?” It took me almost two years. I had to work with two different experts to see if I could create a drawing utensil, like a soil drawing stick, which is what we used with the Staniar Gallery piece.

In a sense, I’m a little alchemist in the studio. For example, when I worked with classified court proceedings and documents about femicides in Ciudad Juárez that could not be shared publicly, I started burning the documents and incorporating their ashes into my work. When I worked with a company based in Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico and they had asked me to do an installation using clay but in some kind of ceramic tile form. I kept thinking about the body bag tags—that’s how they tagged many of the murdered women. Those tags resonated with me, and we were able to obtain soil from the site in Juárez so that we could use it to create the ceramic tags.

The ashes from burnt court proceedings, the soil from Ciudad Juárez or from Rio Vista are really unifying elements. We can all relate to them: to the soil, the landscape, the environment. Also universal in the protection of a person, of a human.

How have the people you’ve met impacted your work and brought about interest in human rights?

My initial interest in international discourses about human rights really came from work I was doing during my time in graduate school at the University of Texas in Austin. Living in El Paso, and having family in Juárez, I had always known about the feminicidios, violence against women, primarily in Juárez. My inquiries became more acute because these young women—who are about my age or younger—are usually marginalized women. Sometimes they are working in factories, sometimes they’re students. . . They’re abducted and then raped and murdered, their bodies discarded. How does something like this happen over and over and over again and how is there not more done to prevent these murders?

That question is what led me to start working with the human rights attorney, Ariel Dulitzky. When I first created Voces de las Pérdidas surrounding feminicidio case, Campo Algodónero in Juárez, for example, I read a headline about Dulitzky, who had taken this feminicidio case to the Inter-American courts in Chile and won. That 2007 case was the first of its kind to be won, but these murders had been happening since the 60s and became prevalent again in the 90s.

Dulitzky was gracious enough to sit with me and explain how his hands get tied, and how everybody’s hands get tied at a certain point. And I thought, ‘we can all work collectively, we can inform each other, we can talk about these issues together.’ I think that collective action is what pushes a work.

I went to the UN and sat in a room with five working members and heard case after case come. It’s then that I realized that the stories are more connected than separate. That is why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is so vital—it is a universal language that we should all be abiding by.

Have you created work that relates directly to your personal experiences?

To be honest, I have had a personal connection to all of my projects: from the femicide work to Unearthed: Desenterrado. As for the femicides, I myself was attacked, but I was able to escape my situation. Thankfully I had three brothers who taught me, ‘should anything ever happen to you, you need to protect yourself,’ and I ended up getting out of that situation. And of course, in that case it made me think, what happens when you can’t get out?

Looking at previous generations in my family—my grandmother: there was a plot to kidnap her in Mexico; both my Grandmother and I were fortunate to get out of our situations however, my mother was not. Three generations affected in different capacities… Instantly, I understood to a certain level. These young girls come from certain backgrounds and many times when they are kidnapped, authorities aren’t responsive and it is the mothers and fathers who push to fight for justice or their cases to be heard. A prime example is the Campo Algodónero case.

When talking to my parents, I learned that my grandfather, who passed away far too young, came from Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, Mexico to help a pathologist who also had a large farm out by Marfa, Texas. It was a cotton farm primarily, and my grandfather went there to help manage around 300 braceros. During that window, my grandfather was in a severe car accident and passed away. My grandmother, my father, aunts and uncles had all lived on the pathologist’s farm.

They had some old footage of that farm and I recently saw it. It’s shot at either in 8mm or 16mm and shows my grandfather and Dr. Turner, the pathologist, on the combine. I had never seen a moving image of my grandfather—only old photographs—but this is in color, and it’s about 7 minutes long. It shows the crop-dusting, the aerial view, the ground view, and my grandfather and Dr. Turner in the cotton field. And it just brought on a completely different personal connection to my study of the Bracero Program, a layer that I didn’t anticipate but which was quite incredible.

This work, the way that I live… I consider it in a holistic manner. I’m mindful, and thoughtful, and concerned about what these men and many other men have gone through. Not just Mexican laborers who were brought here to work, but many others who are constantly working in difficult agricultural conditions and exposed to pesticides. The use of pesticides impacts our food. I am mindful of the things that we’re putting into our bodies and what we’re putting into our soil.

I am also very mindful of taking care of my body. How can we eat better? How can I eat foods that help with inflammation? If I’m going to be using my hands to carve two hundred and forty-three dates for an installation, how am I going to take care of my hands? Okay, every night I’m going to ice it. I’m going to research what kind of ointments will be helpful. How am I going to take care of my eyes if I’m drawing or carving? Well, I’ll put on a film or a documentary with subtitles so I can be reading far away as well, to help exercise them. How can I push the work as far as possible but also maintain my own health?

Do you think that the process of remembering is closely tied with forgetting?

Yes. Actually, that is perfectly said. For the latest project that I did for MASS MoCA in Massachusetts—which was curated by Denise Markonish, who also wrote an essay for the Staniar Gallery catalogue—I collected two hundred and forty-three dates and texts from various people, one for each year since the foundation of the American Republic. As I was carving the dates, I really tried to remember each of their submitted texts. And I was trying to hold on to each memory. But after the fourth date, I found that the memories had left me.

How do we remember again, or remind ourselves of these past events? In the case of the Bracero Program, I couldn’t believe that I didn’t know about it more in-depth. I was researching something else and my initial engagement with the Bracero Program was inadvertent in the sense that I had been going on a trajectory defined by my experience studying concentration camps in Germany and then my father said, “Adriana, you need to look in your own backyard.” How did I not know more extensively of this history?

What are your thoughts about moving the flag from its original site to the Staniar Gallery?

It’s really interesting to see it, now no longer on a flagpole. It now has a different life. In just the three months that it was up, you can see that a good chunk of the flag has deteriorated. It’s not going to be exposed to the elements anymore, but here in the Staniar Gallery, it’s showing that deterioration… More importantly, I’m hoping that this work now creates a different conversation.

Writer Miwon Kwon talks about traveling site specificity. I really love that this piece lived where the actual Bracero program occurred, but now it has the opportunity to have another dialogue. Now you all are learning about it. We have a catalogue that speaks extensively about the work and the history of the Bracero Program. Then maybe you can have another dialogue with more people. It’s a chain of events but also a way of introducing me to other people who are looking into these histories, finding other experts in the field.

After the flag flew for three months, it came down. How do you balance your goal of memorializing events that might have escaped the public’s memoryor were never written downwith a short-term installation? Do you hope to use your art to permanently change public perception and rewrite narratives?

These projects are almost like the newspaper. First, we get the headlines. How then can the work have another life and continue the dialogue? For example, maybe you’ve read about my work regarding the feminicidios in Juárez. Even though I made that work years ago, museums continue to show it. It’s a way of extending the dialogue in the public sphere. I love that the work has that opportunity to be regenerated, shown again.

Some of the work is fairly ephemeral…Say, for example, when I work with either classified or confidential documents, I burn the documents and I’m left with ashes. I’m creating my own archive now and send those ashes to my studio. I’m archiving where the event happened: What was the day? Who was involved? I record those details in an archive so we know that the events that they are associated with happened.

I’m often working from a trace and I’m leaving a trace behind as well. Like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights installed in the Staniar Gallery. Those were created from an installation at Artpace in San Antonio, Texas. Tablets made of soil and ash bearing the pages of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were placed in front of a burial plot that Artpace allowed me to dig in the gallery. During the de-installation of the Artpace exhibition, we buried those tablets in the plot, along with letters addressing our human rights. I like the fact that letters, the soil, and ash tablets are living underneath and have the possibility to be exhumed to tell another story.

The plates used to cast the soil and ash tablets of the UDHR created Laditudes, which are the blind debossed prints in the Staniar Gallery. The Staniar Gallery exhibition contains a trace from that exhibition. It at first happened inadvertently that I was working from a trace, but now I’m becoming more aware that I am leaving a trace behind. In this case, the Rio Vista soil drawing will be painted over—embedded in the wall. It will still live there but underneath several coats of paint. I’m now leaving a trace on this gallery.