Tuesday, May 28, 2024

BORDERS shares the history of asylum seekers

By Cinara Marquis

“BORDERS: Migrations North + South” is an exhibition in the Myers Art Gallery that covers migrations of asylum-seekers across the US-Mexico and US-Canada borders.

Curated by Amy Mountcastle from the anthropology department, the exhibition includes art, photography and artifacts related to the border crossing at Roxham Road and the Southern border. Coming from ongoing research by a group of SUNY Plattsburgh faculty, the exhibition shares the intimate humanity of those who embark on a journey to cross the border. 

“It’s such an incredibly human story. It’s not just a bunch of people trying to find a better life — it sounds like that’s an everyday throwaway statement now,” Mountcastle said. 

Her team has been working on the project for years, meeting with artists, migrants, observing the border and co-operating with humanitarian organizations.

“I didn’t choose this topic. It was there. I could’ve ignored it, right? I could’ve said, ‘Well I don’t do that as a researcher’ but I do do that. My research is and has been about asylum seekers, refugees, identity, displacement, emplacement – at the same time it’s in our own backyard,” Mountcastle said.

She’s referring to Roxham Road. In Champlain, New York, just 30 minutes from SUNY Plattsburgh, is the landmark thoroughfare that was a site for asylum seekers to cross the US-Canada border. The five-mile rural road was an unofficial entry point, “it was an irregular port of entry so they were able to declare asylum there,” Mountcastle explained. 

Basically, under the original negotiation between the two countries, the requirement of claiming asylum within the first country that one reaches applied only to crossings at ports of entry, and not between, making Roxham Road a loophole to the agreement.

“It was very sobering to be there every time. It was shocking at Roxham Road.” Mountcastle watched as people crossed the border into Canada.

“It’s families, it’s single women, it’s single men, it’s old people, it’s young people, it’s children, it’s single mothers, single fathers. It’s all kinds of people. It’s such a part of the story that entire families are on the move,” Mountcastle said. 

Much of the artwork represents these families, photographs of children and their parents, found objects, a stuffed animal, a toy keychain, a stroller and on one wall, toe tags of those who died at the southern border.

“It’s taken artists involved in this quite some time to figure out how to make sense of it and what they want to convey. With this kind of work it is especially very difficult to stay at arms-length,” Mountcastle said. 

Many photos and artworks, such as “Hostile Terrain 94,” a participatory installation where real toe tags representational of migrants who died attempting to cross the Sonoran Desert of Arizona over the last 30 years mark on a wall map where their remains were found.

Beside that piece is Alvaro Enciso’s “Donde Mueren los Sueños” (Where Dreams Die) a collection of images of his secular crosses which stand in remembrance of the person who died at that site. The death toll reaches more than 3,600 people in the desert. Enciso has spent the last decade of his life creating and placing more than 800 crosses at these sites.

“Originally, it was just going to be a northern border show, but as things developed in our research team, we were discussing that we should include the southern border because the distance is really not that far. We had people coming from the southern border, which means they came from countries of South America, the continent of Africa, Haiti, Afghanistan. They were coming to North America and then some of them continued to Roxham Road. Even in the early days, they were headed to Canada,” Mountcastle explained. “But, with this kind of work, it is especially very difficult to stay arms-length.”

“In anthropological research the practice is to immerse yourself in other people’s worlds,” Mountcastle said. “It can be very rewarding but it can be also very difficult, especially when you are immersing yourself in people’s worlds when their worlds are about struggle, fear and trauma.”

Mountcastle met with photographers at Roxham Road and formed a bond with them, recognizing how important it is to show the community the world that we live in.  She asked the artists to decide what they wanted to show for themselves— photos of families and children, portraits of single people crossing and pictures of the landscape plaster the walls. 

“I think that the photographers — each of them have done that in their own way. They see the individuality and that is just the photographer and artistic mind,” Mountcastle said.

Museum Director Tonya Cribb wrote of the importance of the exhibit on our campus, “My goals for all exhibition programming is to host exhibits that are cross-disciplinary in nature and support academic work occurring throughout campus. Additionally, this topic is of great interest to our community and an important topic nationwide.”

As of March 25, the Roxham Road border crossing was eliminated after a renegotiation agreement between the U.S. and Canada.

Mountcastle said, “Through the arts you can bring people together. When people are interested in the cultural aspects of something, then they are more open, like they are able to hear, listen and see and I think that is also a part of my motivation to bring this into a gallery setting.”

You can see “BORDERS: Migrations North + South” throughout the week from noon to 4 p.m. excluding Monday. The exhibition will be found in Burke Gallery and Slatkin Study Room until March 8, 2024.


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