Freedom Tower Art Show Tells the Immigrant's Tale

Miami's Ellis Island is an ideal place for this provocative exhibit.

The Freedom Tower is no stranger to the displaced, destitute, or fearful. During the '60s and '70s, the stately Biscayne Boulevard landmark served as a refugee assistance center. Now it stands as a monument to the Cuban immigration that forever altered our city.

The federal government used the facility to process, document, and provide medical and dental services to tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the Castro regime. Many consider the iconic building the Ellis Island of the South, and some even say the ghosts of early Cuban newcomers still roam its halls.

A provocative photo and video exhibition currently housed there fills the place with the faces of immigrants from places as far-flung as Mexico and Morocco. "Laberinto de Miradas" ("Labyrinth of Glances") includes more than 150 works by 35 artists from Spain, Portugal, and Latin America who have captured the drama and issues of shifting identity of those who have fled their native lands.

From Cia de Foto's 911: The Value of Urban Space.
From Cia de Foto's 911: The Value of Urban Space.
From Eduardo Hirose's Project Pozuzo.
From Eduardo Hirose's Project Pozuzo.

Details

"Laberinto de Miradas": Through March 5. Freedom Tower at Miami Dade College, 600 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-237-7186, mdc.edu. Tuesday through Friday noon to 5 p.m. Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The exhibit eschews stereotypical views of what "immigration" means, focusing instead on how some groups can become internal exiles while others desperately try to cling to their cultures in foreign climes. The searing images include a Cuban man who was imprisoned and beaten for trying to flee to Miami. Then there's the wild-eyed glance of an African man waiting to scale a wire fence into Europe, as well as a teeming mass of immigrants risking their lives to cross the Guatemalan border into Mexico aboard the "death trains."

Curated by Spanish photographer Claudi Carreras, the exhibition is one of three immigration-related shows that will travel for the next few years through 20 countries in Europe and Latin America. It was organized by the Spanish Agency of International Cooperation for Development and the Catalunya America House, and is presented here by the local Spanish Cultural Center and Miami Dade College.

Carreras spent 18 months traveling across Spain, Portugal, and Latin America contacting hundreds of photographers for the show. "I wanted to explore immigration beyond the limitations of frontiers both physical and conceptual," he explains. "While globalization has made the world smaller, and systems of communication have become more fluid, borders have also become more closed. It's those contradictions between frontiers and globalization we wanted to address here."

His ambitious project will culminate when all three exhibits travel to Barcelona in 2010 to combine in a mega-show featuring more than 600 works by over 100 artists for what Carreras calls the largest documentary photo expo in Ibero-American history.

The harsh realities of illegal border crossings are depicted in Sergi Camara's arresting images of young African men who attempt to enter the autonomous Spanish territory of Melilla on the North African coast. Despite double-reinforced fences with movement sensors, infrared cameras, and 24-hour surveillance by the Civil Guard, the young Africans who can't scrape out their existence in the nearby mountains gather daily for the perilous journey into Europe.

One of the photos is a closeup of men's hands warming over a meager charcoal fire. Another image captures a lone man frozen in searchlights while trying to scale a chainlink fence topped with razor-sharp concertina wire. He is holding over his head a makeshift ladder fashioned from tree branches.

Another series by Portugal's Jordi Burch reflects a Cuban dissident's failed attempts to flee the island. A man named Ernesto tried to row homemade rafts to Miami on numerous occasions. Again and again, he was arrested and sentenced to jail time. His body is crisscrossed with scars and crude tattoos he inflicted on himself while in prison. To him, Cuba is both home and dungeon. He is seen comforting his children, wife, and mother while planning his next escape.

Cuba's Raúl Cañibano starkly illustrates the vagaries of life in his impoverished homeland. In the artist's black-and-white photos, Havana's citizens ingeniously deal with power outages and empty storefronts. Boys engage in horseplay on city streets flooded with water while women gather on front stoops to gossip.

In one of Cañibano's striking images, a young woman facing the viewer sits in a wheelchair as she rests her chin in her hands. Boredom rims her eyes, while behind her, a man is buried to his waist in his truck's stalled engine.

Another photo depicts a bride preparing for her nuptials in a darkened room while relatives illuminate her with a battery-operated light fixture. The photographer's subtle pictures speak volumes about people stealing moments of joy while surrounded by misery.

The Non-Existing Mexican Frontier, a powerful series by Mauricio Palos, conveys a sense of the physically harrowing journey endured by Guatemalan boys and men searching for work in Mexico or on their way to the United States. Many of them hop rides atop railroad boxcars, where they are assaulted and robbed by local gangs and then tossed to the ground. Some get sucked under the speeding trains while trying to board them, losing their lives or suffering severe mutilation. One of the images shows a collection of prosthetic feet destined for men who have lost theirs.

One of the more unusual series on display is Project Pozuzo by Eduardo Hirose, who has in recent years documented an Austro-German community founded in the Peruvian jungle in 1859 as part of a government plan to establish European colonies in the region. The colony was isolated for more than 100 years, until a paved road reached it in 1974. Since then, the outside world has encroached on the insular culture, and many of the younger residents have migrated to seek jobs elsewhere.

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