Saugatuck, MI

El Sueño Americano: Images of the confiscated possessions of migrants seeking the American dream

el sueno americano

This October, Saugatuck Center for the Arts will host an exhibition of thought-provoking photographs titled “El Sueño Americano”—or “The American Dream”—by photographer Tom Kiefer.  You can attend the exhibition’s opening reception on October 25, 2018. The images will remain on view through December 22, 2018. Learn all about the exhibition below.

El Sueno Americano
El Sueno Americano
El Sueno Americano
Images: Tom Kiefer

Tom Kiefer’s “El Sueño Americano” comes to Saugatuck Center for the Arts

Separating an object from its context can obscure its meaning, eliminating any sense of certainty you might have had about it. In its place sprout questions like “Whose was this?” and “How was this used?” and “What is it doing here?” The decontextualized object takes on a life of its own, becoming a kind of ghost of its former owner, replete with mystery.

This is the feeling Tom Kiefer’s series of more than 100 photographs titled “El Sueño Americano” inspires. The photos will be on view at Saugatuck Center for the Arts from October 25-December 22, 2018 in what will be Kiefer’s first major solo exhibition.

“I saw Tom’s work at Art Prize last year,” said Whitney Valentine, the education and exhibitions manager at Saugatuck Center for the Arts. “With our Growing Young Artists program still at the forefront of my mind, I was incredibly moved by his images and knew that our West Michigan community would benefit greatly from seeing his works.”

She reached out to Kiefer and secured this October’s exhibition featuring new work. In the time that has passed since, the exhibition has received a flurry of national attention.

“While the aesthetics of the images alone are striking, the work reminds us of the game-changer that is context. The stories behind these objects, especially the mysteries, are what give the work its real power,” Valentine said.

The extraordinary ordinary

The objects within Kiefer’s photographs once belonged to migrants caught illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. When Border Patrol officials apprehend undocumented migrants, they confiscate “nonessential” possessions and discard them. Kiefer worked as a janitor for a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol facility in Arizona for 12 years, and it was during this time that he began collecting these items from the trash. At first, he sought packaged food to donate to a local food pantry. But the more he dug, the more items he discovered, and the more questions he had. He began to collect and photograph the objects, and “El Sueño Americano” was born.

“Tom’s images remind us how extraordinary ordinary items can be,” Valentine said.

Stuffed animals soiled in the spots where children once held them. Plastic water jugs insulated by torn clothing. Toothbrushes, shoelaces, and rosaries—all labeled “potentially lethal” by Border Patrol. These are the objects in Kiefer’s bright photos.

The images’ effect on viewers can be destabilizing. Curator Tori Pelz said the exhibition reminds her of a variously attributed quote on the role of art, which is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

“I think the best art wakes us, calls us to attention, and offers a new perspective on the familiar,” Pelz said. “Tom’s photos possess both a commanding visual presence and a powerful human message.”

Immigration is a divisive political topic. Tom’s work, Valentine said, brings a necessary element of humanity back into the discussion.

“The photographs of the migrant’s personal objects remind us that at the heart of this issue is people—children who treasure their teddy bears, people trying to feed themselves and their families, and those who can’t imagine taking a trip without brushing their teeth,” Valentine said.

Experience “El Sueño Americano” and meet the artist

October 25 marks the exhibition’s opening. It kicks off with “Tacos, Tequila, and Tom”—a themed party featuring the alliterative trio in its title. One $15 VIP ticket gets you two tacos, a tequila-based cocktail (or another drink of your choice), and a guided tour of the exhibition with Kiefer and Pelz. This portion of the opening reception takes place from 5-6 p.m. If you are unable to make it at that time, you can still enjoy tacos, cocktails, and mingling with the artist during the public portion of the reception from 6:30-8 p.m.

“This is Tom’s first major solo exhibition, but since we’ve announced it, he’s received a dizzying amount of national press, and this exhibition is now booked for the next two years,” Pelz said. “In short, he’s kind of a big deal. And he’s eager to speak to what this work means to him, personally.”