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Learning about Clandestine Migration through Art and Anthropology

Learning about Clandestine Migration through Art and Anthropology

By Mélissa Gauthier, University of Victoria, Winner of the 2022 CASCA Award for Teaching Excellence (Faculty)

UVic Anthropology faculty member Mélissa Gauthier. Photo by Ute Muller.

UVic Anthropology faculty member Mélissa Gauthier. Photo by Ute Muller.

How can the blending of anthropology and art help us think about pressing global issues like migration and create engaged and meaningful learning in the classroom? Collaborations between artists and anthropologists have flourished in recent years as part of a trend in both disciplines toward collaborative research practices with a socially-engaged character. The topic of migration has been a very fertile ground for recent curatorial collaborations between artists and anthropologists.

The exhibition Transient Matter: Assemblages of Migrations in the Mediterranean curated by anthropologist Yannis Hamilakis is a thought-provoking display of everyday objects and art from the Moria refugee camp on Lesvos, an island on the Greek-Turkish border. Based on ongoing fieldwork and collaboration with NGOs and refugee advocacy groups on Lesvos, Hamilakis’s curatorial work and its emphasis on materiality, borders, and critical pedagogy underscores the significance of human connection and engagement within archaeological and anthropological practices.

Another vibrant example of this form of creative collaboration is the exhibition Making Migration Visible: Traces, Tracks & Pathways curated by artist Julie Poitras Santos and anthropologist Catherine Besteman. The exhibition featured several artists whose creations evoke stories about the experiences and materialities of displacement, exile, and mobility. Also showcased as part of the exhibition was the multimedia installation Hostile Terrain, focused on various sensory engagements with the world of clandestine migration, a collaboration between anthropologist Jason De León, visual artist Lucy Cahill and photographer Michael Wells.

Anthropologists like Besteman and De León have a common interest for exploring ways to bring anthropological critiques to broader audiences through visual registers, such as websites, films, and most especially art exhibitions. Visual artist and anthropologist Lydia Nakashima Degarrod (2020) describes art exhibits like Transient Matter and Making Migration Visible as powerful forms of public anthropology which have the capacity to transform understandings of the world and the potential to bring about social change. Jason De León directs the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP), a nonprofit research, arts, and education collective that works to humanize the migrant experience and illuminate the loss of life at the U.S./Mexico border by translating archeological and anthropological data into public education and art initiatives. The latest curation of the UMP, Hostile Terrain 94, converts research and policy into an emotional experience that students and visitors can touch, interact with and learn from. What follows is a brief account of my students’ participation in this global pop-up art exhibition in the context of an undergraduate class that I teach at the University of Victoria called Economic Underworlds & Globalization.

The very practice of irregular migration – migrant smuggling included – takes center stage in this course about “illegal” and “informal” economies in the contemporary world. Students taking this class learn to challenge dichotomies such as legal/illegal, licit/illicit and formal/informal, by engaging with the everyday practices of people making a living in “the gaps” or “shadows” of globalization including artisanal miners, khat farmers, kidney sellers and human smugglers. I use a wide range of ethnographies on unauthorized border crossings from various regions of the world to help students critically rethink simplistic narratives of clandestine migration which tend to overlook the perspectives of those who rely on smugglers for their mobility. This semester, our involvement in Hostile Terrain 94 enabled students to witness first-hand what Catherine Besteman (2019) describes as the murderous effects of border management regimes.

The name Hostile Terrain 94 highlights the ongoing U.S. border enforcement strategy known as Prevention Through Deterrence (PTD) that began in 1994. Its implementation along the U.S.-Mexico border came with heightened security measures at urban points of entry and unprecedented numbers of migrants forced to cross through more hostile environments like the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona, in a failed deterrence strategy that instead leaves many of them injured, lost or dead. The goal of this participatory art project is to memorialize these lost lives, while also educating the public about the human cost of border enforcement policies. The end result is a giant wall map of the Arizona–Mexico border filled with over 3,200 handwritten toe tags symbolizing the individual migrants who have died crossing the Sonoran Desert since the mid-1990s.

“Hostile Terrain” is a 16-foot-long map of the Arizona-Mexico border filled with identification tags of those who died trying to migrate to the United States. Department of Anthropology, University of Victoria. Photo by Ute Muller.

The participatory nature of Hostile Terrain 94 is integral to the process of the exhibition. The most powerful participatory component of this project involves the time and effort required of students to meticulously fill out the ~3200 individual toe tag cards that include the name, age, sex, cause of death, condition of body, and location of recovery for each person. Toe tags come in two different colors. Manila tags represent people who have been identified and orange tags are used for unidentified human remains.

Some of the tags filled out by UVic Anthropology students as part of the “Hostile Terrain” exhibition. Photos by Ute Muller and Alexandrine Boudreault-Fournier

Throughout the semester, much of the physical and emotional labor involved in filling out the toe tags occurred both inside and outside of class. Several students in the class reported filling out toe tags with friends and relatives and having meaningful conversations with them about migrant deaths and the hundreds of still unidentified people whose remains have yet to be reunited with family members.
The physical and repetitive act of handwriting proved to be especially meaningful to students. Students often talked about the task at hand as a reflective and meditative process which got them seriously thinking about the meaning behind the creation of these toe tags and the fact of being part of such an emotional and intimate form of witnessing. Drawing a parallel between her own migration journey and the experience of undocumented border crossers and reflecting on her own positionality and privilege as a migrant, one student, Mariana, said: “Writing each toe tag immersed me in the caring and grief of these people. I wondered what was so different about me that I did not have to experience the same fate as they did. I understood that there is no real difference from me and the folk who cross the US-Mexico border by foot. We have differences in circumstances, whereas I have had privileges throughout my migration process, they did not”. Students were also directly involved in the construction of the installation by carefully attaching each single toe tag to the 16 foot long wall map. The toe tags are geolocated to the exact location where human remains were recovered in the desert. The location of each toe tag is indicated by a specific case number found on a series of printed grid sheets. For Jason De León, head curator of HT 94, the meticulous task of placing toe tags in the exact spot where human remains were recovered is a deeply felt moral responsibility to accurately memorialize and honor the dead.

UVic Anthropology faculty member Mélissa Gauthier with undergraduate students Emma Emile and Royal Dedora. Photo by Alexandrine Boudreault-Fournier.

De León and his team have encouraged their numerous hosting partners to transform the exhibition within the context of their own local communities by creating complementary programming unique to each site. During the months leading to the actual exhibition, our department sponsored various events on campus such as a film screening of Border South[i] during the 11th Latin American & Spanish Film Week and a public lecture by anthropologist and Yoeme-Chicana activist Christina Leza whose most recent research has focused on Indigenous activist responses to U.S.-Mexico border enforcement. While our department, like so many other hosting partners across the world, was forced to postpone and adapt the exhibition in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, Hostile Terrain 94 has taught us a great deal about our collective capacity to humanize migrants through art and anthropology.


Besteman, Catherine. 2019. “Militarized Global Apartheid.” Current Anthropology 60 (S19): S26-S38.
Nakashima Degarrod, Lydia. 2020. “The Anthropologist as Artist”, Anthropology News, 61(5): 8-13.

[i] I have reviewed the documentary Border South/Frontera Sur, directed by Raúl O. Paz Pastrana and co-produced by anthropologist Jason De León for a special issue of the Teaching & Learning Anthropology Journal on Teaching Migration.

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