Sheri Crider described looking through the fence onto the building and surrounding grounds of Cibola Detention Center—a large, privately run center that detains immigrants west of Albuquerque. Mass incarceration has long been an inquiry of Crider's work. She was at the facility near Milan doing research, observation and documenting the place while security patrolled the fence line. “They don't want people to see it,” she pointed out. She described a moment that day when a flock of birds rose skyward from the ground. Crider was struck by their “magical interaction with that environment.”
Birds symbolize a lot of things for many of us who are so firmly earthbound. For Crider they are “a symbol of migration and freedom,” but carry even more weight than that on the curved backs of their wings. Hanging in her workshop at Sanitary Tortilla Factory—the gallery and artist studios that she started which has been located on the corner of Second Street and Lead Avenue since 2016—is a duck-like form built in wood, suspended on wire. It hangs among more of similar design, but it has an aged, weathered quality that stands out.
“This body of work is inspired by two men in my life, a half-decade apart, from two different countries,” Crider explained. This particular bird was constructed by her grandfather many years ago, out of wood salvaged from an Arizona dumpster. “That bird is very symbolic of my grandfather's exceptional empathy,” Crider said, going on to describe how it has traveled with her from studio to studio. “He was the person in my life, who—through multiple incarcerations—would always listen and always extend empathy towards me. I like to focus on the possibility of creating empathy in the conversations surrounding mass incarceration.”
The second man who has shaped this expansive project—titled Flight—was a man Crider befriended at a construction site where they both worked 14 years ago. He was from Veracruz, Mexico, and supported his whole family there by working almost every single day. He and Crider became close friends. After Donald Trump was elected, she described the course of their usual conversations shifting—“He started asking me, 'Do people really feel this way?' and watching the news, we're both wondering, what's going to happen?”
In the aftermath of alleged human rights abuses, Cibola Detention Center—once a prison—became a facility where migrants are held. The relationship between Crider's own experiences of incarceration, as well as her broader interest in such injustices is naturally extended to the detention of immigrants. “It's really the same conversation,” she said, which largely hinges on “how we lock people up based on color.” Crider's dedication to exploring these issues, generating conversation, and perhaps—if we are lucky—even empathy, led her to apply for and receive a Right of Return Fellowship, which supports formerly incarcerated artists. Partially sponsored through that fellowship, she spent the last year and a half developing Flight, a multi-part installation that will open at the UNM Museum of Art (1 University of New Mexico) on Friday, Aug. 24 with a reception from 4 to 7pm.
As viewers descend the museum stairs into the lower gallery, they are greeted by a flock of some 650 migratory birds of more than 70 different species. They are suspended by barely visible wire, so much so that their pale wings—made from wood salvaged from a dumpster, of course—seem to be lifted by a breeze. These were made by Crider, her assistant Magdalena Ramos-Mullane and about 150 visitors to community workshops led by Crider and other artists which aimed to generate conversation around the detention of immigrants and build connection and empathy. This was a vital piece of the process for Crider. “I think that having an exhibition in a museum or a gallery, it doesn't have any breadth, you know?” Instead, she aims to litmus test the effectiveness of how art might generate cultural change through workshops, through more discussion and expansive interfacing with the community at large—not just the art community. “I don't know,” she said, “but I do know that art has potential.”
In the rest of the gallery, there is video projection of bird refuges, several gouache paintings by Crider which hone in on detention centers and the massive profits they turn, interactive maps illustrating shifting borders throughout history and sculpture as well. Reflecting on her personal experiences, the figures who have so impacted her life and how politics, profits and racism has shaped collective futures—it kind of all coalesced into this project. “It's amazing how the universe created this moment where I could put together all these really complex ideas,” she said.
“My short notes to history,” she went on “is that it repeats itself. … It's just the long story of power, money and violence.” She pointed out that so many of the conversations that arise out of Flight—on mass incarceration, on conservation, on immigration—have been vital talking points since the ’70s. “So what is it that keeps us from making change happen?” She asked. We wondered aloud that perhaps, sadly, it is existing power structures perpetuating themselves ad infinitum. I asked Crider if intensely engaging with these topics ever weighs on her. “I would say, about every six weeks, I'll have a day where I feel super depressed,” she said. “But there's no benefit in that. I feel terrible, but it's not helping the situation—the better path is to try to do something.”
Proceeds from workshops and the purchase of birds from Flight have gone directly to the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center (nmilc.org). Throughout the duration of the exhibition—that is, until Dec.1—there will be workshops and panel discussions on art as social practice, mass incarceration and radical empathy building. A full schedule of these can be found online at artmuseum.unm.edu/