If you want to get your point across and stir up a controversy, placing the baby Jesus in a cage and the Virgin Mary in handcuffs is a great way to start. As part of the exhibit Cuatro Corazones One Spirit currently on display at the South Broadway Cultural Center, Jemez Springs’ own Raymond Sandoval has hit on an exquisite formula for making a statement about America’s current obsession with immigration and deportation. Working in bas-relief, Sandoval has taken the materials, techniques and iconography of ubiquitous Madonna and child religious portraits and created Send Her Back by placing both of them in the hands of two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
The power of this work stems from its accessability. For nearly all that would see it here in New Mexico, the message should be clear, a mark rarely strived for, and even less often achieved in much of modern art. What to do with people who are not where some in authority think they should be can be argued, but in this piece, Sandoval clearly places Jesus and Mary among that unfortunate group of people in the wrong place and wrong time for some. Using “send her back,” the racist chant that’s all the rage in contemporary fascist circles, as the title further clarifies the piece’s purpose.
Important art (which is not necessarily the same as great art) often speaks to what a culture is feeling or thinking. The tradition of placing religious figures in contemporary context can get tiresome, but Sandoval has made it work here. The gilding is a nice touch, as is placing the ICE officer’s hand up to his eyes, presumably to shield them from her glowing rays. It shows reverence on Sandoval’s part, hopefully enough to temper anyone’s instinct to call Send Her Back blasphemous or attempt to relitigate Andres Serrano’s Reagan-era Piss Christ debate. This is, after all, art, not actual iconography.
Any debate should rest squarely on what Send Her Back is saying about America’s approach to immigration and how those of the Christian faith should respond. It is nothing if not an important debate worth having and worth reflecting in our art. To his credit, Raymond Sandoval has put it into plain language to help spur the conversation.