The hundreds of backpacks now on display at The New School don’t belong to students there. Many of their owners are not even wondering what became of the mementos, clothes and other items small and light enough to fit inside them — some of them are children’s bookbags.
This wall of backpacks that reaches all the way to the ceiling at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center tells the story of journey that will never be finished. They belonged to migrants who had made the dangerous illegal crossing into the U.S. across the Mexican border, only to perish during their four-day trek across Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. Part of the exhibit involves walking across a video projection of what artist Richard Barnes calls “the debris field” of trash and personal belongings that line their path.
“Now, more than ever, in the aftermath of a presidential campaign that fed off anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric, it is absolutely critical to look deeper into the migrant experience and raise questions as to what the future may hold for the thousands of people fleeing dire poverty, drug cartel violence and political instability to the south,” according to a statement by curators. “These objects are fragments of a history of both suffering and resiliency, and the images and voices reveal the desolation, hope and trials of their odysseys.”
The exhibit, State of Exception/Estado de Excepción, is open daily through April 17 at 66 Fifth Ave. at 13th Street; admission is free. It began with the Undocumented Migration Project by professor Jason De Leon, who teaches anthropology at the University of Michigan, and created with the help of artists Amanda Krugliak and Richard Barnes.
Besides the backpacks, State of Exception features some of the migrants’ personal belongings, including toothbrushes and personal items. Audio interviews with some of the migrants, as well as some of their own photos taken during their journeys, also give the exhibit more context.
“No matter what you think of illegal migration, ultimately people should not be dying,” Barnes says during a walkthrough of the exhibit — watch it here: