Cristian Pineda is a self-taught and multidisciplinary contemporary visual artist from Juchitan, Oaxaca based in Mexico and Belgium. He has a fifteen-year trajectory of working on art projects related to the migrant experience using drawing, painting, photography, video, installation, and participatory art. He has also participated in interdisciplinary dialogues among artists and academics on the theme of migration and has promoted artistic collaborations with peers and with migrants themselves to construct a new understanding of the subjective dimensions of human mobility from the perspective of migrants.

Like many contemporary artists today, Pineda’s work has been stimulated by the highest transnational movement of people in human history driven during the last thirty years by neoliberal economic globalization, wars, structural violence, and ecological disasters. According to 2020 estimates, 281 million people resided outside their country of birth, 34 million of whom were refugees. This means that one out of every ten people living in the most developed countries was a migrant.

While migration has grown to unprecedented levels, nation states have responded with more restrictive immigration laws and the fortification of national borders. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, both processes have intensified: the enormous migratory pressure created by the economic polarization between the Global North and the Global South, and the policies restricting the cross-border movement of people. As is well documented, far from reducing the transnational movement of people, the legal and repressive instruments used by nation states have instead affected the lives, human rights, and dignity of millions of people who have been forced to use clandestine means to enter the countries of the Global North. To understand the degree to which the militarization of national borders has affected the lives of migrants and refugees some facts suffice: it has been estimated that in just ten years, from 1993 to 2003, more than 10,000 migrants died in the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach the European Union. Many of those bodies, driven out to sea, were found on the coasts of Spain and Italy. In 2015, at the peak of this migration “crisis,” more than 3,770 migrants died in their attempt to reach Europe.

In the United States, politicians have declared a symbolic and concrete war on migrants with profound hemispheric consequences. A xenophobic rejection of immigrants has translated into punitive anti-immigrant laws and the racialization of migrants as a threat has hindered their social integration and produced a new underclass living in situations of extreme precarity. The criminalization, mass incarceration, and deportation of undocumented migrants in the United States has been intentionally used to divide families as a form of punishment, both at the border and in their communities. This immigration enforcement regime has had a very high human cost at the U.S.-Mexico border. Military reinforcement with surveillance technologies and the construction of walls with the intention of stopping undocumented migration, far from dissuading migrants, has led to more than ten thousand casualties. Only between 2000 and 2014, 2,721 bodies of people trying to cross the border were recovered in the Arizona desert.

In conjunction with the 2008 recession, this enforcement regime slowly reduced undocumented migration from Mexico but did not stop undocumented migration from Central America. In their transit through Mexico, Central Americans have been facing even more extreme levels of violence. Though the exact numbers are unknown, thousands have been kidnapped, tortured, raped, and massacred in Mexico. According to the Mexican National Commission of Human Rights, more than 10,000 migrants were kidnapped in the first six months of 2009. In 2010, 72 undocumented migrants that were held captive on a ranch in San Fernando, Tamaulipas were murdered. The following year, mass graves were also discovered in San Fernando, with close to 200 bodies of mostly undocumented migrants from Central America. The same year, 11,000 migrants were kidnapped by drug cartels. The vulnerability for migrant women crossing Mexico has been even more drastic: according to human rights reports, 6 of every 10 migrant women trying to cross Mexico are victims of rape.

For many years, the migrants from Central America crossing Mexico were almost invisible. After the mass executions in San Fernando in 2010, however, they started to be featured on the front pages of newspapers and became a recurrent topic on Mexican television. The experience of migrants in transit has also attracted the attention of filmmakers, not only because of the risks, the extreme and systematic violence they face during their journey, but also because the elements of “adventure” linked to their clandestine transit through Mexico.

The hyper-visibility created by the media was problematic for undocumented migrants because it became a new form of surveillance that limited their need to be invisible to the state gaze. Exploitative media representations also contributed to the criminalization and racialization of migrants as a threat by reproducing stereotypes that denied their individuality and humanity.

This violent reality faced by migrants soon captured the interest and imagination of many visual artists and curators all over the world. Besides the sense of urgency to document these experiences of migrant suffering, contemporary artists and curators felt the need to offer a more empathic approach to the human experience of migration. With the collaboration of sociologists or anthropologists, many artists have used an ethnographic approach to produce artworks that offer alternative forms of knowledge that can help us not only to better understand the crises the world is confronting today from a more humanist perspective, but to also help us to imagine that another world is possible.

Throughout his life, Cristian Pineda was exposed to the migrant experience because Juchitan, his hometown, is in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which is the shortest distance between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. This geographical location, historically made this region an obligatory point on the route of migrants traveling north from the south of Mexico and Central America. Pineda recalls that when he was a child, “people would sit and talk with the migrants who were passing through… Locals were very kind and treated them to a taco.” Those memories were very different from what he encountered upon returning to Juchitan after living in Mexico City for a couple of years, where the difficult reality of Central American migrants passing through Mexico was then almost unknown to the vast majority of the population.

An event occurred in October 2007 that led him to ask himself more seriously why he painted and to question his social responsibility as an artist. In that year, Pineda, like many of the inhabitants of Oaxaca, was shocked by the news in the local press about a shipwreck of 26 undocumented Central Americans, in which only two survived. According to the testimony of the survivors, the boat had set sail from Guatemala with the aim of reaching Mexican soil, where they would later be smuggled into the United States. Mexican authorities located only 15 bodies on the beaches of Oaxaca. The photos published by the local press of the decomposing bodies were shocking. But what struck Pineda the most was the fact that the bodies had been buried without being identified because the local morgue did not have the conditions to refrigerate them.

Pineda’s urgent and committed need to document and intervene against the systematic violence faced by Central American migrants in transit through Mexico gave rise in 2008 to the Migrantes Frontera Sur project. Through a program of artistic residencies created by Pineda and artist Demian Flores, they linked artists and other organizations to document, produce, and exhibit artworks on the theme of migration and organized a travelling art exhibition. Pineda followed the migrant route for almost three years. He visited some of the shelters where migrants take refuge, eat, and rest while waiting to hop the next freight train that will take them to the border with the United States. During those three years, Pineda produced nearly 300 drawings with human figures. The drawings were made while he was exploring the migrant route and were produced in notebooks or on whatever material he had at hand, such as napkins and gas receipts. The elaboration of these drawings served as a catharsis that helped Pineda process the reality he saw during his journey. They became a graphic archive that records the precarious conditions and vulnerability of migrants as they pass through Mexico.

None of Pineda’s 300 drawings included a realistic or idealistic portrait of the migrants. Impressed by the mass exodus and the high level of vulnerability and violence he encountered along the way, Pineda drew figures of people who seemed deformed, mutilated, or fragmented. He relied on a visual repertoire full of beasts or beings in transformation and metamorphosis originally inspired by the Zapotec culture and developed by him for his first artistic projects. For Pineda, his grotesque images of migrants recall Francisco de Goya’s engravings of The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters, as well as The Disasters of War series. Pineda’s drawings remind the viewer the consequences of the U.S. war against migrants and what they have been turned into by violence: dehumanized beings criminalized by the law, by police forces, by the media and by people who despise or distrust them when they approach to ask for food or help. The artist argues that he produced these iconographic and archetypical characters not to generate comfort, but to force the viewer to reflect on the violation of the human right to mobility and the violation of the right to a life in peace, without violence.

Over the years, Pineda has incorporated some of these human figures, always in transformation or metamorphosis, into his visual artistic repertoire. He selected 30 Caminantes or human figures in motion, for Paper Walkers (Caminantes de Papel, 2013-2014), his first participatory art project with migrants in transit through Mexico. Created in Mexican shelters by migrants from Central America, Paper Walkers is a series of human-size stencils on Kraff paper, acrylic, and markers. This collaborative project included the participation of sociologist Pascale Naveau and filmmaker Pedro Ultreras.

Pineda’s first retrospective on Human Mobility at the Cultural Centre Alter Schlachthof in Eupen, Belgium (2019) included Paper Walkers and four other projects on migration. Boxes of Life (Cajas de vida) consists of a series of wooden boxes painted and decorated with personal objects by asylum seekers in Belgium (2013) and by youth and mothers traveling with children seeking asylum on the border between Mexico and Guatemala (2015). Circles of Life (Circulos de vida, 2014) includes a series of photographs and a video of an installation created in situ at the U.S.-Mexico border from abandoned personal objects of migrants found in caves in the Arizona Desert. Nomadism/Foreigners (Nomadismos/Extranjerias, 2015) consists of a series of 12 paintings with acrylic and charcoal over linen produced in Belgium; this project was inspired by Pineda’s own nomadic experience as a migrant moving back and forth between Mexico and Belgium because of family reasons. Finally, I Am My House (Yo soy mi casa, 2019) was inspired by the people displaced by the 2017 earthquake in Juchitán, Oaxaca, his hometown, and consists of a series of drawings and paintings on linen, intervened photographs, and laser prints over fragments of bricks and concrete. In Paris, a very similar retrospective exhibition, L’Exode de l’Humanité, opened a year later at the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme (2020).

Pineda’s participatory art projects in Mexico and Europe reinforced his conviction in the right to global human mobility and respect for cultural difference. Those participatory projects also demonstrate the urgent need to construct spaces of autonomy and peace, beyond the violent, repressive, and destructive forces of the state and capital.

Pineda was one of the speakers in the Digital Dialogue on Migrant Rights Within Empire, Art Activism and Democracy. The dialogue was part of the Human Rights: Pasts and Futures Society of Fellows, 2020-21, organized by the OSU Global Arts & Humanities Discovery Theme. As part of the digital dialogue, between February and April 2021, I met with him a dozen times on Zoom to talk about his trajectory as an artist. The virtual Zoom conversation shared below is a fragment of our interview that focuses on his interest in migrant experiences and human rights. We also discuss how his artistic projects on human mobility and his involvement with migrants and refugees has affected his visual vocabulary as an artist. Finally, Pineda shares his thoughts about the figure of the migrant as a creator and the possibilities for migrants to express and communicate their own experiences through participatory art projects.

Víctor M. Espinosa, Department of Sociology, The Ohio State University at Newark.