The "riverbank" exhibit. Originally commissioned and produced by Artpace San Antonio. Photo by Mark Menjivar.
Mexico remains enthralled by drug cartels, yet as the devastation continues, the war is silenced. Because of fear and the tacit agreement between the government and Mexican media, much of the violence goes unspoken and unreported. People disappear and horrific crimes are committed, but there are no reliable sources to document the overwhelming catastrophe.

Luz María Sánchez is a sound and visual artist who has taken on the herculean task of articulating these tragedies. She plays the courageous role of artist as truth speaker, holding up a revelatory mirror to the situation. Using a wide variety of media, Sánchez makes art that reveals this loss with an uncompromising eloquence.

Born in Guadalajara, Sánchez is a Texas resident who splits her time between San Antonio and Mexico City. She received her PhD in Art from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and currently is a visiting professor of the Digital and Humanities Department at Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (UAM) Lerma.

Sánchez was recently announced as the recipient of the Land Heritage Institute’s Climate Change Artist Commission. She also has a solo exhibition, “diaspora,” at ArtPace that will inhabit the Hudson Showroom through Jan. 3. This past week, Sánchez participated in a two-person show at the Houston gallery, She Works Flexible.

“diaspora contains two pieces that were originally exhibited at Artpace in 2006, when Sánchez participated in the International Artist-in-Residence program. These pieces were recently acquired by Linda Pace Foundation. In one large room, the installation “2487” is an eight channel sound piece with 16 speakers, spaced evenly apart, lining opposite walls. Viewers are invited to sit on a white bench in the center of the room and listen as the artist speaks the 2,487 names of people who were found dead throughout the border region of Mexico and the United States. A small book documents their names, which blend and blur together as they come out through the eight channels.

You can still hear the names being spoken as you walk into another, smaller room, where you find “riverbank,” a long mound of clothes and personal objects. Sánchez picked up these abandoned shirts, shoes, underwear and other objects along the Rio Grande. When migrants cross the border, they change as quickly as possible into dry clothes to avoid getting caught. Wrung out, dirt-sodden and left behind as trash, the collected objects eerily call to mind the Biblical narrative of the rapture, when people are supposed to instantly vanish from their everyday lives. But instead of ascending into heaven, migrants are forced to slip into the shadows as they walk into the unknown.

Luz María Sánchez's "riverbank" exhibit. Originally commissioned and produced by Artpace San Antonio. Photo by Mark Menjivar.
Luz María Sánchez’s “riverbank” exhibit. Originally commissioned and produced by Artpace San Antonio. Photo by Mark Menjivar.

This mound suggests that the Rio Grande bears a striking resemblance to the mythical River Styx, the border between earth and the underworld. In the nine years since Sánchez last exhibited “diaspora,” the problem has not gone away but has only multiplied and is being played out on a global scale with international actors. Her work remains ever more resonant, not only because of the global refugee crisis, but because of the continued problem of unaccompanied minors stuck in a legal limbo in the United States.

In Houston, Sánchez will present “detritus,” which focuses on how violence is portrayed in Mexican media. This extensively researched database contains 15,585 digital images and is available as an interactive website. Sánchez chose two major Mexican newspapers and compiled every story written about the drug war during the 2006-2012 presidency of Felipe Calderón. Certain patterns emerge through her careful documentation, which includes Excel spreadsheets that have been programmed by a young team of software designers. For example, the database reveals that the worst incidences of killings and kidnappings appear during 2009-2010, but after this time, the media signed a contract with the government that promised to avoid covering the violence. Since then, the newspaper stories have diminished, even as the violence continues.

The muzzling of the media causes the living nightmare to have the amorphous quality of a dream; Sánchez translates this phenomenon into a tangible system.

She used a Photoshop filter to abstract the media images, which gives them anonymity so that one sees blotches of colors, and figures but not faces, frozen in time.

Sánchez’s primary concern is social justice. She uses her perspective to make art that awakens people to the reality of the situation. For example, Mexican citizens now post their experiences of violence on social media, such as You Tube and Twitter. She uses the sounds from these shootings in the multi-channel sound sculpture, “V.F(i)n_1” (2014-2015). Sánchez arranged 74 sound devices, shaped like guns, in a grid format. Viewers can push buttons to play the sounds that she has collected from the citizens’ postings. For this piece, she was awarded the first prize at the inaugural Bienal de las Fronteras. In 2015, she was awarded a prestigious National Grant Sistema Nacional de Creadores de Arte by the National Institute of Arts and Culture in Mexico.

Sánchez’s commission from the Land Heritage Institute will allow her to create an installation along the Medina River, as part of “Museo Paseo,” a growing series of trail-accessed art installations including Ansen Seale’s “The Corn Crib,” Nancy Cavendar-Garcia et al’s “Diverse Cultures/One Land” and Jose Chapa’s “Pon la Mesa.”

The Land Heritage Institute is 1,200 acres of open space on the Southside of San Antonio under development as a living land museum aimed at promoting lifelong learning for students of all ages by providing interactive experiences with historical, environmental and cultural landscapes.

Sánchez’s show at the She Works Flexible gallery in Houston, “Ya nos llevó el Nahual/Babaroga je dosla (the Boogeyman is here),” runs until Nov. 7.


*Top image: Luz María Sánchez’s “riverbank” exhibit. Originally commissioned and produced by Artpace San Antonio. Photo by Mark Menjivar. 

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Wendy Weil Atwell

Wendy Weil Atwell is a writer living in San Antonio, Texas. She received her MA in Art History and Criticism from the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2002. Atwell is the author of The River Spectacular...