Art, activism, and immigration: Students examine “Hostile Terrain 94”

Part of the Hostile Terrain 94 exhibiton, coming to MCLA Gallery 51 in February 2021: More than 3,200 toe tags, each representing someone who lost their life attempting to cross the Sonoran Desert to reach the U.S.

This academic year, MCLA students are interacting with and contributing to a Berkshire Cultural Resource Center exhibit that sheds light on U.S. border policy and the casualties to which it contributes.

MCLA is one of 100 sites worldwide to host Hostile Terrain 94, a multisite, interactive installation that illustrates, in stark terms, the violence of United States border policies by memorializing the thousands of people who have perished seeking to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

The full exhibition will open in February, and leading up to its opening, students are interacting with visiting artists, helping create some of the work that will be displayed, and creating pieces that respond to questions posed within the context of Hostile Terrain’s subject matter. MCLA Gallery 51 is also featuring the work of artists Sergio de la Torre and Chris Treggiari of the Sanctuary City Project, as well as Trinh Mai, all of whom are collaborating with the MCLA community on a series of workshops and experiences that examine identity, belonging, fear, and trauma. 

Assistant Professor of Anthropology Anna Jaysane-Darr is conducting a one-credit class titled Hostile Terrain ’94: Art, Activism, and Immigration, which is built around the exhibition and its related programming, challenging students to think in the curatorial sense about how art and curation can be tools of social change, particularly around immigration. 

Among other activities, students in Jaysane-Darr’s class have participated in conversations with artists, and in November will create posters that correspond with de la Torre and Treggiari’s work through the Sanctuary City Project, through which billboards and advertisements have been posted asking community members to respond via phone hotline to the questions “when did you forget you were an immigrant?” and “what would you say to an immigrant?” 

Jaysane-Darr’s students, as well as students in Assistant Professor of English Victoria Papa’s Creativity and Survival class, will create 3,200 toe tags, each representing one person who has died attempting to traverse the Sonoran Desert to cross U.S.-Mexico border. The toe tags will be posted on a large map that will be displayed in the February exhibition. “Each toe tag needs to be filled out by hand,” Jaysane-Darr said. “This is a way to honor the dead, but also is an act of witnessing that which is often erased.”

The toe tags, and the people they represent, are meant to draw awareness of how many immigrants die in the desert as a result of the U.S.’ Prevention through Deterrence policy, which was adopted in 1994. The policy redirects migrants into the Sonoran Desert, away from more populated areas, as a way to deter people from attempting the journey, and has resulted in approximately 10,000 deaths since it was instituted.

Papa will coordinate a virtual event for her students so they can ruminate together as they fill out each toe tag. “I’m trying to make it a reflective and meditative process, where we’re thinking through what it means to be creating these toe tags and thinking about what this project means in terms of the questions of witnessing—what it means to witness these deaths in this way, and what it means to transform these stories of trauma into an artistic installation,” Papa said. 

Professor of Arts Management Lisa Donovan’s Arts and Social Justice class, co-taught with Erica Barreto, coordinator of MCLA’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities, will also fill out toe tags and engage with artists virtually via Zoom. Hostile Terrain 94 is a launch point for how Donovan’s students will consider how the arts can create change through awareness, dialogue, behavior, and more.

A class taught by Professor of Art Melanie Mowinski will work with the Sanctuary City Project to employ Design Thinking, interviews, and research methods to explore a theme that interests them around the topic of immigration, then create text-based posters that incorporate this research with aesthetic presentation. The posters will be on view in the February HT94 exhibition. 

In planning their curriculums, the professors met regularly with BCRC Director Erica Wall for the better part of a year. Hostile Terrain 94 is an opportunity to enrich student understanding of how the arts and activism can intersect, the history and consequences of U.S. border policy, and how professional artists draw inspiration from these topics—interdisciplinary goals that can apply to many fields of study. MCLA has also partnered with Williams College professors, including Lipp Family Endowed Chair of Dance Sandra Burton, to find intersections around HT94 for students. 

“It’s been really fun to have these conversations across different disciplines, from English to Anthropology to Art and Arts Management, and see where the common threads are as educators, as scholars, and as people,” Jaysane-Darr said. “I feel like this kind of interdisciplinary work is at the foundation of what a liberal arts college does. For me, Hostile Terrain epitomizes what we’re trying to accomplish here, but also what I hope to do with my teaching and all of my work.” 

Learn more about Hostile Terrain 94 at