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Experience SLUMA, MOCRA Exhibitions This Week with Photographer Tom Kiefer

by Maggie Rotermund
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Maggie Rotermund
Senior Media Relations Specialist
maggie.rotermund@slu.edu
314-977-8018

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Artist Tom Kiefer, whose work is currently being showcased in simultaneous exhibits at the Saint Louis University Museum of Art (SLUMA) and the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA), will be at Saint Louis University this week for a series of events and lectures. The Kiefer exhibits are drawn from his ongoing series El Sueño Americano / The American Dream.

Kiefer Exhibit

Tom Kiefer, Pink Camo, 2021. Archival digital prints, each 28 x 28 in. Courtesy of the artist. 

Kiefer will be joined at several of the events by Daisy Vargas, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Religious Studies at the University of Arizona. Vargas specializes in Catholicism in the Americas; race, ethnicity, and religion in the United States; and Latina/o religion. 

Blending documentary and fine art photography, Kiefer photographs objects that once belonged to migrants and were seized and discarded by United States border officials in southern Arizona. He creates these images as a poignant testament to the hardships of migration and a call for human decency in how we treat each other.

El Sueño Americano / The American Dream: Photographs by Tom Kiefer will be on view at SLUMA through Dec. 31. Pertenencias: Recuperando lo sagrado en objetos fronterizos / Belongings: Recovering the Sacred in Objects from the Border will be on view at MOCRA through Dec. 19.

Events

Masks are required at all events. See MOCRA’s site for registration information for events. 

El Sueño Americano / The American Dream: Photographs by Tom Kiefer at SLUMA

El Sueño Americano / The American Dream: Photographs by Tom Kiefer is a traveling exhibition organized by the Skirball Cultural Center and curated by Laura Mart. The exhibition is the first major museum presentation of this body of work. Drawn from the artist’s ongoing series of the same name, the exhibition features more than 100 photographs of objects that once belonged to migrants and were seized and discarded by United States border officials in southern Arizona. 

The project El Sueño Americano / The American Dream began when Kiefer worked part-time as a janitor at a US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facility near Ajo, Arizona, from 2003 to 2014. Initially struck by the waste of usable canned goods, he obtained permission to donate confiscated food items to a local pantry. In the process, he was shocked by the deeply personal items that were also discarded. Belongings crucial for sustenance, hygiene, protection, comfort, and emotional strength—such as letters, Bibles, toys, medication, wallets, water bottles, and toiletries—were thrown away by border officials, who deemed them “potentially lethal” or “non-essential.” Moved by the untold stories these objects embody, Kiefer commemorates them in photographs akin to portraits, salvaging and preserving traces of human journeys cut short.

To deepen its educational impact, the exhibition also includes newly conducted video interviews with the artist, as well as with individuals who have crossed the southern border as migrants. A gallery guide outlines the history of US immigration policy and connects visitors to organizations that provide legal and humanitarian aid for migrants and advocate for a more humane policy at the border.

Tom Kiefer: Pertenencias / Belongings at MOCRA

MOCRA presents Pertenencias: Recuperando lo sagrado en objetos fronterizos / Belongings: Recovering the Sacred in Objects from the Border. Co-curated by MOCRA Director David Brinker and Daisy Vargas, Pertenencias / Belongings considers the objects photographed by Tom Kiefer as testaments to overlooked stories of hope, faith, devotion, and survival. The people who carried these items are bodily absent, but their stories are encoded in the objects, challenging us to examine our assumptions about what—and whom—we consider “sacred.” The exhibition invites reflection on what it means to possess and what it means to lose, and what it means to belong: how we define who is included and who is excluded, and how those boundaries are enforced.

Pertenencias / Belongings features 80 photographs, many newly created for the exhibition, and 6 mantas bordadas (embroidered textiles) selected from among the dozens of handcrafted cloths Kiefer recovered at the CBP facility. A significant feature of the exhibition is a series of photographs of backpacks that evoke the Christian devotional practice of the Stations of the Cross. Backpacks are an essential element of the migrant journey, and Kiefer found a compelling connection between Jesus carrying his cross and migrants carrying all their worldly possessions on their backs across the desert. As visitors walk the perimeter of the gallery—which was originally a chapel—contemplating each backpack, they will engage a rhythm of movement and meditation similar to the traditional Stations of the Cross.

The exhibitions and its related educational programs are made possible by generous support from the following donors: Lived Religion in the Digital Age, Henry Luce Foundation.