SLU Museums Present Two Exhibitions of Work by Photographer Tom Kiefer
The Saint Louis University Museum of Art (SLUMA) and the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA) will hold simultaneous exhibitions of work by photographer Tom Kiefer, drawn from his ongoing series El Sueño Americano / The American Dream. Opening receptions will take place on Sept. 3 at SLUMA from 4 to 8 p.m. and at MOCRA from 5 to 9 p.m.
Blending documentary and fine art photography, Tom Kiefer (b. 1959) 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 from Sept. 3 through Dec. 31, 2021. Pertenencias: Recuperando lo sagrado en objetos fronterizos / Belongings: Recovering the Sacred in Objects from the Border will be on view at MOCRA from Sept. 3 through Dec. 19.
El Sueño Americano / The American Dream: Photographs by Tom Kiefer at SLUMA
SLUMA presents El Sueño Americano / The American Dream: Photographs by Tom Kiefer, 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.
“When I came upon these items in garbage bags, I wondered: Whose things are these? Who discarded them and why, and what do we as Americans make of all this?” explained Kiefer. “My intent with the project is to explore the humanity of the migrants who risk their lives crossing through the desert and to create a way for the viewer to connect personally with the women, men, and children who make that journey and their hopes for the future.”
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.
“How we treat the most vulnerable—including immigrants seeking a better life—defines our character as a nation,” said Laura Mart, Skirball curator. “As immigration policies have taken center stage in an increasingly polarized national debate, El Sueño Americano / The American Dream: Photographs by Tom Kiefer presents an opportunity to reflect on the United States’ historic and threatened role as a place of welcome.”
“Through these images, we urge visitors to consider the parallels between the migrants’ belongings and our own and begin to imagine the dreams of each person who carried them across hundreds of miles,” said Mart. “We hope Tom Kiefer’s body of work fosters an understanding of real human struggle and reminds us of our obligation to help build a more just society.”
Tom Kiefer: Pertenencias / Belongings at MOCRA
Concurrently with the SLUMA exhibition, 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, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Arizona, 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.
Opened in 2003, the Saint Louis University Museum of Art (SLUMA) is located in a Beaux Arts style building, originally built in 1900 for the Saint Louis Club. Saint Louis University’s collection, which dates back to the University’s early days, continues the Jesuit philosophy of focusing on educating the whole person. SLUMA represents a critical step in realizing the University's mission, advancing St. Ignatius' ideals, as well as increasing the overall exposure of society to the arts. Distinguished by its Jesuit-based tradition, the museum developed into one of the nation's top university museums.
Saint Louis University Museum of Art is located at 3663 Lindell Boulevard on the campus of Saint Louis University. Museum hours are as listed on the website. Admission is free. For more information, call 314-977-2666 or visit www.slu.edu/sluma.
Saint Louis University’s Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA) is the first museum to bring an interfaith focus to contemporary art. Officially opened in 1993, MOCRA is located in a spacious chapel that was used for over 35 years by Jesuits studying philosophy at Saint Louis University. Through exhibitions, collections, and educational programs, MOCRA highlights and explores the ways contemporary visual artists engage the religious and spiritual dimensions. MOCRA serves the diverse Saint Louis University community, and the wider public, by facilitating personal discovery, experience, and inspiration, while contributing to a wider culture of interfaith encounter and dialogue.
MOCRA is located at 3700 West Pine Blvd. on the campus of Saint Louis University. Museum hours are Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, from 11 a.m to 4 p.m., and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, call 314-977-7170 or visit www.slu.edu/mocra.
About Saint Louis University
Founded in 1818, Saint Louis University is one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious Catholic institutions. Rooted in Jesuit values and its pioneering history as the first university west of the Mississippi River, SLU offers more than 12,000 students a rigorous, transformative education of the whole person. At the core of the University’s diverse community of scholars is SLU’s service-focused mission, which challenges and prepares students to make the world a better, more just place.