In El Raft de Madeinusa, the artists create a harrowing space for the viewer to witness, as if through a porthole, the dread and desire, the fear and faith of the migrant.
El Raft de Madeinusa is an art installation that captures the struggle of migrants facing the dangers of the open sea to find new land, made in collaboration between fiber artist Aurora Molina and multimedia installation artist Edison Peñafiel. The artists — immigrants from Cuba and Ecuador, respectively — have explored themes of human movement throughout their careers.
The installation presents a moment from a journey across the ocean — a scene that appears as an echo of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa. In the middle of the room, a ramshackle bark holds a desperate group of knitted fabric voyagers. They huddle and perch. They look out into the waters that move around them, a mirage of digital video projected onto curtains. A sound plays over the vision: the deep hum of resonating histories, both personal and geopolitical.
Inspired by the Cuban refugee crisis and the balseros who were caught in the ocean between two nations, the work speaks to the countless immigration waves around the world — whether crossing the Straits of Florida, the Mediterranean, or the ocean of borders that drag riptides of police across the land.
The other central inspiration, that of Géricault’s masterpiece, anchors the work to a much older legacy of the raft, of those who must grab hold as it rocks, cradle-like, amidst the unthinking tyranny of the ocean. Raft of the Medusa details the harrowing escape from a French Royal Navy frigate caught on a sandbar in 1816 on its way to colonial adventure. A paucity of lifeboats forced the leftover crew of 150 doomed sailors to improvise a raft. Géricault tells the story with a dark flourish. In the distance a rescue boat slips away, oblivious to the raft and the men on it — men who still believe they might be saved. Only 15 survived the 13 day journey. Some were driven to devour the flesh of those too weak to resist, and others were thrown overboard to lighten the load.
The painting establishes the raft at sea as a site of dehumanization, of seasick hunger, of wilting thirst. The raft, then, is a stage for all the torments of the subaltern who are set on the move. It returns in our time to ferry migrants from Eritrea and Ethiopia, Honduras and Guatemala, Syria and Libya, from all places laid low by predatory economics, political instability, persecution, famine, and war.
The name of Molina and Peñafiel‘s installation highlights the strange effects of US culture as it covers the globe — its tendrils not unlike Medusa’s snakes, its gaze freezing all it finds into the dead stone of commodities. There are now children bearing the names of Usnavi (US Navy), Disnei (Disney), and even Madeinusa (Made in USA). Today, you will find immigrants seeking asylum and opportunity in the same land where their names emanate from. But it is a land with a fractured legacy: of accepting huddled masses, of locking away the undocumented.
What is made in the USA? What is the full cost? What all is born from its unceasing labor? And what do these pearls of great price look like to those who must leave their home and make for this place?
The installation intertwines motifs from Molina and Peñafiel‘s previous work. The raft riders are developed from Molina’s Do not cast your Pearls in a swine, a meditation on St. Matthew’s aphorism depicting migrants casting nets and finding only pigs. Peñafiel lends his approach to audio/visual presentation, referencing his own piece Land Escape, which shows migrants moving through an eternal loop of a scrolling video landscape.
In El Raft de Madeinusa, the artists create a harrowing space for the viewer to witness, as if through a porthole, the dread and desire, the fear and faith of the migrant. It captures the most perilous moment of the journey. Here, the shores of the future are not yet in sight, though the past is already washed away. Suspended in a moment at sea, the voyagers float at the whim of the waves, looking ahead for the first sign of things to come. It is a scene made, in many ways, by the USA, and it is returning to the land that created it.