In Mexico, journalists have been gunned down at restaurants, stabbed in their cars, and found beaten and dead in ditches.
With nine killed in 2018 and seven more this year, Mexico is one of the deadliest places in the world for journalists, according to a report by Reporters Without Borders.
Now, the faces of 200 killed or missing Mexican reporters are stenciled in mud on the floor of a gallery at the Minneapolis Institute of Art as part of “In Between/Underneath (Entremedio/Por Debajo),” an exhibition opening Friday.
“Historically, being a journalist has been very politically dangerous in Mexico,” said Jonathan Herrera Soto, the young artist behind the work. “On the border, people go missing and are found dead constantly. It’s something that isn’t really talked about.”
That’s why he rendered the faces in mud — to reflect the complacency and collective silence displayed by the public toward this crisis.
“As you walk over them you’ll erase them over time,” said Herrera Soto.
As the son of immigrants from Mexico, he has a particular interest in creating art about trauma in his family’s homeland. “I think living in the U.S. gives me the space to look onto trauma in a way that is looking from a place of safety,” he said.
Herrera Soto, who was born in Chicago and has dual U.S.-Mexican citizenship, graduated with a BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 2017. He said this exhibition is an outgrowth of his senior thesis project, in which he depicted different political prisoners from various historical contexts.
“I would pull archived images from prisoners of war,” he said. “So this show, I wanted to bring it into focus a little bit.”
Covering political corruption and organized crime by drug cartels in Mexico has made journalists the targets of deadly violence. Herrera Soto wants to honor those who have been slain or kidnapped for exposing the truth.
“A lot of my work deals with truthfulness,” he said. “Not only do the bodies go missing, but so does the narrative.” Families of “disappeared” journalists often create stories to fill the void of not knowing what happened to their loved one, he said.
“Parents make up these stories like, ‘Maybe they ran away with a mistress.’ ”
Herrera Soto actually has documented the cases of about 400 journalists, but only half are depicted here. “Going back in time, especially in the ’90s and ’80s, it’s difficult finding pictures of these journalists,” he said. “All I’m able to find is their names and some information here and there.”
The intermingled worlds of the government and drug cartels in Mexico have also left their mark on the bustling arts community there. Herrera Soto said he doesn’t know of many contemporary artists who create politically driven work like he does.
“Unless they have more prestige,” he said. “If someone has more of an international face then they have some sort of safety ... They have someone watching.”
But for less visible artists, political work could mean social isolation from the community, he said. “It won’t be necessarily accepted or celebrated as it would in the United States.”
Herrera Soto’s show is part of the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program, a program designed to showcase emerging artists, granting them up to $13,500 to create their work. A panel of seven artists selects one applicant from a pool of 60 applications. MAEP curator Nicole Soukup said Herrera Soto applied a couple of times and each time his work got stronger.
“He’s constantly not only pushing his subject matter forward, but his own craft and the medium of printmaking forward in really unique ways, such as this large-scale print on the floor,” she said.
“I think what Jonathan is creating is a moment for us to all pause and think about our own existence in relation to how we unpack and move through the world.”
Knowing that the subject matter is very sensitive, Herrera Soto hopes museumgoers spend time with the faces and consider what it means for those journalists to have given up their lives to uncover and expose the truth.
“Because they’re next to each other, they’re kind of in solidarity with each other,” he said of the faces. “I hope there’s some solidarity felt with those in a similar profession across the world.”