Profiles in Artistic Response Part One: Michelle Angela Ortiz

By Gabrielle Uballez, USDAC Minister of Collaboration and Activation

Among the sounds of the guards, it feels little by little that life is leaving us.
Now there are more than 600 days without freedom and counting.
My son asks me, "Mommy when are we leaving?"
I reply, "We are leaving soon, I can take you soon, soon we will be happy outside.
I pray and at night, I look through my window and I would like to touch the stars.
I would like to become one of them.
To shine in the dark and walk along with my son towards freedom.
Wet and cold, I embrace my son over my heart, where I keep everything
and I beg for his forgiveness.

These are the translated words of a woman incarcerated at the innocuously named Berks County Residential Center, a family prison located an hour outside of Philadelphia. They are excerpted from Seguimos Caminando, a collaborative public artwork featuring stories written by two mothers in custody at that facility. In today's zero-tolerance world, these sad words seem so fresh, today's headlines. But this mother's 600 days without freedom passed long before the White House announced that brown bodies would be punished first and judged later. Like a gas leak, this emergency seeped throughout our nation until a match was lit: the family separation crisis.

In Art Became the Oxygen: A Guide to Artistic Response, the USDAC argues that  “emergencies demand cultural responses.” At the USDAC, we demand change through action and through art. We support the Citizen Artists whose work is rooted in the ethics of community-based art, social transformation, and truth.

Michelle Angela Ortiz is one of these artists. Ortiz commits her practice to social justice through nuanced storytelling in collaboration with the communities whose voices her art amplifies. Ortiz, the daughter of immigrants, has nurtured a community-based arts practice for nearly two decades. She focuses on the stories of immigrant families, many incarcerated in migrant detention centers.

Ortiz’s work is visually stunning, politically charged truth-telling steeped in hope and love. On a recent panel at the Americans for the Arts annual convention, Ortiz detailed her process of collaboration with detained migrant mothers. The needs and safety of her collaborators come first. She avoids re-victimizing her collaborators, choosing not to focus on the stories that audiences expect to hear—stories of trauma, sadness, and fear.

Although stories of trauma arise naturally during their many conversations, they are not the focus. Ortiz centers conversations on migrant dreams, hopes, memories, and futures. Ortiz told me she sees her work as "an opportunity to amplify the existing voice and power of the community,” aiming “to create work that is powerful and that creates empathy so we can see the humanity in these stories."

"I am emphasizing the importance of presenting the stories of families affected by detention and deportation,” “in ways that people can connect, empathize, then channel that energy into action,” Ortiz says. “I hope to build on the existing power of the families through this creative process so they can reveal themselves not as victims but as full whole human beings that continue to fight for themselves and the love of their children."

Beyond their intrinsic power, the stories told through Ortiz have great beauty.

Flores de Libertad is one of Ortiz’ visually stunning, creative actions featured through Monument LAB, a public art and history initiative based in Philadelphia and a collaboration with Mural Arts Philadelphia. In 2017, Ortiz led several community workshops at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia in which 100 volunteers created more than 1,600 paper flowers which were combined with flowers made by the mothers detained at The Berks County Residential Center. Each flower—ranging from vibrant pink to white—contained a written message of freedom. On October 25, 2017, thousands of these delicately hand-folded and hand-dyed tissue flowers  were arranged into an all-caps ten-by-forty-foot expression of freedom displayed at the north gates of Philadelphia's City Hall.

 Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

The creative action was accompanied by a conference led by the Shut Down Berks Coalition, demanding an end to family detention.

Coordinating  with community organizers and activists is essential to Ortiz’ practice. She states that her work should be “utilized in the moment as a forum to speak about issues,” and “move empathy and anger into the direction of action.” Ortiz acknowledges that as an artist with U.S. citizenship she can enter and exit a detention center with ease, freely acknowledging her privilege. Critically, Ortiz recognizes that her work “has been built on the work of my parents and ancestors.” This drives her passion to “invest my cultural currency to do this work in community."

Her close attention to ethics and care for engaging with community organizers are real. “I first learn and listen with organizers on the ground to make decisions where messaging will have biggest impact,” Ortiz says, “and I acknowledge the work that’s already been done by organizers and families."

Another recent work, Seguimos Caminando (We Keep Walking), featured as part of Monument Lab, also demonstrates Ortiz’ commitment to ethical collaboration and nuanced storytelling manifested in striking new-genre public art.  

That time-based and temporary work features stories written by two mothers detained with their children at the Berks County Residential Center for nearly two years. The animated projection starts with the wrought iron gates of Philadelphia's towering City Hall opening at the base of the opulent brick and marble columns while the voice of one mother echoes through city streets. The images and narrative that follow recall a detained mother’s past life in Central America and express her hope for the future. The animated images include abstracted water, feet on the sandy banks of a river, two hands outstretched and reaching for each other, the silhouette of a mother carrying a young child, the brown eyes of a woman looking toward the sky with hope, and handwritten letters in Spanish by the detained mothers demanding their freedom.

 Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

The stories were authored in custody. Ortiz explained that the audio could only be recorded after the authors’ release.

With the support of the Rauschenberg Artist as Activist Fellowship, Ortiz is currently working on phase two of her project, Familias Separadas, initiated in 2015 as a series of temporary site-specific public art works that document stories of immigrant families affected by detention and deportations in Pennsylvania. The artwork created in phase two will amplify interviews with mothers who have been released from Berks and who are either still living in the U.S. or have been deported. Together, the artist and her collaborators are sharing the message that families belong together, not in cages, but free.

What can Citizen Artists learn from Ortiz's work? That artistic response can catalyze direct action if grounded in hope and love, not focusing solely on crisis and pain.

We know that art and creativity can be catalyzed in protest, but must simultaneously be used to “channel care, comfort and connection” (Art Became the Oxygen). Michelle Angela Ortiz’ embodies this ideal. As Ortiz states so beautifully, "talking about love works against the agenda of dehumanization."

 Photo credit: Steve Weinik

Photo credit: Steve Weinik

To find out more about Michelle Angela Ortiz visit her website, michelleangela.com.