McALLEN — A child’s pink underwear, a single sandal and water bottles were among the discarded items a Los Angeles-based artist found near the Rio Grande, left behind by immigrants making their way to the U.S.
“It just really made me so sad to see things like little pink underpants and things that had been left by children as well as adults,” Cynthia Minet said. “I couldn’t take the clothing. It was too upsetting for me.”
The items Minet was collecting were for an exhibit titled “Migrations,” which opens Saturday at the International Museum of Art and Science in McAllen. She typically uses recycled plastic for her sculptures, but what makes this exhibit unique is that she’s using items found locally, specifically from immigrants trying to reach the states.
Minet then sculpted those items into five suspended Roseate Spoonbill sculptures — complimented by one floor piece and several wall-mounted drawings.
The Roseate Spoonbills are a migratory bird that finds its way to the Rio Grande Valley in late spring and early summer. These birds relocate annually, seeking a steady supply of food and a safe place to raise their young. Throughout the years, however, there have been less of these birds as river levels have risen.
It’s a familiar plight to that of immigrants. At least that’s how Minet sees it.
“I tried to tie two types of migration together,” Minet said. “I tried to look at avian migration — of birds and how they can manage or not manage with the border wall, and people and how they can manage or not manage with the border wall.”
She thought the bird’s pink feathers, spoon-shaped beak and webbed feet would be best represented through discarded plastics — a medium she’s been using since 2009.
The artist sculpts animals with plastics to make a statement about environmental degradation and the effects it’s taken on certain fauna’s anatomy.
Regarding the materials used, Minet considered the experience an “eye-opening” one that allowed her to bind two issues she feels strongly about.
“It was very eye-opening for me to see the stuff by the river, and to see the height of the border fence and how that fence has encroached on people’s property and across public parks, just without any regard for how delicate it seems to me as an outsider that the culture of the borderlands is,” she said.
She acquired the help of Scott Nicol, an activist with the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club, who sent Minet some of the items in her exhibit.
He often finds Homeland Security bags along the border, which hold apprehended immigrants’ belongings. While those belongings are supposed to be returned once immigrants are released or deported, it’s not uncommon for Nicol to find sensitive material, such as birth certificates still inside the bags.
“There’s a lot of very personal items that I suspect people didn’t just give up willingly,” he said. “There’s often a lot of them out there, so I don’t know how that happens.”
Minet’s bird sculptures have items such as earbuds, water bottles, children’s toys and even the Homeland Security bags suspended from their beaks, as though they are transporting them.
The LA-based artist hopes her sculptures — at the very least — provoke dialogue about those issues and how they intersect.
Though, Minet stresses that she doesn’t mean to “pretend to be able to speak for what people’s experiences here,” and she “doesn’t have all the answers.” The one thing she is sure of is that she believes these issues should warrant empathy, she said.
“I’m not coming here as an outsider to say, ‘This is what should happen,’” she said. “But my feelings from my observation of it is that I think it’s wrong, and people need to be allowed for a safe haven; they need to be allowed for the economy; they need to be allowed to communicate with their families.”
Minet’s exhibit will open with a reception at IMAS at 3 p.m. Saturday, when she’ll give a presentation on her work. It’ll be on display at the museum from April 14 through Sept. 4.