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Return to Sender

Sometimes my responses to issues of social, political, and moral complexity can only be expressed in non-verbal ways. Case in point: I developed this art piece in response to certain attitudes toward immigration in this country.

My dear friend and peer, Christina Espey-Sundt, is the intake coordinator for The Advocates’ for Human Rights’ Refugee and Immigrant Program. Working chiefly with foreign clients seeking asylum in the United States, she gathers information about their circumstances, situations, and experiences. On occasion, she has shared specific details of these cases — details at turns frustrating, disheartening, horrifying, and inspiring. These stories, coupled with the zeal of the advocates working for the justice and fair treatment of their tellers, galvanized me to produce this picture.

Nearly 2000 international postage stamps comprise the background of the picture, a panoply of colors, symbols, characters, digits, languages, and icons. Superimposed upon these tickets is another stamp — the indiscriminate stamp of Uncle Sam. Bold and blood-red, Uncle Sam’s index finger points backward, barring passage to the United States of America. The simple instruction “Return to Sender” becomes a disavowal of the corporate constitution of our history and a patriotic proclamation of our xenophobia.

The phenomenon of immigration involves negotiations of national identity and selfhood on behalf of both the migrant and the nation. It requires mutual sacrifices but produces mutual benefits. I fear that the border between “us” and “other” is policed with discriminating determination fueled by selfishness and fear. I hope my compatriots learn to consider immigrants as neighbors rather than foreigners, less as threats and more as peers.


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