Death, suffering and evil are concepts that most of us try not to think about. Nevertheless, they are always there, lurking in the back of our minds. Maybe this is why dark times inspire good art. For Alice Leora Briggs, death is not something to be feared or ignored, but an integral part of life to be examined. Her morbid fascination began when she was seven years old, when her brother fell to his death at Grand Teton National Park. Briggs work shows the probing curiosity and intensity of someone who has seen some of what the worst of what life has to offer and feels compelled to bear witness.
The artist found her subject in the violence plaguing Ciudad Juárez. The Mexican border city, home to 1.3 million people, is one of the areas most affected by the drug wars that are devastating the country. In 2006, President Felipe Calderón dispatched 10,000 troops and federal police officers to Juárez. Despite his efforts, approximately 4,200 people have been killed since the 2006 crackdown, giving the city a higher murder rate than Baghdad.
Briggs made a number of trips to Juárez between 2007 and 2009. She deliberately exposed herself to some of the worst elements of the carnage. On her trips, she visited a death house (notorious homes where victims are tortured and murdered) and the city morgue. She also investigated the effects that poverty and violence are having on the living. Briggs went to local rehab centers and a mental institution founded by a priest whom she befriended. Here she saw victims of schizophrenia, former glue sniffers and other people too damaged to function in society.
To create her haunting images, she uses the ancient technique of sgraffito, in which the artist uses a knife to remove parts of a blackened surface, revealing areas of white underneath.
Briggs’ work shows the simultaneous careful observation of current events and a dark, expressive quality reminiscent of Medieval personifications of death. They possess an interesting thematic and conceptual resemblance to Hans Holbein the Younger’s Dance of Death Series from 1538. Holbein created a series of woodblocks that showed Death coming for his victims. In Holbein’s images, Death is not discriminating. You see him approach kings, abbots, plowmen, men, women, old and young alike. His incredible engravings are haunting because they possess as much insight into the living, as they do the departed. Similarly, Briggs’ pieces focus as much on the criminals, victims and every day citizens of Juárez as they do on the severed heads (a reference to the decapitated bodies that have been found around the city) and corpses that populate her images.
The close observation that Briggs brings to her work led to her collaboration with journalist, Charles Bowden on a fascinating new project. Bowden has spent years writing about the drug-related violence in Mexico. Their new book, Dreamland: The Way Out of Juárez consists of Briggs haunting images and Bowden’s written commentary. It was released in April by the University of Texas Press.
While Briggs subject matter is unpleasant, her work has a dark beauty and an immediacy not often seen in contemporary art. Its visual strength and documentary quality compels you to keep looking and inspires you to learn more about the tragic situation that she chronicles.