On the Violence of the World: A Conversation with Regina José Galindo

The Guatemalan artist discusses art making as a form of witnessing injustice.
Regina José Galindo. Still from Tierra. 2013

Regina José Galindo. Still from Tierra. 2013

In her work, Guatemalan artist Regina José Galindo (b. 1974) subjects her body to the experiences of others. Her projects explore not only the experiences of people from her native country, but also the violence that power structures wreak around the world.

To make America’s Family Prison (2008), the artist, her husband, and their young daughter spent 24 hours in a cell produced by a private prison company in the United States, and documented their day in prison with video. For Looting, Galindo hired a dentist in Guatemala to drill holes in her molars and fill them with gold from that country. She then traveled to Germany, where a doctor extracted the gold fillings, completing the cycle of resource extraction and migration. The final work consists of eight small gold pieces.

Although these works confront different situations, the following conversation with Galindo makes clear that both address the violence inherent in the relationship between colonizing and colonized countries. For Galindo, a key idea is that these relations are based on extraction—whether what is being extracted is a natural resource like gold, or human labor through contemporary forms of slavery. Regarding this second point in particular, recent research has revealed that in the US prisons are a multi-million-dollar industry fueled by the forced labor of prisoners. In both works, Galindo deals with the loss of land and the forced migration that it produces.

The interview also discusses a third project, Tierra (“Earth,” 2013), in which the artist explores the connection between the exploitation of human lives and natural resources. The video shows the artist standing naked and motionless in a field while an excavator digs an enormous ditch around her, leaving only the small piece of land on which the artist is standing. In this work—recently acquired by MoMA thanks to the gift of Mario Cader-Frech and the Latin American and Caribbean Fund—Galindo reinterprets one of the massacres of Indigenous people that came to attention in 2012 during the trial of Guatemala’s former dictator Efraín Rios Montt.

This conversation, which was conducted in Spanish, is part of a series of interviews with artists whose works were donated to MoMA in 2017 by Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. The interviews explore art’s relationship with territory and nature, a subject that was chosen as the research focus of the Cisneros Institute for the 2020–23 period.

This interview has been translated from Spanish by Jane Brodie.

Este artículo está disponible en español.

Madeline Murphy Turner: How did you come up with the idea for America’s Family Prison?

Regina José Galindo: I met a journalist at a talk I gave at a university in the United States, and she asked me about prisons for Central American migrants. I knew nothing about the situation, so I couldn’t answer her question. Months later, I was invited to a residency at ArtPace, in San Antonio, Texas, but I had a small daughter and was not sure I would be able to participate. I was so pleased to get the residency, but I couldn’t imagine leaving my baby for two months. I was in a bind. I hadn’t said no, but I hadn’t said yes either, and started trying to come up with a solution. At that point, I came upon a story on the Internet about prisons for Central Americans located along the Texas border, and I remembered the journalist’s question. I started searching for information everywhere, and I learned about the existence of these dreadful private prisons for Central American families, jails set up to be inhabited by entire families of migrants, even babies. I came upon a photograph of the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, with a cradle in the cell. And that provided the answer I had been looking for.

From left: Installation view of Regina José Galindo’s America’s Family Prison at ArtPace, San Antonio, Texas, 2008; A video still from America’s Family Prison

From left: Installation view of Regina José Galindo’s America’s Family Prison at ArtPace, San Antonio, Texas, 2008; A video still from America’s Family Prison

I kept researching, and I learned there is a whole prison industry that sells equipment to the flourishing private-prison sector, which is primarily designed for undocumented migrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras). They even have trade fairs.

I wrote down my idea for the project and sent it to the curator Riley Robinson. The proposal explained that I would have to travel to San Antonio with my family: my daughter, who was just a few months old, and my husband. For the piece to work, the whole family had to take part. My proposal was accepted.

The first thing I did when I got to San Antonio was get in touch with groups of activists working on these issues. We went to the T. Don Hutto center, where I participated in a peaceful protest. The prison was completely secured and isolated; visitors were prohibited. We also got in touch with a company that manufactures equipment for prisons, and we agreed that I could rent a real cell and transport it from Oklahoma to San Antonio on a tractor-trailer. Riley Robinson worked out the details. He was able to rent the cell for two months for $8,000 (my fee was $7,000, and he used it as an integral part of the project), with the added advantage that the company could use ArtPace’s gallery as a showroom for potential clients in Texas. The cell was then returned to Oklahoma.

Many Central Americans leave their countries fleeing violence, and a lot of that violence is the result of US intervention in the region and its support of oppressive regimes. I would like to know what you make of that cycle of brutality in the context of America’s Family Prison.

Time seems to flow differently in Guatemala. The past and its atrocities continue to wreak havoc in the present and to mark our future. Guatemala is one of the most unequal, and most ravaged, countries in the world—and much of our tragedy is due to US intervention in the country, which began in 1954. But it is also due to the greed and perversity of a Criollo oligarchy that has systematically dispossessed the Mayan people, causing the poverty and starvation that beset the country, even though it is one of the wealthiest nations, in terms of resources, in the Americas. Chronic inequality and exploitation are not our only hardships. Guatemala also endured an extremely long war that left thousands dead and missing. The first northbound migration waves date back to those years. Then came a spurious peace, and then the trials of the military leaders. Though those trials were necessary, the Criollo class and the US government did a lot to prevent them. Neither the country’s economic situation nor the living conditions for the vast majority of Guatemalans improved at all during those long years of war and false peace. And that meant the stream of migration to the north was constant; people left looking for a way to make a living, to survive. And then came the mass deportations, which created new problems for the region: the formation of gangs, then another drug war and a terrible exacerbation of violence, especially of femicides.

Throughout all those years of tragedy, people kept fleeing.

Central American immigrants, migrants, and refugees were always invisible. They would travel by night, crossing borders with the help of smugglers called “coyotes” or risking their lives by making their way alone across deserts, rivers, and roads. That was how things were until 2018. At that point, travelers ceased to be ghosts. They gathered in caravans and, with no money, food, or “coyotes,” the dynamic shifted. They began traveling by day, armed with only their hunger. While some migrants continued to travel with “coyotes,” thousands of young people reached the border alone. And that led to an unprecedented reaction from the US. The then-new Donald Trump administration implemented a zero-tolerance policy, and thousands of families were separated at the border; the minors were put in a new form of prison—privatized prisons that have been compared to concentration camps. A number of minors lost their lives in those prisons, among them five children from Guatemala.

Some of your works, like Quién puede borrar las huellas (“Who Can Erase the Traces”), take place in public spaces. How does your process change in interventions of that sort?

My interest in working in public spaces is undoubtedly tied to the fact that I am Guatemalan. When I started out, I didn’t have many tools with which to defend myself; I hadn’t gone to art school, and there were few spaces in the country for contemporary art. What I had were ideas, rage, my body, and public spaces. In our region, unlike in the First World, public spaces are, in fact, public. We can seize them freely. And I made the most of that privilege.

When you work in public spaces, most viewers are not versed in art: passersby might not understand that what is happening is art, that it is a performance—and that makes it all the more interesting. Their reaction to the experience is more honest, their reading more horizontal.

Would you tell me a little about the role of extractivism and its effects in Looting?

In Looting, my mouth acts as a metaphor for my land. My mouth represents my country, rich in resources, virgin, immaculate. The drill represents the extraction industry, drilling wantonly, stealing gold without any moral qualms.

I went to Germany with my mouth full of Guatemalan gold, my eight molars with high-carat fillings. In Germany, the dentist extracted the gold fillings one at a time before an audience; the drilling was relentless, and my mouth left worn out and replete with holes. I went back home, my mouth empty. The wealth in my teeth remained in Germany, on display in a museum.

I always say that history is written mostly on women’s bodies—but now I would say it is written on the bodies of those considered to be other. The plunder of life, culture, resources is written in our DNA. We are an eternally looted people, but also a resilient people, a people of struggle and resistance. That is what I wanted to underscore in Tierra: around me there is nothing but chaos and theft, but I remain on my feet, ready to fight, to defend the land that roots me.

Regina José Galindo. Looting. 2010

Regina José Galindo. Looting. 2010

Regina José Galindo. Photographic documentation of Looting. 2010

Regina José Galindo. Photographic documentation of Looting. 2010

That is what I wanted to underscore in Tierra: around me there is nothing but chaos and theft, but I remain on my feet, ready to fight, to defend the land that roots me.
Regina José Galindo

The theorist Diana Taylor argues in her essay “Radical Exposure” that in Guatemala, the slaughter of Indigenous peoples during the regime of Ríos Montt (1982–83) has rarely been met with empathy. She asks if the documentation of a performance—in reference to Tierra—might be capable of generating that feeling or attitude. What, in your view, is the role of empathy in your work?

Things in Guatemala are not as simple as they may seem from abroad. During the US intervention, there was a fierce communication campaign to incite fear of a Communist Guatemala, and that campaign was a resounding success. That fear spread not only in the North American imagination—the US turned a blind eye to the violence and death in Guatemala—but also in Guatemala itself. And it is still around today.

People were confused and frightened. During the first years of the war, every day dozens of intelligent people would go missing: the tortured bodies of teachers, activists, poets, and union organizers would appear on the street, or they would be kidnapped and never heard from again. The war then moved into the Indigenous communities and led to genocide, even though that is denied by most Guatemalans: our memory has been denied.

The origin of the performance Tierra was testimony I heard at the genocide trial of Ríos Montt. A military officer, a protected witness, recounted how the army rolled into the Indigenous communities with backhoes to make huge ditches where they would throw the bodies of Indigenous people, many of them still alive. Later, the lands where the massacres occurred were divvied up. War, violence, resources—it was all connected. A performance is not enough to express empathy, or rage, before a tragedy of that magnitude. But we do what we can.

How has the COVID crisis, and the lockdown specifically, affected your work and ideas?

The pandemic was slow to hit Guatemala, and it has advanced at a sluggish and heavy pace. On a personal level, confinement has had a huge impact on my work: I couldn’t travel—no one can—and finding work in my country seemed nearly impossible.

Lockdown has been rough. I have been participating in workshops in critical thought, which keep me active. I try not to check out for too long, though my mood sometimes demands that I do. In any case, time keeps marching forward, and some days are better than others. I keep coming up with projects, and I take part in talks and other activities whenever I get the chance. Some days I feel like rust, not blood, is running through my veins, and I get worried. Other days everything flows. This has been the longest quarantine in history, and we still don’t know exactly when it will come to an end. We have to stand firm.

The Cisneros Institute’s programs are conducted in conjunction with Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives (C-MAP), MoMA’s global research initiative, which is supported by The International Council of The Museum of Modern Art.