The exhibition law of the land presents a selection of paintings from two of Brian Maguire’s recent bodies of work: Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (M&MIP), and The Remains, Arizona. Both series depict scenes of murdered or missing individuals, representing the voices of marginalized groups whose stories are not widely disseminated. Across the USA, indigenous peoples and immigrants struggle with high rates of assault, abduction, and murder. Native American and Alaska Native community advocates describe the crisis as a legacy of generations of government policies of forced removal, land seizures and violence. The cases often go unsolved, leaving grieving families to investigate on their own. Brian Maguire reacts to this violence by memorializing the victims and sharing their fates with the public. His investment in social activism stems from his involvement in the civil rights movement of Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Since the very beginning of his artistic career, Maguire has approached painting as an act of solidarity, drawing him to marginalized people and alternative spaces such as prisons, women’s shelters, and psychiatric institutions. In recent years, his projects have become increasingly focused on lives lost, often with a political perspective on the event of loss itself.
A silent crisis is transpiring in the state of Montana, where thousands of indigenous people are missing. Especially young women are disappearing or being found murdered. The series Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (M&MIP) was initiated during a residency at the Missoula Art Museum in 2021. After a series of meetings with indigenous organizations from the Blackfoot and the Salish tribes, Maguire agreed with some of the deprived families to produce a series of memorial portraits to express their tribulations. The acrylic paintings are rendered from photographs that family members have selected. Based on their stories, Maguire produces intimate renditions, aiming to capture the likeness and spirit of the missing or deceased youth.
On the walls surrounding the portraits, you find a selection of largescale paintings from the series The Remains, Arizona (2021-). The landscapes are based on police cellphone photos of deceased people found in the border region between USA and Mexico, confronting issues of migration and the dangers facing people who risk their lives leaving their homelands for the USA. The boundless Sonoran Desert has a terrifying beauty in its infinite indifference to humans, its ever-changing light shifting from tangerine dawn, through pale afternoon, to indigo dusk. But death stalks this borderland, which is the hottest and driest place in all of USA and Mexico. This is no place for human beings without indigenous knowledge or protection against the heat. The numbers of unidentified bordercrossers that have been discovered are in the thousands, but no one knows the real number of bodies populating the desert sand. Once someone’s loved ones, the bodies when painted read as symbols of the many people that have passed away on this final stretch of the journey into the USA, serving as warning signs against the potential fate awaiting future migrants in the unforgiving desert.
The series is inspired by the contrast between public debate where immigrants are portrayed as a danger to society, and the reality where the “Law of our Land” causes danger to migrants. Despite the fact that most cultures have agreed that governing powers should treat people fairly, equality before the law has not been the main rule throughout human history. The exhibition title law of the land is intended to challenge to the modern idea of the nation-state in which law (understood as the right to exercise power) is thought of as a natural and obvious extension of land (understood as territory). As Brian Maguire’s two series dramatically demonstrate, it is not a given that equality before the law ensures the same legal protection for all individuals sharing a land. As in most of recorded history, minority issues are overlooked by national and international media and legal systems alike. By presenting the two series alongside each other, law of the land seeks to draw attention to specific cases, while simultaneously offering a sense of magnitude: framed by the landscapes’ sublime qualities, Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (M&MIP) insists on the personal and emotional dimensions of the crisis affecting communities across the USA.
Kunsthall 3,14, Bergen, Norway
June 16 – August 27, 2023