When I first spoke to artist Alice Leora Briggs last spring, Juarez, Mexico, was under siege by rampant gang- and drug-related violence. Briggs had just completed an arts residency in southern New Mexico and frequently traveled the 30 minutes to witness the carnage and aftermath left by a recent spate of murders in and around the border town.
She visited so called “death houses,” sites of mass executions, and spent time studying the victims’ remains in the city morgue.
“One room is entirely full of bullets from the executions,” Brigss said. “I saw an autopsy of a young man who was executed. There was a story in the New York Times about the morgue a day or so after I was there. The photos of the freezers had everything looking tidy. They must have cleaned for them. I was glad to get a different view….The bodies were all akimbo and not neatly wrapped up…. I see things on the news and compare it to what I saw and they do not always jive.”
In response to what she saw, Briggs picked up her etching knives and, using an old etching technique from the 13th century called sgraffito, cut through dark wood to reveal images of what was laid before her eyes.
Alongside the graphic images, Briggs also incorporates medieval or renaissance scenes like an old-master draftsman. In a more recent conversation, Briggs explained what drew her to violent depictions: “The first time that I went to Italy, I realized that I was part of an extended tradition in Western art. I mean, you go to Italy, walk into any church, and the subject matter is about torture and death and human suffering. And these are things I think maybe are not entertaining, but certainly are worthy of our attention.”
In 2005, Briggs met journalist and writer Charles Bowden, who has been a longtime chronicler of life and the escalating violence along the border. Her work had already captured many scenes of tension in the region, but it was Bowden who first directed her toward Juarez.
In the years since, Briggs and Bowden have collaborated to capture the bloodshed as it spins further into chaos. Combining her images and his reporting, the two are finishing a book due out early next year.
Briggs tried to return to Juarez in July for a conference on human rights, but her trip was cut short in Las Cruces, N.M., when the truck she was riding in was hit from behind by an undercover narcotics officer. The collision sent the back of her head smashing through the truck’s rear window.
“I would any day of the week rather have my head bashed through a window than go to Juarez,” she said. “It is both something that feeds me and that I need for my work, but it absolutely terrifies me until I’m there. When I’m there it is fine, but anticipating each journey there is an incredibly difficult process I go through.”
The situation around Juarez has only gotten worse since last year. There have been more than 1,300 murders so far this year. In 2008, there were roughly 1,500 violent deaths, compared to 700 murders the year before.
“I make what I make to remind myself over and over that at least for now, I have the pleasure of breathing,” Briggs says in her artist’s statement.
This year, Alice Leora Briggs’ work has been on display at the Etherton Gallery in Tucson, Ariz., and the Mercer Gallery in Rochester, N.Y. A new exhibit of her arresting images will open Sept. 4 at the Box Gallery in Santa Fe, N.M.