Artist portrays superheroes as “illegal” immigrants in exhibit

Imagine you find yourself being followed on a dark street corner, in the middle of the night, by your town’s resident bad guy, and the only person who could save you is Superman. But wait, isn’t Superman an undocumented immigrant?

For artist Neil Rivas, 28, the concepts of immigration and superhero comics, like good wine and cheese – were the perfect marriage.

“If the US Government considers people illegal, then I think that policy must also be applied to superheroes,” Rivas said. “For instance, Superman is illegal.  He’s from Krypton.”

The point that Rivas is trying to make is that human beings are much more than a legal status. The artist further explored the complexities of U.S. Immigration policy in his latest exhibit: “Illegal Superheroes.” The exhibit showed last month at the Ramp Gallery, a community-curated space at San Francisco’s SOMArts Cultural Center, and garnered the California College of the Arts graduate student tons of national attention.

“I grew up with these comic books and superheroes and it was never an issue where they came from or how often they would cross borders,”  says Rivas. “My hope was that because superheroes are an approachable subject, people would naturally be attracted to the project visually and that it would awaken nostalgia.”

A collection of 26 colorful posters, each designed in ‘WANTED’-like poster fashion, boasts the word “Illegal,” all in caps, in bold, and clearly displayed under each figurine.  But it’s the fine print underneath those words that cleverly captures Rivas’s  message:

“Super heroes who enter this country without proper authorization are breaking the law, plain and simple. These ‘illegal super heroes’ are subject to deportation at any time. Their presence is in direct violation of federal law.”

This is then followed by a phone number to the “local ICE field office” that if dialed meets the caller on the other end with a personalized recording that gives background information for the superhero at question. Each recording was custom-made and makes the project interactive, according to Rivas.

“Things are often looked at through very black and white dichotomies, for instance good versus evil, and I think that life is a lot more complex than that, immigration is more complex than that,” said Rivas.

Rivas specifically chose comic book characters from the Marvel and DC Comics families —  responsible for household names like Batman and Wolverine — because  he says those were some of his favorite story lines growing up.  Plus, comic book superheroes are so easy to relate to, he says.

A first-generation Salvadorian-American, Rivas, who was born in Los Angeles but spent part of childhood in El Salvador and also lived in Honduras, credits his late uncle, whom he fondly calls Tio Boris, with his inspiration for the exhibit.

The artist further added that his biggest hope is for his art to create a space for reflection. And also joked that he hopes for a little less hate mail, adding that some of his exhibits have gotten him some in the past.

Currently in Texas, Rivas and a group of four others are collaborating on the photography project “20-20 Foto,” an education initiative that will culminate in a photo installation project scheduled to unveil this upcoming weekend. The cross-border project is part of an effort to connect communities on both sides of border — focusing on El Paso, TX and Ciudad de Juarez, Mexico. This is the first attempt at a youth arts program since the regional violence broke out in the region in 2008, said Rivas.

All photos courtesy Neil Rivas.

To learn more about the project, please refer to the project’s Facebook page:

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