Standing below in dark rain on an evening winter night
on the street signaling their lovers in jail
signing messages of love and grief...

To communicate
how much we love, how much we desire to be touched,
to be loved and love someone...

Communicating messages of loyalty,
the fingers say
we haven't forgotten you.

— Jimmy Santiago Baca 1

James Drake has lived in El Paso, Texas, for thirty years, observing the grim realities of life along the border of Mexico. Drake has an uncommon percipience for making work that uncovers and alludes to the myths and mysteries that lurk in the streets of El Paso. The city, which he has nick-named "the zone of desire," is the largest border town in the United States and there Drake is witness to a meeting of two cultures that creates a unique tension and excitement. 2 Drake's art is imbued with a quiet but potent commentary on the converging of the first and third worlds and the stark contrasts between life in Mexico and in the U.S. The underlying theme of his work is an exploration of real-life problems, both universal and individual, that he has witnessed over the years. The works on display, Tongue-Cut Sparrows, A Thousand Tongues Burn and Sing, and Conversation-Inside-Outside, all address love and loss through separation and the need for human beings to communicate. Here Drake brings to light a poignant side of El Paso culture and reveals the resourcefulness and perseverance of the human spirit and will.

In the center of El Paso stands a dismal, twelve-story cement structure known to locals as the "concrete Hilton." The El Paso County Detention Facility, a minimum security prison for men originally used as a pre-trial holding tank, is now occupied mostly by Hispanic inmates serving time for violation of punitive immigration laws. Each day and night women congregate on the streets along the building's perimeters to converse with friends and loved ones inside. They have developed a unique sign language and that language colors Drake's vision. In the words of scholar Bruce Ferguson, "These works are an eloquent version of the moment at which the need to communicate is found to be both a personal and a social requisite for love, happiness, even violence and anger—a requirement for the world either to have wings, or to die in a vacuum. It is the moment when people discover that a version of speech frees them from unbound silences." 3

Capturing this moment, Drake translates human interactions into images and text, which together tell the stories of personal exchanges that occur out in the open yet remain privy only to those who participate. Although it is performed in the public arena, the system of signs looks distinctly unself-conscious and mystical, impenetrable to outsiders and the bureaucracy and unfettered by the limitations of the prison's visitation rules. Drake describes the activities in the streets as a dynamic performance and the women as flirtatious and affectionate. The evenings around the structure are particularly lively—street lights over head shine down on those outside, while interior lights silhouette the prisoners' figures above, adding vitality and drama to the spectacle. As a testament to the genuine need to communicate, this phenomenon occurs in many places around the world from Sacramento, California, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Trenton, New Jersey, as well as cities in Turkey and Russia.

The display of emotion that Drake observed inspired him to investigate further and ultimately document what he had only witnessed as an outsider. A friend of Drake's, who is an ex-gang member, recognized some of the women's gestures as gang signs and could interpret parts of the communication. Drake continued to observe the prisoners and their visitors and found fascinating their ability to express almost anything with their movements. Eventually, he became involved in the communication by getting to know the women and suggesting passages for them to sign. Drake introduced his new acquaintances to the works of William Shakespeare, Antonio Machado, William Blake, Federico Lorca, Jorge Luis Borges and other writers whose work deals with issues relevant to their unfortunate circumstances. While they were initially quite suspicious of Drake, some of the women came to trust him enough to agree to go to his studio and choose passages from the large selection of texts Drake offered them. The women found passages of poetry and prose that held meaning for them in their particular relationships. As a break from the monotony of conversations regarding family matters and local gossip, they were eager to pass on their feelings of sorrow for their plight through the literary texts they chose. These passages, translated into actions, became the flying arms, swaying bodies, clenched fists, and curled fingers, which were captured by Drake's video camera.

Drake excerpted the footage he gathered to create a powerful video installation, Tongue-Cut Sparrows (1998), which comprises three wall-sized projections. On the center screen, a close-up of a young woman gesticulating toward the windows is alternated with the text (either in English or in the original Spanish in the cases of Lorca and Machado) they are signing. To either side of the central image, a woman stands by and watches the activity. The slow-motion projections and larger-than-life faces are elements of the work that focus on the personalities behind the movements and read as the artist's tribute to his subjects. From gang signs to Shakespeare, these women imbue their body language and expressions with the passionate desire to share an intimate exchange with their loved ones. In a fitting description of the piece, art critic Rosetta Brooks wrote, "Fleeting feelings of melancholy, sadness, loneliness, affection, and even amusement flicker across their faces, as if each were a screen on which the full force of emotions appears."4

"A Thousand Tongues Burn and Sing" is a series of large-scale diptychs that juxtaposes photographs with text to underline the differences between an incarcerated life style and our own. This series focuses on the interior of the jail and the interaction between the inmates, guards, and people on the street. 5 The viewpoint is often that of the prisoners within the confines of a closed environment. By providing a momentary view of the prisoners' daily lives, Drake's images illustrate that the brief encounters they enjoy at the jail windows are the only break in their routine existence. A shot of the austere prison façade, a barren interior hallway, and the dramatic gestures of the silhouetted figures against barred windows evoke a feeling of confinement and restraint. Drake has set up a stark contrast between the stagnant atmosphere of the prison and the open air where the women's hair blows freely in the wind and they are at liberty to come and go as they please.

Conversation-Inside-Outside is composed of a group of thirty-two Cibachrome prints arranged in diptychs and triptychs of images and text. This piece, while each image is comparatively smaller and more intimate in scale than the others, is saturated with references to the true emotional hardship of lovers forced to live apart. It documents a particular conversation that occurred between an inmate and his lover. To achieve a highly personal effect, Drake simultaneously shot videos of each person in a separate environment, pairing stills from each video. The downward glances, averted eyes, and forced smiles captured in Drake's photographs call attention to his subjects' weariness of their shared struggle. The resultant work highlights the subjects' ability to transcend the imposing concrete walls of the jail to share such tender moments and express their affection regardless of the limitations imposed on them. A poem of the same title by Jimmy Santiago Baca describes the aching desire and intense passion in the images. A phrase from that poem, "I open my eyes knowing half your heart has been crushed by my absence," expresses that, in addition to wishing for their own freedom, the prisoners are ridden with feelings of guilt and alienation. 6

Communication is the focus of Drake's work—crucial, as it is proved to be, to sustaining the human bonds on which we depend for subsistence and the stamina to go on, even in the worst of circumstances. He creates telling portraits of the people he portrays that make apparent their outer, as well as inner, lives. Drake is devoted to the transformation of the verbal and written word into radical visual images and to the extraordinary spirit embodied in these images.

By Mary-Kay Lombino
Copyright ©, University Art Museum, 2000

1 Inspired by James Drake's work, Jimmy Santiago Baca wrote several poems related to the same subject. This is an excerpt from a poem entitled Fingers, written on August 29, 1998, to be published in Handsigns (Mena, AR: Cedar Hill Publications, forthcoming 2000.)

2 All quotes and ideas attributed to James Drake are taken from a telephone interview with the author on December 8, 1999, unless otherwise noted.

3 Bruce W. Ferguson. James Drake, exhibition brochure, Kansas City, MO: Grand Arts, 1998.)

4 Rosetta Brooks, "James Drake at Artpace," Artforum vol. 37, no. 3, (Nov. 1998) pp. 118-19.

5 James Drake. Unpublished artist statement for A Thousand Tongues Burn and Sing, 1998.

6 Conversation-Inside-Outside by Jimmy Santiago Baca will be published in Handsigns.

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