As the gates of heaven are opened and dead relatives reunite with their families, Day of the Dead celebrations can turn into festive events. At the many exhibitions celebrating the holiday throughout the state, including at the St. George Art Museum, you’ll find rollicking skeletons, multi-colored flags, dance performances and elaborate ofrendas. A few blocks away you’ll find an exhibition of a much more somber tone: Jan Immo’s Ayotzinapa: Mexico’s Missing Students, at the Sears Art Museum.
In September 2014, in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, a group of students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College were attacked in the town of Iguala by local police officers while on their way to a protest. Six people were killed, including three students. An additional 43 students disappeared. Despite extensive investigations, their whereabouts remain unknown. The event sparked nationwide and international outrage, shedding light on Mexico’s issues with corruption, drug cartels, and human rights violations. It also led to widespread protests and calls for justice, underscoring the urgent need for transparency and reform within Mexico’s law enforcement and judicial systems. The handling of the investigations generated widespread skepticism among the Mexican public, who questioned the official narrative and expressed doubts about the government’s commitment to uncovering the truth. An independent investigation recently found that Mexican armed forces and police and intelligence agencies “all collaborated to make them disappear.”
Several artworks have explored the kidnapping and its aftermath, including Francisco Mata Rosas’ powerfully curated series of photographs capturing the grief and anger of the families of the missing students; Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s “Level of Confidence,” which matched faces of visitors to the images of the disappeared students; and Francisco Toledo’s art installation featuring 43 kites with portraits of the missing students. These works were created by Mexican artists, but the attention and response to the tragedy has been international. Jan Immo is Scottish.
Immo is a fillmmaker and visual artist whose work is centered in community engagement and global social justice issues. In the 1990s, she travelled extensively in the state of Guerrero, visiting rural villages and towns, meeting with local artists and musicians to document their artwork and traditions. That experience made the news of the violent kidnappings especially poignant for the artist. In October, 2014, she began her series of portraits of the 43 students who had been disappeared.
The portraits are displayed together at the west end of the foyer in Utah Tech University’s Dolores Doré Eccles Fine Arts Center. Each face looks directly forward, as in official government documents, but the works are multi-layered and lavishly decorated, not unlike an ofrenda, and the palette is rich with yellows, purples and pinks, traditional colors of the ofrenda. The student is identified by their name, their parents and their place of birth. Words like “Justice Truth Memory” are embedded into some portraits. At the top of each portrait, the artist has included, “Yo, Jan Nimmo, Escocia, exijo justicia para …” (I, Jan Nimmo, Scot, demand justice for …”) or “Yo, Jan Nimmo, Glasgow, Escocia, quiero saber dónde está …” (I, Jan Nimmo, Glasgow, Scotland, want to know where is …). The sheer quantity, totaling 46 in all — comprising the 43 who disappeared and the three who lost their lives in the initial attack — arranged neatly across four rows, strikes a somber and poignant chord. The faces gaze unwaveringly at the observer, insisting on accountability. Yet, the loving attention paid by the artist, ensuring that every portrait is distinct, vibrant, and treated with care, breathes hope and humanity into the tragedy of the missing students.
Jan Immo’s Ayotzinapa: Mexico’s Missing Students was part of Utah Tech University’s celebration of Latino and Hispanic Heritage Month.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.