Reception for Forced Exodus: Coded Messages from the Underground Railroad

San Diego Mesa College Art Gallery

7250 Mesa College Dr
San Diego, CA 92111
United States


Joe Lewis
FORCED EXODUS: Coded Messages from the Underground Railroad
Exhibition on view: February 3-27, 2020
Reception: Thursday, February 13, 5:00-7:00 pm, Art Gallery FA 103
San Diego Mesa College Jazz Ensemble Preforming at reception.
Artist Lecture: Thursday, February 13, 1:00-2:00 pm, Lecture room FA 105

Visit the artist website:

Gallery located in the NEW Fine Arts building next to Student Services I400
DIRECTIONS: Enter through Genessee/Marlesta. Make a right onto Chasewood
Veer left to Parking Lot 1. Use STAFF spots on RECEPTION NIGHT ONLY.
Other times pay at the machine at the entrance to Lot 1.
Gallery Hours: M, T, W, 11 am - 4 pm, Th, 11-7 pm or by appointment.
Closed Weekends and School Holidays.


In celebration of Black History Month, we present Forced Exodusby established artist Joe Lewis. He delves deep into the heroic history of the Underground Railroad, a crucial episode in the Black experience, to draw potent parallels between the plight of slaves in the 1850s and undocumented immigrants today. His work explores past and present migration to and from Mexico, the connection between runaway slaves and indigenous people in their struggle for freedom, and the continuing search for social justice and self-determination.  

Lewis’ gorgeously printed and embroidered textile works layer and weave details of the storied routes of the Underground Railroad and juxtapose them with vignettes from the dangerous trips of refugees escaping hardship and violence in the Americas today. Some works incorporate visuals from the woodcut prints that depict the brutality of the slave trade (1800 Middle Passage ships and their human cargo) while others borrow from current X-ray views of smuggled people hidden in modern-day trucks. Lewis extracts images of the U.S.-Mexico border from news and the internet and he engineers them into diagrammatic assemblages - figurative elements become fractured, altered and reassembled digitally and are printed on fraying white linen with pointed details cross-stitched onto the fabric. Fences, tent cities, surveillance equipment and armed border patrol are coded images that allude to the militarization of the border and the violence that prevails in this contested landscape. 

Lewis understands that present day relationships between the smugglers and the smuggled differ from those of the runaway slaves, their owners, and slave hunters. Nonetheless, the economic and social realities - unskilled labor, survival in challenging urban and rural environments, lack of basic rights and legal protections, existence in an underground subculture - are similar. The artist asserts that the “trafficking or continuously forced servitude to the cartels has a symbiotic, if not direct, relationship to the historical nature of indenture.”  

In addition to the Underground Railroad/Ferrocarril Subterraneoseries, there are unsettling pieces made of Kente cloth and bullet-proof Kevlar that speak to the criminalization of Black youth and the violence that they experience. Kente, a Ghanaian woven fabric, serves as a qualifier of identity - the patterns of the cloth characterize the wearer, their tribe, and their status. Lewis has sewn two “Juvenile Body Bags” out of this distinctive cloth that is associated with Africa and the African diaspora, thus generating a heart wrenching tension between the beautiful hand-woven material and the shocking message of the bags for the dead. Impenetrable Kevlar fabric has been fashioned into baby bodysuits, becoming protective gear against unjust societal structures. 

The effects of colonialism are also explored in a poetic neon sign that spells out “Négritude”. The glowing letters act as a beacon, symbolic of the literary and political movement created by Black students from the French colonies who were studying in Paris in the 1930s.Négritudeand its reclaiming of race consciousness for Black Africans and the broader African diaspora influenced artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Its spirit is a touchstone of many Black contemporary arts, literary and political movements.

Working in a variety of media, Lewis’ art projects are richly intuitive but also grounded in deep research. In his work the past is always alive in the present, a resource for resistance and survival. People, places, and things circumscribe his marks, while objects, and sounds allow him to see around corners. He believes that “looking into the future is not difficult. The problem is acceptance. Accepting that lives can change due to actions done in the here and now. At times it’s just an errant word or aroma that lifts the curtain, because the present, as our future, is nothing more than multiple images; not just any images but an ordered relocation of our past.”

Joe Lewis fosters collaborations in his work and process and has worked with many artists, musicians, designers and craft people. Lewis has presented his work nationally and internationally. Select exhibitions have been held at The Phatory gallery in New York; the Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore; the Bridge Center for Contemporary Art in El Paso, Texas; and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio; and in Mexico, Iceland, Austria and Singapore. His public art projects include the Chandler Outdoor Gallery Project and the Metro Blue Line Firestone station. He was an NEA Urban Studies and Conceptual Art C.A.P.S. fellow. Joe Lewis has taught art at CalArts, Cal State Northridge, FIT New York, and Alfred University. He’s currently Professor of Art at UC Irvine. 

Thursday, 13 February, 2020


Alessandra Moctezuma

Phone: 619-388-2829
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