Alice Leora Briggs and her Abecedario de Juárez
Alice Leora Briggs, superimposed on her sgraffito drawing “Cinta Canela”
Melissa Lukenbaugh/Alice Leora Briggs
When you walk into Tulsa Artist Fellow Alice Leora Briggs’ studio at Cameron and Main St., you immediately face a large group of black sgraffito panels on which images of people sitting at a long table in a dilapidated warehouse have been etched.
The panels are collectively and individually impressive for their minute details—the Spanish curse word “puta” graffitied onto a warehouse pillar in the distant background, a dead mouse and locust on the table in the foreground, a stack of books with titles legible. The people at the table are all from her life—her parents, dear friends, and collaborators, each made with detailed hair, wrinkles, knotty hands, expressions.
“It doesn’t make sense to add pork to a seder meal,” she says, laughing, of the unfinished piece. “But I knew a pig named Chino. I followed him from birth to slaughter and took thousands of photos of him. I want to put him in.”
Briggs has a dark sense of humor, belied by her bright eyes, bright purple and white striped shirt, and readiness to laugh. But the macabre attracts her, and she doesn’t resist its pull.
She pulls out her computer to show me a slideshow of “Abecedario de Juárez”(“Alphabet of Juárez”), another project she is currently working to complete.
The abecedario is a glossary for narco slang—crime jargon used in Juárez where Briggs has been visiting regularly since 2007. There, she says, “killing is an industry.”
“I finally found a place that looks like the backside of my brain. I’ve always been interested in all of the sorts of violence that escalate into wars … all the black things that decorate human history.”
Each letter in her abecedario is a sgraffito, or scratchboard drawing, decorated with brutal scenes of murder, beatings, and crime, as well as officials, drugs, and money and accompanied by slang definitions.
To give an idea:
A is for acribillado: riddled with bullets.
B is for Basta!: Enough!
C is for Carne Asada: a new recipe for torture and murder.
C is also for Cinta Canela. Briggs gestures to an image of what looks like a cookie box depicting a cup of coffee, cookies, and a head wrapped in tape. (See image above.)
“Cinta Canelas are a cookie; it translates as ‘cinnamons.’ But cinta canela is also what they call brown plastic packaging tape. Most of the torture-and-murder kit is purchased at the local hardware store and cinta canela is a popular item for suffocation—you just wrap someone’s head up in cinnamon tape.”
She begins the slideshow of the alphabet. The alarming presentation is punctuated by loud sounds of gunshots, glass breaking, cash registers opening, car tires screeching, and alarms sounding as it cycles through the letters. The piece—a day in Juárez life—is over in less than 25 seconds.
“It’s a crazy, fascinating place with fascinating people,” she said.
One such individual is her friend Julian, a Mexican reporter in Juárez with whom she Skypes twice a week for hours on end. He culls stories from Juárez citizens that relate to the “Abecedario,” relays them to Briggs, they hash them out in their broken English and broken Spanish, and then she writes them. This is the project’s other facet: it will be a book, full of first-hand accounts from Juárez citizens.
“The project includes the whole food chain,” says Briggs. “Both victims of crime as well as the perpetrators.”
One account is of a man who ran drugs as a teenager, then joined the military to straighten out his life, only to find it was as corrupt as much of civilian life.
“What he found was a bunch of soldiers getting stoned and then being ordered by his superiors to kill farmers who refused to grow a ‘cash crop’ for them—in this case, marijuana.”
Another story tells of a young boy who told psychologists at school that when he grew up, he wanted to be a sicario, or professional killer.
Briggs also spends time at an asylum—which has inspired a series of woodcuts—on the western outskirts of Juárez, run by a man who, after being deported from the U.S., lived on the streets there until he decided to create a shelter for people like himself. He cares for 110-115 people, many of whom live with conditions like Down syndrome and bipolar disorder, or live on the streets and use the asylum as temporary refuge.
“The joke to me is it’s one of the sanest places in the city, because it’s a functioning community,” Briggs said.
You can see more of her work, including the full “Abecedario,” at aliceleorabriggs.com.
For more on Tulsa Artist Fellows, read Liz's article on Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin.