World-Renowned Virtual Reality Art Exhibit Showcases Harrowing Immigration Experience

July 22, 2022, 10 a.m. ·

A white wall with the virtual reality exhibit's name, CARNE y ARENA, at the KANEKO arts center in Omaha.

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A new virtual reality art exhibit at KANEKO in Omaha gives viewers a close-up glimpse into the immigration crisis at the U-S, Mexico border. KANEKO is one of the few places in the world right now where guests can see the exhibit after numerous sold-out international tours.

Amanda Kephart, the center's community engagement manager, said KANEKO isn’t a typical gallery art space, but a creative environment that can suspend work from its ceilings and feature large-scale exhibits, such as the virtual reality experience it’s currently showing: 'CARNE y ARENA.'

"This experience, I hope, will widen what people view as a creative experience. I think we frequently have that old connotation, or that old memory [of virtual reality] of walking into walls and it being really blocky and not very 'real.' And this experience is very different than that," Kephart said. "It feels very real. It's multi-sensory; it's audio; it's visual; it's tactile. It is a very, very different way to allow someone to experience an artist's creative passion."

KANEKO featured two quilts made by local immigrant students and their families on what they left behind in their countries when they migrated to the United States, as well as what they are looking forward to in their news homes in Nebraska.

'CARNE y ARENA' translates to flesh and sand. It’s the work of Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the award-winning director of films such as Birdman and The Revenant. The virtual reality experience explores the true-life trek migrants make as they flee their homes and their families in Central America to, what they hope, is a better life ahead in the states.

A few brief notes from Iñárritu – both in English and Spanish – remind viewers at the beginning of the exhibit that what they are about to experience in virtual reality is a horrifying reality experienced by so many immigrants.

After guests make their way through a chilly holding room, they walk barefoot across uncomfortable desert pebbles to put on the VR equipment.

The visuals first show dehydrated and injured men and women taking cover in the dead of a desert night while a helicopter suddenly blazes overhead. Border patrol agents seemingly pop out of nowhere with their Humvee headlights targeting you and the group of migrants. They wave their weapons, shouting at the group — yelling questions and commands, poking terrified people in the migrant group, and looking for anything to identify anyone or the group’s coyote.

Toward the end you meet the people who re-enacted their journey and harassment while trying to cross the border.

There’s Manuel, who left his family to secure a job to send money back to his relatives. A young mom said she fled for the U.S. after a gang threatened to kill and dismember her 2-year-old son. A former border patrol agent described what it was like witnessing people die of heat strokes.

Then guests are left alone, but the exhibit isn’t necessarily done. KANEKO partnered with legal and immigration groups to educate viewers on what they can do to learn more about the immigration process.

KANEKO partnered with immigration and legal groups to encourage guests to get involved with immigration advocacy. Guests can learn how to write to their local representatives to encourage action on immigration policies.

KANEKO’s Amanda Kephart said those resources are to help guests digest the lingering emotions in a proactive way.

"Not be stuck in the feelings of guilt or sadness, but to move past those feelings and think, 'What can I do to make the situation better?' For many of us, talking about things out loud, makes the situation better," Kephart said. "We can't exist in a state of fear when conversations are necessary, because lives are on the line."

Kephart said Omaha is a perfect community to host a world-renowned art exhibit such as Carne y Arena given the city’s population of immigrants who travel here from across the globe – immigrants who become coworkers, neighbors and friends.

"There's something about it that sort of changes the entire perspective of where you stand or where you exist, when you start to open your eyes to the stories that people share, about why they leave home. No one leaves home, because it's a wonderful place to be," Kephart said. "People leave home because they are seeking community, love, support, safety, for them, for their families, for their children, for their parents. I think that that's something that we can all recognize."

"And if at anything — if at a minimum — we change the minds of people so that they know that is completely unacceptable. Then we have made a small difference."

The experience is showing at KANEKO through early September. You can find more information about the exhibit here.