Systemic violence is one of the most debilitating epidemics challenging the notions of progress in global societies today. There’s perhaps no city worse hit by this disease than the Mexican town of Juarez located across the Texas border. Declared "the most violent zone in the world outside of declared war zones," Juarez has been at the center of narcotics trafficking for decades. Of the 2,600 killings that were directly linked to the drug war in Mexico in 2008, 1,400 of them occurred in Juarez. By 2010, the number of killings had jumped to 3,075, translating into 229 killings per 100,000 inhabitants. These numbers make Juarez 25% to 30% more violent than the second- and third-highest-rated crime cities in the world. Against this backdrop, it’s no surprise that there’s massive exodus from the city, with 116,000 homes reported abandoned last year—400,000 people forced out of their homes. This domino effect of crime and poverty has left Juarez completely "dispirited and disorderly," a city hijacked by drug cartels.
In a city where politics and governance have utterly failed to provide citizens with basic security and where the entire economy functions under the menacing shadow of narcotics trading, the only channels that can provide rays of hope and renewal and a connection with outside communities are strands of culture and art. In 2010, Sergio Urias, a lawyer in New York whose close friend was kidnapped in Juarez, organized a group of friends, equally frustrated by the complete stalemate on progress in Juarez, to create a tangible platform to contribute to the healing of Juarez through non-governmental initiatives. They created Prject Paz, a group dedicated to raising awareness about the situation in Juarez and to promote peace in the region. Formed with friends in the fashion and art industries, Project Paz has rallied some of the best-known artists, designers and photographers to get involved through art and fashion exhibitions, and within three years of inception, the group has already raised $235,000 to help children in Juarez.
Duggal proudly supported Project Paz’s latest art exhibition in New York by gallery and large-scale printing of photographs taken by an elite group of designers that included Carolina Herrera, Givenchy, Tommy Hilfiger, Narciso Rodriguez, Derek Lam, J. Mendel, Prabal Gurung, Peter Som and Tory Burch, among many others. The curator of the exhibit, Anne Huntington of AMH Industries, got each of these designers to donate a one-of-a-kind photograph inspired by the essence of Mexico and of Project Paz for the art auction.
"We wanted to get the designers involved on a more personal level and to use their creativity in an innovative way," says Project Paz co-founder, Eugenia Gonzalez Ruiz-Olloqui. "They could show anything—a scent, a memory, a color, an item, etc."
Soliciting such pieces as "Passion" from Prabal Gurung, "Opened Doors," a photography triptych by Kean Etro, and "Carnations" by Derek Lam, the exhibition gave the audience a rare insight into an intimate aspect of these public figures.
Peter Som, one of the designers who participated in the exhibition, states, "This project is so important to me because children should never have to grow up in a place where they live in fear. Fashion and art have always played an active role in supporting such causes, and this one is no exception. We are all doing what we love, and we are so incredibly lucky that we had that choice. Many of these kids may not have that choice. We all have to do our part. These after-school programs will give them something constructive and fun to focus on and foster their growth, and most importantly, give them a chance to dream."
One of the pictures in the show pays beautiful homage to Mexico—carnations in vintage style, shot by designer Derek Lam, who states, "I love carnation flowers; they are ornate, over-the-top beautiful, optimistic flowers. They are full of life, like Mexico and her people."
The auction also featured work by numerous emerging and established contemporary artists, including Marcela Zacarias, GT Pellizzi and Ray Smith, Miya Ando and Kat Kohl, who’s an employee of Duggal.
These works, all donated by the designers and artists, were auctioned to benefit Ampliando el Desarrollo de los Niños (ADN), an organization that supports after-school programs for children living in marginalized areas in Juarez to create a safe place for them to learn rather than fall victim to gang violence. Urias said that the organization selected ADN to benefit from the evening’s sales because it wants to invest in the future of Juarez: its children.
"Part of the reason why Juarez is going through what it’s going through is lack of institutional support and, most importantly, a lack of investment in social development," he says. "There is a lot to do in terms of investing in the people and in grassroots programs. If you help the future of Juarez, you start attacking the problem by its roots versus just trying to address the immediate issue.
"The solution needs to come from everybody," he adds. "Just because you are in New York or have no connection whatsoever to Juarez, that doesn’t mean that you should sit on your hands and not do anything. There’s a lot of things that you can do, even small things, from showing up to the event or buying art helps get the message across."
This "message" has already benefitted 3,000-plus children in Juarez, a precious gift of hope and renewal indeed.
There’s something about interacting with art linked to a cause that does more than just create moments of transcendence for the viewer. Such shows bring everyone involved in the creation of such an event under a shared umbrella of humanity through which it becomes possible to connect with and reach out to invisible communities in remote parts of the world. There’s no dearth of issues that need addressing in the world. But when we think of them collectively, we’re bound to feel utterly helpless about our role in contributing in any way. Shows like these allow us to reflect on a specific problem at hand in a specific way, enabling us to make tangible both the problem and a small part of the solution and become directly connected with the communities affected.
As with all projects for social causes that we’re proud to be involved with, Project Paz allowed us to reach beyond our comfort zones and contribute meaningfully with the conviction that each such event restores the faith of one child, one family, one city in all of humanity. The painter Georges Braque once famously exclaimed, "Art is a wound turned into light." Indeed, this project is one such concentration of light that has gone as a ray of powerful hope to the citizens of Juarez.