Claudia Bernardi: Tree of Life Mural Project Upholds Walls of Hope's Mission

Tree of LifeThe Tree of Life mural project (2015)

The Tree of Life (El Árbol de la Vida) is a six-foot-high by 30-foot-long community-based mural project completed in May 2015 by currently detained* undocumented immigrant Central American youths and The School of Art and Open Studio of Perquin / Walls of Hope in El Salvador (cofounded by international human rights activist and CCA Communty Arts professor Claudia Bernardi) and students and faculty from Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia, where Bernardi was a visiting professor.

* The location is undisclosed to protect the unaccompanied alien children (UACs).

The mural depicts the perilous journey Central American youths face as they cross the United States / Mexico border. It also alludes to the brutality and violence that exists due to trafficking of narcotics.

About The Tree of Life Mural

To complete the project, 10 Staff Secure boys and girls were allowed to leave the detention center to paint the mural and visually document their personal and communal memories of crossing the border. (The mural was painted on canvas to allow the final piece to travel and be displayed in other venues.)

* Secure refers to the most restrictive setting, followed by Staff Secure, then Shelter.

The group interacted with Mary Baldwin College students and faculty as well as the artists and teachers from the School of Art of Perquin at a site within the college’s grounds.

Mural's Narrative

The mural begins with the nighttime crossing of the US/Mexican border over water and then documents the trekking of many unfamiliar miles in the arid desert. The centerpiece is the Tree of Life: a bright, powerful and generous force that spans from left to right, bridging the pain of the crossing to the possibility of a happier life in the United States.

The number of UACs crossing the border has doubled in each of the past three years. Unlike other so-called shelters operated by US government agencies, this juvenile center provides services to Secure and Staff Secure UACs who pose a moderate and significant risk of harm to themselves or others.

Thousands of unaccompanied undocumented minors embark on a vulnerable journey while attempting to cross the US/Mexican border every year. Many become victims of human trafficking, exploitation, and abuse.

The undocumented children suffer incredible trauma throughout the journey to the United States, and some experience the trauma throughout their lives as victims of all forms of abuse and violence associated with poverty, gangs, drug cartels, and more.

About School of Art and Open Studio of Perquín / Walls of Hope

The School of Art and Open Studio of Perquin / Walls of Hope is an international art and human rights project of art, education, conflict resolution, crime prevention, diplomacy building, community development, and preservation of historic memory.

Bernardi, in collaboration with four Salvadoran local artists and teachers, founded the organization in 2005. Their mission is to create bridges of collaboration with local and political agencies using art as a contribution to the social planning and the development of leadership roles among the participants who face the challenges of collapsed economies.

The organization focuses on conflict resolution, envisioning a proposition for endurable peace.

Engaging children, youth, and adults in the creation of art that serves as a component of community building, the organization works in areas where trauma, violence, and prejudice has been inflicted through political duress, state terror, wars, and armed conflicts.

The participants decide on the theme and narration of each piece with the intention to produce a visual testimony that represents their recent history.

The School of Art and Open Studio of Perquin / Walls of Hope creates collaborative spaces that expand from creativity toward diplomacy, judicial concerns, and the demand for the respect for social and human rights.

“Our work is political, but not partisan.”

About Claudia Bernardi

Bernardi is an internationally known artist who works in the fields of human rights and social justice and who has exhibited her work in over 40 solo exhibitions.

In all of her work over the past two decades -- whether as an artist through installation, sculpture, and printmaking; as an educator through teaching and lecturing; or as a participant in human rights investigations -- she has impacted thousands of people with her integrity, compassion, and truthfulness.

She is an artist who has witnessed monstrous atrocities and unspeakable human tragedies, yet speaks of these horrors in ways that communicate the persistence of hope, undeniable integrity, and necessary remembrance.

Born in Buenos Aires, Bernardi and her younger sister lost their parents while teenagers during a highly unstable time in the history of Argentina -- a time of dictatorship and extreme political unrest.

“You do not have the luxury of choosing to be apolitical in Argentina,” says Bernardi.

Read more about the Bernardi sisters »

Other Recent Walls of Hope Projects

The following are just a few of the projects created by Walls of Hope. Visit the website to learn more about this organization's relevant work as well as watch a 2012 video.

  • Museum of Memory, La Plata, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2014
    Mural project created by relatives of victims of recent police brutality in Argentina
  • Ex ESMA, EX Clandestine Center of Detention and Extermination, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2014
    Mural project created by families of the disappeared who were able to retrieve the human remains of their loved ones thanks to the exhumations, investigation, and DNA testing performed by the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team
  • Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, 2013
    Mural project created by 26 youths, ages 13 to 17, survivors of violence caused by drug wars in Mexico
  • Monthey, Switzerland, 2012
    Mural project created by 93 refugee, migrant, and forced-exiled persons from 25 different communities from Latin America, Africa, and Eastern Europe
  • Belfast, Northern Ireland, 2011
    Collaborative and community-based mural project created by Catholic and Protestant children on the Ardoine Road, West Belfast during the Ardoine riots
  • Panzós, Guatemala, 2010
    Mural project created by the survivors of the massacre of Panzós, Alta Verapaz


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