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Mexican clay artist Alejandro Santiago dies of heart attack aged 49


Alejandro Santiago, a Mexican artist who filled the streets of his home town with clay figures to represent the migrants who left for the United States, has died at the age of 49.

Santiago died of a heart attack, said Emilio de Leo, the Oaxaca state culture director. Mr de Leo said Santiago had diabetes for years.

"Our condolences go to the family of the great teacher and cultural promoter Alejandro Santiago, a loss to Oaxaca," state governor Gabino Cue wrote on his Twitter account.

Santiago, a painter and sculptor who studied in the workshop of Rufino Tamayo in Oaxaca, had shows in Mexico, the United States and Europe.

His best known work was 2,501 Migrants, which opened in 2007 in his picturesque home town of Teococuilco, in southern Oaxaca state. Financed with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, it was an ambitious work to create an army of life-size clay figures to replace departed townspeople.

He created the statues, each about 4ft 4in tall and 150lb, to represent the young people who had abandoned his hamlet in impoverished Oaxaca state. No two sculptures were alike and many of the faces were sculpted to reflect the hardship of migrants' lives in Mexico and the US.

Santiago said the inspiration for the project came in 2001 when he returned home after a three-year stay in Paris and was struck by Teococuilco's empty streets.

In 2003, Santiago decided to experience for himself what it was like to cross the US border illegally. He met a smuggler in Tijuana who set him up with fake papers and tried to cross. Santiago was quickly caught by US immigration authorities and returned to Mexico, but he was struck by the thousands of crosses put on the corrugated wall marking the border by activists to represent those who died trying to cross. .

He estimated those crosses numbered about 2,500 and settled on that number, plus one, for his project. He said the extra figure symbolised that there is always one more person who is leaving, risking his or her life to try to reach the US.