The United States is in the midst of a politically charged moment, with debates raging over issues like immigration, native land rights, women’s rights, sexual harassment and abuse, transgender equality, wealth inequality, and religion.
In San Antonio, the confluence of several visual art exhibitions gives perspective to a range of these issues.
From 30 Americans at the McNay Art Museum, to the 30 artists involved in the Images of Power exhibition at Freight Gallery, black and brown artists of all genders are voicing their experiences in many forms of visual art.
Other concurrent and upcoming shows include the McNay’s Something to Say: The McNay Presents 100 Years of African American Art and Four Texans: The Next Chapter, Manifest at Blue Star Contemporary, RE:KONSTRIKSYON at the UTSA Main Art Gallery, the all-female Reclaimed show at the Linda Pace Foundation, and the three artists currently at the Artpace International Artist-In-Residence program: Rafa Esparza, Kapwani Kiwanga, and Carlos Rosales-Silva.
Images of Power
That so many shows coalesce around these similar themes is not so much a coincidence, or a result of the current political climate, as it is artists giving voice to longstanding concerns, said San Antonio artist Mark Anthony Martinez, co-curator of Images of Power.
As artists installed their work prior to the show’s Feb. 10 opening, Martinez said that many people have told him the show is “topical.” He agrees that our charged political moment makes the show timely, but believes the topics it addresses are always current.
“This stuff is happening every day – it isn’t just happening this year, or just because we have a certain administration in office,” Martinez said.
“We have everything represented in [Images of Power] from historical colonialism to neo-fascism that’s on the rise,” he said, adding that conversations on immigration, citizenship, and color are “intergenerational.”
The exhibition arose out of a controversy involving a piece Martinez made for the 2017 Young Latino Artists 22: ¡Ahora! exhibition at Austin’s Mexic-Arte Museum, curated by independent guest curator Alana Coates.
Mexic-Arte’s mission statement includes the phrase, “to promote dialogue and develop understanding for visitors of all ages.” However, Martinez’s Off-White Power neon sculpture, using the artist’s terminology for his own light-skinned Latino identity, was not allowed into the exhibition. Martinez said it was an instance of censorship by the museum.
The neon sign sculpture features an emoji fist and the words of the title all in white light, but for the word “Off,” which remains unlit, and hangs in the window of Freight Gallery for Images of Power.
Sylvia Orozco, executive director of Mexic-Arte, disagrees with the characterization of censorship, explaining that the piece was simply not allowed to be in the show, and that guest curators work as part of the museum’s mentorship program. The Martinez artwork lacked clarity and created confusion, she said. “I think it gave mixed messages.”
In discussions with Mexic-Arte staff, Coates said she “insisted that this was not the time to lower the bar to the people, but to raise the people to the bar” when it comes to conversations about white supremacy, racism, and power.
The museum’s educational mission should allow for dialogue and understanding, Coates said. “I think the museum missed out on the opportunity for very important dialogue.”
A public discussion on Feb. 24 at 6 p.m. during Images of Power will provide such a forum.
One of the artists represented in Four Texans at the McNay, multimedia artist Deborah Roberts also spoke of such issues as both topical and intergenerational. We are reliving the period of 1967-69, she said, “a time when America was really changing, and moving forward, but with a lot of pain.”
“That’s happening now, and we can go backwards or forwards,” Roberts said. Her collaged portraits of young black girls may be “jagged” and “surrealistic,” according to the Village Voice, but they are, in a sense, portraits of her earlier self, who is “asking the viewer to see me as a whole person,” and not a second-class citizen.
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“Black people are not a monolithic group,” she said, but a lot of women who have seen her work have told her: “This is me, these are my stories.”
“[I hope] people see themselves in the work,” Roberts said, but she doesn’t mean only black and brown people.
The references to pop culture, American history, and black culture present in her work are “inside all of us – those things unite us,” she said. “I think it’s very important being accepted as who you are and what you stand for. You are just as important as anyone else. Your ideas, and the ways you stand for and against America, makes you a patriot.”
Still, in acknowledging the current political moment, she said, “sometimes when we interrogate America and its policies, especially as a black or brown person, we tend to be seen as less patriotic. [But] the founding fathers critiqued the system,” she said, “and they made it better.”
The organizers of Wendel White’s Manifest exhibition at Blue Star Contemporary had the gallery walls and wall labels rendered in all-black, framing the show in a somber and funereal atmosphere.
In charting the experience of black Americans through archival photographs of racially charged objects, Manifest draws an eerie through-line from 18th-century slave shackles to the prop boombox of the “Radio Raheem” character in the 1989 Spike Lee film Do the Right Thing. In the culminating moment of the film, Raheem throws the boombox through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria, symbolizing rebellion against racial oppression.
The history of such objects had not been formally considered in the visual arts until the pioneering institutional critique of Fred Wilson, whose 1992 Mining the Museum project paired artifacts of slavery with representations of the founding fathers and other figures of American history.
Many of the artifacts represented in White’s photographic archive are now in the collection of the National Museum of African American History in Washington, D.C., on the National Mall along with the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, the National Gallery, and other Smithsonian institutions.
White will visit Blue Star at noon on March 22 for a “Black Box Lunch” to discuss his work with interested visitors. Advance registration is required for the limited-seating event.
The black and white tone of White’s Manifest show is echoed in Reclaimed at the Linda Pace Foundation, an all-female exhibition focused on “representations of the feminine,” according to the press announcement.
Included in Reclaimed are the Stillness self-portraits of Laura Aguilar, unconventional only in the sense that traditional “nudes” in art rarely depict large female bodies. Aguilar’s unabashed folds of flesh “assert her beauty as an extension of nature,” as echoing the “bulbous rocks and knotted tree trunks of the San Antonio wilderness,” the announcement states, lending a local relationship to the California-based artist’s work.
Lorraine O’Grady’s African-American hair is portrayed as a forested landscape in her video Landscape (Western Hemisphere), a meditation on femininity, and the continuing inequalities of colonization.
Something To Say
The very title of Something to Say: 100 Years of African American Art at the McNay speaks volumes about which voices have been heard over the past century and which are only now coming to the fore.
Harriet Kelley, whose art collection with husband Harmon Kelley forms the reason the exhibition came into being, spoke to the ways black artists represented their culture in the days of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance.
Painters Allan Rohan Crite, represented in the exhibition by Joseph (c. 1940s), and Charles Louis Sallee Jr., with Girl with Pink Geranium (1936), refused the prevailing negative stereotypes of the day to paint fellow African Americans “that were educated, clean cut and contributing to society,” Kelley said.
Hale Woodruff’s Sharecropper fills the frame of his portrait in the manner of a classical work. “Even if they’re doing farm work,” Kelley said of sharecroppers of the time, they are “still portrayed as being dignified, and proud of what they’re doing.”
Despite receiving criticism for his portrayals from other black artists, Kelley said, Crite “continued to treat blacks as prominent people that deserve respect.”
These artists followed in the mold of Frederick Douglass, widely considered “the most photographed man in America” in his day and who made a deliberate effort in the contentious Civil War era to be seen widely as a dignified and fiercely intelligent representative of black Americans.
The shift in portrayals from the 1920s through the recent art of 30 Americans in the adjoining gallery is striking, acknowledged Rene Paul Barrileaux, McNay head of curatorial affairs.
“Part of it is the audience, who the work was made for,” Barrileaux said. In the case of Something to Say, the audience was the everyday community of the artists. “There’s a certain kind of positive push – it’s affirmative, uplifting, and celebratory, talking about struggles, but also affirming.”
In the case of the contemporary artwork in 30 Americans, the audience is international, and “cynicism and mistrust are allowable.”
Risa Puleo, curator of the Artpace Spring 2018 International Artist-In-Residence program, said she chose the three current artists because they work through questions of identity through the materials they choose.
Color plays a large role in the work of Esparza, Rosales-Silva, and Kiwanga, Puleo said. For example, the “color schemes of brown neighborhoods” present in the paintings of Rosales-Silva derived from Chicano murals and brightly painted Mexican restaurants or the “standardized colors of institutions like asylums and hospitals” in Kiwanga’s work.
Rafa Esparza’s practice centers around adobe brick-making he learned with his father, Puleo explained. “He brings this material into art spaces and museums to literally reform the walls and ground of the institution into a brown space.”
Such interventions are necessary, Puleo said, as “a deeper way of addressing the problems of the lack of artists of color in art spaces and museums.”
Esparza, Kiwanga, and Rosales-Silva will be on hand for Artpace’s evening of Open Studios on Tuesday, Feb. 20, from 6-8 p.m., midway through their residency periods.
Artpace also hosts its inaugural performance artist resident Amalia Ortiz with two performances, Saturday, Feb. 17, at 1 p.m. and Thursday, Feb. 22, at 6 p.m. These Artpace events are free and open to the public.
One feature of the 11th Annual African American Studies Symposium at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) is RE:KONSTRIKSYON, an exhibition of art featuring comics, photography, music, and fashion.
The symposium coincides with the Black and Brown Futures course taught by Kinitra Brooks, a professor of English in the UTSA honors college, and the Feb. 16 release of the new Black Panther movie.
Brooks celebrates the movie as a welcome representation of black agency, in an all-too-rare instance of a Hollywood blockbuster film with a black hero and black director.
“This has been a long time coming,” Brooks said, and points out that it is the result of generations of black artists, actors, and directors working to establish their credentials in a system that has long worked against them. “You have to build the legacy.”
Brooks credited “Black Twitter,” a social media hashtag that focuses on issues pertinent to people of color, with calling upon Hollywood to “recognize it has to change or die,” she said. Widespread access to communications technology emphasizes “the importance of black folks being able to speak back to power when they aren’t getting it right,” she said.
However, “black and brown folks have always represented themselves,” Brooks said, “it’s just whether mainstream culture has been paying attention or not.
“We will always create. We will always invent. You can choose to pay attention or not, and it doesn’t center on the approval of the gaze of whiteness.”
A list of current and upcoming exhibitions focused on representation, identity, and racial and gender depictions follows. Each exhibition contains several artists. Please check the websites for further information:
Images of Power
Benny Andrews: Sexism
Feb. 8-May 6
30 Americans: Rubell Family Collection
Feb. 8-May 6
4 Texans: The Next Chapter
March 1-May 6
Spain to San Antonio: Hispanic Culture on Stage
March 1-June 10
Feb. 1-May 6
San Antonio 1718: Art from Viceregal Mexico
March 10-Jan. 26, 2019
Spring 2018 International Artist-in-Residence Program
March 22-May 13
VOZ: Selections from the UTSA Art Collection
Feb. 8 – June 10
Please let us know if there are other current exhibitions that should be included on this list.