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For at least one San Antonio artist, the Tricentennial is not yet over. Transcendental Tricentennial: Love Letters to San Anto, The (heART) of David Zamora Casas is a “Folk-Baroque … mega-installation” at the Institute of Texan Cultures (ITC) through July 28.
The above description from a news release, and the show’s overweening title, are entirely in keeping with the San Antonio artist’s personality and aesthetic: Zamora Casas enthusiastically packs in as much as can fit, using as many colors, mediums, and shapes as possible in whatever space he occupies, including his own person.
When the artist appears in public, he wears elaborate eye makeup, a Dalí-like mustache, and floral and fruited Carmen Miranda hats. Such costumery will be on display during the ITC’s free Second Sunday July 14, from noon-5 p.m., as Zamora Casas welcomes visitors for walk-throughs of his exhibition.
Acknowledging that mild nudity, condom wrappers, and mentions of queerness – with use of religious iconography in that context – might be objectionable to some, the show opens with a placard on the door, presenting a defensive exhortation toward the First Amendment:
Freedom of speech is the foundation of our communities and our nation. The works this institution exhibits may awe, illuminate, challenge, unsettle, confound, provoke, and, at times, offend. We defend the freedom to create content and exhibit such work anywhere in the world…
Despite the warning, a gleeful explosion of color greets visitors in the small entrance room. Zamora Casas’s various enthusiasms are revealed in paintings, photographic collages, texts, sculptures, and installations that openly celebrate gender fluidity, communion with Mother Earth, the “rasquachismo” aesthetic, and other signifiers of Mexican-American and indigenous cultures.
What the artist describes as a “wall-to-wall installation” includes not only more than a dozen paintings, several large-scale installations, framed photographs and an informational video – more than enough for any standard exhibition – but the walls are also festooned with a kaleidoscope of brightly-colored ribbons, draped glittery chiffon and satin shifts, flowery printed fabrics, and the artist’s signature red roses and white and orange carnations.
The paintings are thick with impastoed paint and rich with detail, decorated with symbols and texts honoring his Mexican-American heritage, his queer identity, his friends, lovers, and family, and the flora and fauna of his lifelong locale. As it did for many Tricentennial celebrations, The Yanaguana River features as a central symbol for the artist, the city he loves, and the inhabitants of the region who long predate the current civilization here.
Though ostensibly dedicated to the friends and colleagues who have touched him most, the show amounts to Zamora Casas holding American ideals to account for both the letter and spirit of their meaning. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” should apply to all, he suggests in painted text, to include flamboyant LGBTQIA “artivists” such as himself – as Norma Elia Cantú calls him in a brief essay included in the exhibition.
Another brief essay by novelist Sandra Cisneros describes Zamora Casas as “a clown shaman making his way through the world with his heart ablaze like el Corazón Sagrado, a storm of fire illuminating the way in a season of darkness.” Cisneros praises the “art provocateur” for bravely exploring “borders of genre, race, class, sexuality in time of censorship, fear, and fascism.”
But sadness lurks behind Zamora Casas’s overt celebrations, with warnings of impending climate disaster and encomiums to friends and many others who died during the 1980s and ’90s AIDS epidemic. Their mortality is transcended through their enduring influence on him, and their presence in his celebratory artwork, the artist suggests. Painted text in What Would DJ Jesse Do?, dedicated to a friend who died of AIDS, reads “Transcend into euphoria… sleeping is universal, dreaming is magic. La muerte es nueva vida (death is new life).”
The Dia de los Muertos tradition Zamora Casas freely references in his altars and ofrendas informs this ultimate boundary-crossing sentiment, wherein the living and dead commune in celebration.
At the bottom edge of one text-filled painting, the phrase “tu eres mi otro yo” recalls an ancient Mayan saying, “which means you are the other me, and is the ultimate form of saying ‘I love you’,” as the artist explains in an informational video.
“These are my love letters to San Antonio,” he says in the informational video, but the artworks are also reminders of community and universal connections. Though his messages are directed toward specific people “that have shaped my world view and my intellectual way of thinking,” Zamora Casas suggests that through environmental consciousness, love and mutual respect, we might all transcend our time.
The ITC is open daily, with information on hours, admission pricing, tours, and parking available here. Admission is free each second Sunday of the month.