The Gatekeepers: Furor Over Centro de Artes’ Exhibition Raises Questions About How Much Say the City Has Over Arts Content

click to enlarge Screenshot from Xandra Ibarra's 2004 video "La Tortillera." - Xandra Ibarra
Xandra Ibarra
Screenshot from Xandra Ibarra's 2004 video "La Tortillera."
The celebratory mood in the run-up to Contemporary Art Month veered into furor when the City of San Antonio abruptly removed an artwork from the groundbreaking “XicanX: New Visions” exhibition at Centro de Artes.

Its justification? The piece constituted “obscene content.”

Just before the February 13 opening, award-winning performance artist Xandra Ibarra’s Spictacles: La Tortillera — a 4-minute video in which Ibarra, in her own words, “takes on her own racial bondage to hot sauce, tacos and demographic panic” — was yanked from the show by Director of the Department of Arts and Culture Debbie Racca-Sittre on the recommendation of City Attorney Andy Segovia.

Ibarra’s take on that bondage is literal, depicting a minstrel Mexican housewife making tacos with her panties, strapping on a Tapatio hot sauce bottle dildo and pretending to jerk off with it, splashing gouts of red over the chones.

The City of San Antonio has shown its support of the arts, both financially and through publicly run spaces like Centro de Artes. However, this incident suggests that once artists express themselves in ways that make people uncomfortable, city officials are prepared to draw the curtain, silencing free expression rather than dealing with potential blowback.

How the dispute plays out may have implications for how San Antonio funds arts in the future — or even how willing local organizations will be to accept public support, which may come with strings attached.

Through a spokesman, city officials declined comment on this story.

Dos Mestizx co-curators Suzy González and Michael Menchaca — the duo behind “XicanX: New Visions” — are not only perturbed by the First Amendment implications of the sudden removal of “La Tortillera,” but also with the lack of trust the city has shown in their curatorial vision.

“It’s concerning that we don’t know who’s calling those shots in our city,” González said. “There shouldn’t be any question that art is art, as long as the person making it considers it so.”
click to enlarge Screenshot from Xandra Ibarra's 2004 video "La Tortillera." - Xandra Ibarra
Xandra Ibarra
Screenshot from Xandra Ibarra's 2004 video "La Tortillera."
The abrupt timing of the city’s action also raises questions. Speaking to her experience running Blue Star Contemporary, Executive Director Mary Heathcott pointed out that planned programming typically runs on a long clock, with plenty of time for extensive discussion of the pieces that will figure in a showcase.

So, while it’s typical for spaces like Centro de Artes and Blue Star Contemporary to have oversight over what ends up on display, the timeline of the curatorial process should allow organizers, curators and artists to work collectively and iron out any wrinkles well before a show’s opening.

“When we’re working with artists and when we’re turning over the keys to somebody, hopefully it looks more like a dialogue and a conversation,” Heathcott said. “That’s the way that it’s productive.”

It also hasn’t escaped noticed that the city singled out Ibarra’s work, which challenges stereotypes from an explicitly queer perspective.

UTSA Art History Professor Scott Sherer acknowledged that “saying anything about queer culture and lives and everything out in the public is problematic for some people.”

However, Sherer — who also directs the UTSA Art Gallery and Terminal 136 — added “it’s ridiculous to make an argument about [‘La Tortillera’] relative to obscenity, because certainly in the present-day culture there’s lots of discussion about gender norms, and there is presentation or re-presentation of what gender is in works like this.”

The video’s removal also flies in the face of public statements from the city affirming a commitment to promoting the perspective of marginalized voices, particularly in this new exhibition.

“There’s all this language on the city’s website and the Centro de Artes website of being inclusive to Latino artists, and culture and diversity — all these buzzwords,” González said. “Which, you can say it, but really it’s your actions that mean so much more.”
click to enlarge Screenshot from Xandra Ibarra's 2004 video "La Tortillera." - Xandra Ibarra
Xandra Ibarra
Screenshot from Xandra Ibarra's 2004 video "La Tortillera."
It’s not just the reinstatement of “La Tortillera” that’s at stake as the curators and city officials try to work out a solution. In the face of this controversy, the city may balk at supporting challenging projects in the future, instead opting for sanitized programming.

“‘XicanX: New Visions’ is really wonderful for the City of San Antonio and Centro de Artes, and should be celebrated by the [Department of Arts and Culture], who’s supporting the curators Michael Menchaca and Suzy González in this effort,” Heathcott said. “Because we need to see more perspective on and representation in art.”

“I hope whatever the outcome is, is not less funding for the arts.”

As of press time, “La Tortillera” is still not on view, and is subject to more bureaucratic hoops before it may be reinstated. In the meantime, it’s available to watch on Ibarra’s Vimeo website.

“I do think that if there is a silver lining, this controversy has generated a lot of interest in the exhibition and the artists in the exhibition — and Michael and Suzy too,” Heathcott said.

However, González doesn’t see it that way.

“I think the artists are ready for new visions, but is our city?” she asked.

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Kelly Nelson

Kelly Nelson is a digital content editor for the San Antonio Current.

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