This article has been updated.

The removal of an artwork intended for exhibition at Centro de Artes has become an argument over whether one artist’s voice should be allowed by community standards.

When the XicanX: New Visions exhibition opened at Centro de Artes on Feb. 13, the 4-minute Spictacle II: La Tortillera video by Oakland-based artist Xandra Ibarra was not included. When curators Suzy González and Michael Menchaca learned that the video, originally intended to be part of the exhibition, had been excluded, they took to social media to register their complaint of censorship.

What do you think?
The Rivard Report would like to foster a discussion among our readership on the situation at Centro de Artes. Please use our comment section below (it’s easy to sign up) to share your thoughts about the following questions:

  • After viewing artist Xandra Ibarra’s video, do you think the City should have disallowed it to be in the XicanX exhibition?
  • Is the removal of the video an act of censorship, as the curators claim, or of “curatorial oversight,” as the City claims?
  • How should “general public” and “community standards” be defined, as it relates to the content of artists in a City-funded, public space?
  • Do overt displays of sexuality threaten the San Antonio community? In what way?

In a Feb. 18 email to the Rivard Report, González and Menchaca (who curate as a team under the name Dos Mestizx) wrote, “The city’s attorney, Andrew Segovia, reviewed Xandra’s hyperbolic video work and deemed it as ‘obscene content.’ We view this decision by the city as an act of discrimination against Queer artistic expression and are doing all that we can to restore our vision for the show and include Xandra’s work.”

The Department of Arts and Culture convened a meeting of the Centro de Artes subcommittee of the San Antonio Arts Commission on Feb. 19, and the issue was raised by Dos Mestizx during the public comments portion of the meeting. The day prior, Dos Mestizx had been shown an informally printed document during an interview with columnist Elaine Ayala of the San Antonio Express-News that characterized the Ibarra video as “obscene material that does not align with our community standards.” The document was apparently the result of a discussion between the Department of Arts and Culture and the City Attorney.

Ibarra’s video depicts her character, La Chica Boom, a profane send-up of Latina stereotypes in burlesque costumery, performing bawdy acts related to female labor and male sexuality. In the artist’s words, as quoted from an Artforum.com interview from August 2019:

The spictacle violently and satirically exploits Mexican iconography and pairs it with contradictory behavior to parody artificial images of Mexicans, Chicanxs, or Mexican Americans. A subversive comedy of superiority based on another person’s Mexiphobia.

The scenes in question arrive 1:39 into the video, when the character removes two pairs of underwear from beneath her dress and places them onto two tortillas on a table. At 2:17, she removes her dress eventually to reveal a G-string costume, pastied breasts, and a strap-on Tapatía hot sauce bottle modified to read “La Chica Boom.” She proceeds to feign male masturbation, spilling hot sauce on the underwear and tortillas.

Ibarra granted permission to the Rivard Report to provide a link to the video. With the caveat that the City determined the content to be “obscene,” click here to view.

The Centro de Artes subcommittee scheduled a public meeting Tuesday morning to hear from Dos Mestizx, Debbie Racca-Sittre, director of the Department of Arts and Culture and the instigator of the removal of Ibarra’s artwork, Assistant City Attorney Ray Rodriguez, and members of the public. Rene Barilleaux, Arts Commission chair and head of curatorial affairs at the McNay Art Museum, was also present.

Debbie Racca-Sittre, director of the Department of Arts and Culture. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In stating their case, González and Menchaca read a prepared statement. Their chief arguments centered on freedom of expression and homophobia, stating that the City’s “censorship clearly demonstrates discriminatory action against queer, Latinx, feminist, sexual expression and violates the civil liberties granted by the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

They noted that the Department of Arts and Culture website states that “art can serve as an instrument to channel difficult conversations,” but that the censorship of Ibarra’s work “has halted any conversation that may have arisen from exhibiting her work.”

They cited a letter sent to Mayor Ron Nirenberg by the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), which states “deep concern” over the City’s “apparent discomfort with [Ibarra’s] unconventional viewpoint on representations of sexuality and the challenge it presents to gender stereotypes,” and urges restoration of the video to the exhibition.

Following the meeting, Mayor Nirenberg sent a statement to the Rivard Report in response to the situation: “While I strongly support free artistic expression, this film would be in a public venue open to families and children. It is incumbent upon us to maintain an environment appropriate for families in this situation.”

González and Menchaca also cited a letter signed by 26 distinguished scholars from such diverse locations as Brown University, Princeton University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the Latinx Project in New York, attesting to Ibarra’s art as “the sophisticated work of an artist who makes effective and inventive use of historically significant imagery in order to address issues of racism, homophobia, sexism, immigration, and labor.” The Spictacle video “is not meant to shock or be obscene, on the contrary, it has allowed us to confront some of the most pressing issues facing our many communities today. … This work is not obscene, but vital.”

Racca-Sittre defended her position first by laying out a detailed timeline that she said caused a rushed response by the City to an artwork that might violate Texas state law on obscenity. Upon viewing the video the day of the public opening, she sought advice from her supervisor and the City Attorney’s office, which recommended not including the video in the exhibition, despite an offer from Dos Mestizx to curtain off the video room and post signage warning viewers of graphic content.

“My thought on a crazy whirlwind day was, I cannot risk this center,” said Racca-Sittre, speaking of Centro de Artes. “I did originally think that it was illegal, and that I was putting the entire facility at risk.”

Citing a contract clause, Racca-Sittre said curators chosen for Centro de Artes exhibitions agree to curatorial oversight by the City and are made aware that the City can remove any artwork at any time from any City-sponsored exhibition. Menchaca said he and González were not aware of such curatorial oversight, later stating “There is nothing [in the contract] that says that they can interfere with our curatorial work.”

After the subcommittee collectively determined that artistic merit trumps concerns over obscenity, the discussion turned to whether “community standards” had been adequately defined. “But if it’s decided by this committee … to redefine community standards and say this will be okay behind the curtain with appropriate signage, then that recommendation will go to the San Antonio Arts Commission,” Racca-Sittre said.

In response, González said, “if this is about setting a definition for community standards, I encourage everyone to consider what community means, right? It doesn’t mean a heterosexual conservative majority, it means our LGBTQAI family, right? It means our brown and black community members and embraces all of us, right?”

González said artists often feel pressure to limit their expression when showing in City-run spaces, so such a controversy was inevitable. “We’re proud that we’re standing up for the voices of artists and the expression of artists.”

Artist Mark Anthony Martinez, represented in the exhibition by a sculpture, said, “I didn’t like that distinction between community versus artists. We’re the same people, we’re working and living in this community, some of us have day jobs, multiple jobs, we contribute the same way that the rest of the community does. But I think it’s an important discussion, and I want to see that piece shown.”

After breaking for a closed executive committee meeting with the City Attorney, representatives of the Department and members of the subcommittee voted unanimously that the video should be put on display as soon as possible.

Their recommendation will go to the Arts Commission for consideration March 10. On Wednesday, the City clarified that the Arts Commission “is an advisory body and the Director will strongly consider their recommendation,” but that the decision ultimately rests with Racca-Sittre.

The Xicanx exhibition runs through June 28.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...