A new exhibition of 15 women artists at the Culture Commons gallery takes inspiration from a citywide report issued in 2019, and turns it into a diverse exploration of issues faced by female residents of San Antonio.

The Status of Women in San Antonio: Reflections on the Pursuit of Gender Equality opened Tuesday at the gallery in the Plaza de Armas building run by the Department of Arts and Culture.

The exhibition represents a collaboration between two city departments, tying together scientific analysis and artistic expression to represent the realities women face as workers, mothers, spouses and individuals.

The exhibition is “a natural way to connect many different initiatives throughout the city together with art, because as we know, artists are often at the forefront of social issues and change,” said Krystal Jones, interim director of the Department of Arts and Culture.

“This is an opportunity for artists to exhibit the issues that are facing us every day as a community through their artwork.”

The Metropolitan Health District commissioned a study to gauge the status of women according to four categories: health and well-being, economic opportunities, political participation, and violence and safety.

The 2019 report, by University of Texas at San Antonio professor Rogelio Sáenz and then-graduate student Lily Casura showed some progress for women in terms of business ownership, political participation and representation, and improved pay equity for employment. But it also revealed what Texas Public Radio at the time called “grim truths,” including heightened instances of domestic violence and rape, persistent poverty and lack of health care accessibility, including prenatal care.

Artist Carmen Johnson Alexander addresses these darker issues head-on with a collage painting, I Used to be Somebody, depicting a young woman facing homelessness, surrounded by statistics gleaned from the report, including that 60% of community college students have faced housing insecurity, and that to afford an average apartment in San Antonio would take earning three times the minimum wage.

The young woman wears a t-shirt that reads “I Am Somebody,” which reflects leaving an abusive situation only to find herself homeless, “a situation where you jump from the [frying] pan into the fire,” Johnson Alexander said.

I Used to be Somebody, Carmin Cartiness Johnson
I Used to be Somebody, Carmen Johnson Alexander Credit: Courtesy / Department of Arts & Culture, City of San Antonio

In three large-scale portraits, Adriana Garcia represents the other side of the coin, painting three local activists who have worked to better the situation of working women in San Antonio: Emma Tenayuca, who organized pecan shellers in the 1930s; María Victoria De La Cruz, an undocumented domestic worker; and civil rights activist and educator Rosie Castro.

Artist Hiromi Stringer drew from personal experience for Untitled (Michi), a delicate graphite drawing on paper tinted a deep bluish tone, which depicts a road in single-point perspective fading off into the horizon under a star-filled night sky.

“My life situation was a little bit dark back then,” Stringer said of dealing with the pandemic in 2020. “And that data was so dreadful,” she said of the information in the status of women report.

However, Stringer said San Antonio shows some hopeful signs of progress, at least in the arts.

“In San Antonio, there are so many women leaders in institutions like [the San Antonio Museum of Art], Ruby City and Blue Star Contemporary,” she said. “To me that is something really refreshing as a Japanese [woman]. As you know, [Japan is] a really male-dominant country. So I was seeing some kind of hope here in the U.S.”

When the report was issued, Metro Health was led by a woman, and the Department of Arts and Culture has been led by women since 2016. Political representation has also improved in San Antonio, going from three of ten council members in 2018 to five of ten today.

Jones said she hopes the exhibition will highlight the urgency of issues women face, which have been worsened by the pandemic, particularly economic insecurity and an increase in domestic violence.

She also hopes the show inspires empathy. “When you get really up close read the artist statements, some of them are incredibly personal,” she said.

“You start to realize, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is happening to them. It’s happening to us. It’s happening to people in our community. I am now more aware and cognizant that when I may see someone who I may walk past and not immediately have thought previously that they might need help, now maybe I can see that they do.’ That is the purpose of this show.”

The Status of Women in San Antonio: Reflections on the Pursuit of Gender Equality is on view through Nov. 18 in the Plaza de Armas building behind City Hall. Entry is free, with open hours Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Events include a “Grand Reopening Reception” for the Culture Commons gallery Tuesday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., a poetry night on May 18 and a panel discussion with the artists on Aug. 24.

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...