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San Antonio’s Department of Arts & Culture is facing criticism for removing Xandra Ibarra’s video work “Spictacle II: La Tortillera” (2014) from a group show at Centro de Artes, a city-funded art space. Based on a 2004 performance by the El Paso-born artist, the parodic video features Ibarra in the guise of her alias La Chica Boom, a minstrel Mexican housewife who challenges race and gender stereotypes. Although curators had complied with the center’s requests that the work be exhibited in a curtained-off space along with advisory signage, city officials had it withdrawn from the exhibition XicanX: New Visions prior to the show’s opening, citing “obscene content.”
According to the San Antonio Express-News, City Attorney Andy Segovi said various city department officials were consulted prior to the withdrawal of the work, which includes a simulated sex act that was ultimately found to be overly explicit. In the video, La Chica Boom wears a strap-on outfitted with a bottle of hot sauce and pretends to masturbate over two tortillas that have been garnished with women’s underwear. However, the artist’s nipples are covered by tassels and no genitalia is visible.
The decision to remove the video has been met with cries of censorship by artists and organizations. The show’s curators, Suzy González and Michael Menchaca (known as “Dos Mestizx”), launched a petition calling for the work’s reinstatement and asking that the city of San Antonio reassess its definition of obscenity.
“We oppose this censorship and see it as banishing queer, sexual, feminist, and Latinx creative expression, an act of discrimination and glaring homophobia,” said González and Menchaca on Facebook.
Debbie Racca-Sittre, director of the Department of Arts & Culture, told the San Antonio Express-News that “it was a decision the city had every right to make in a San Antonio-owned space.”
Last week, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), a nonprofit organization that seeks to defend freedom of expression, penned a letter to San Antonio mayor Ron Nirenberg urging him to restore the work to the exhibition. The letter posits that the removal of Ibarra’s work is an attack on First Amendment rights, arguing that the city’s interpretation of obscenity is inconsistent with the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision Miller v. California. The so-called Miller Test, a longtime legal benchmark for determining what constitutes obscene content, exempts material with “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”
“Even though the work has sexual content — as does a lot of contemporary artwork — it certainly does not meet the definition of obscenity as upheld in Miller v. California,” says NCAC’s letter. “In removing Ibarra’s work from the exhibition at Centro de Artes, the City of San Antonio is likely violating the free speech rights of the artist and thus exposing the city to both bad publicity and legal liability.”
A spokesperson for NCAC told Hyperallergic that the organization had not yet received a response to the letter.
XicanX: New Visions includes work by 34 artists that explore Chicanx and Latinx identity and continues through June 28. A public meeting on queer arts censorship hosted by González and Menchaca is scheduled to take place tomorrow, Tuesday, February 25 at 10am at Centro de Artes (101 S Santa Rosa Ave, San Antonio, TX).
Update 2/26/2020 2:40pm: During a public meeting at the Centro de Artes in San Antonio, Texas, the center’s committee voted to reinstall Xandra Ibarra’s work, which had been removed from the exhibition XicanX: New Visions. The decision now moves to the hands of the San Antonio Arts Commission, a group of 15 members appointed by the Mayor and City Council, who will vote on the issue on March 10. According to a statement shared by the show’s curators Suzy González and Michael Menchaca (“Dos Mestizx”), the decision may be further appealed to City Council following the San Antonio Arts Commission’s vote.
“We asked of the committee to stand with us to support the Constitutional freedom of artistic expression and the new visions that XicanX provides. Further, we asked that the City of San Antonio reconsider definitions of ‘obscenity’ that are in fact rooted in a tradition of silencing queer, feminist, and sexual expression,” said González and Menchaca in their statement. “The City’s response to Xandra Ibarra’s artwork is fundamentally illegitimate, unjust, and deserves reevaluation. We ended with stating that there is no place for homophobic treatment within San Antonio Arts Programming.”
The committee dismissed the censorship claims, arguing that the work was refused by the city before it could be installed. The Director of the Department of Arts and Culture, Debbie Racca-Sittre, rejected allegations that the decision was a homophobic response to Ibarra’s work.
Several members of the community were present at the meeting to speak in support of reinstalling Ibarra’s work, including María de León and Adriana Rios of the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures; Professor of Law Amy Kastely; Graciela Sanchez of the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center; and San Antonio-based artist Jonathan Treviño.