‘Soy de Tejas’ carves a space within the gallery scene to celebrate Latino artistry
In the contemporary art world, Latino artists are continuously underrepresented. Researchers say that’s part of the reason why marginalized communities don’t feel invited to access art.
Bridging this gap wasn’t specifically the focus of a new art exhibition in San Antonio. But when artists reflect the demographic of a community, that just happens naturally.
The exhibition is called “Soy de Tejas: A Statewide Survey of Latinx Art.” It is the largest exhibition curator Rigoberto Luna has ever put together. It is in Market Square at the Centro de Artes in San Antonio and features work by more than 40 artists of Latin American descent – all with ties to Texas.
The name of the exhibit is a nod to South Texas music legend Esteban “Steve” Jordan and his song of the same name, a song often referred to as the unofficial Chicano national anthem.
Luna has spent over a decade putting together art and gallery shows. So when the city of San Antonio had an open call for exhibitions, he already had this idea cooking.
“When I proposed the show,” Luna said, “my first thought was ‘we’re always talking about California, we’re always talking about New York, and we’re seldom talking about Texas as like a viable art state – the whole state’ and I think that there’s so much more talent here.”
Connecting with the communities of Texas is particularly important for the exhibition – especially when it comes to what is reflected on its walls. Centro de Artes is a space located in a culturally-significant block for Latinos in the city. But the art of Soy de Tejas highlights the parallel experiences of Latino communities throughout the state. After years of planning, Luna is excited to finally get to share it.
“Great for me to be able to bring these artists to my hometown,” Luna said.” And for people of my hometown to be able to experience their work and see that there’s artists outside of San Antonio that are doing things that are relatable to us.”
“Relatable” is a heavy word when it comes to Latino representation in the art world.
Despite pledges of racial and ethnic equality taken by big-name galleries and museums – the Burns Halpin Report 22 report, exploring representation in the art museum and gallery world, found these institutions are still predominantly white and male.
So for those who live in a city and state with a majority Hispanic population, what is relatable?
For artist Bella Maria Varela – it’s fluffy, fuzzy and warm.
“It’s like a thick, heavy polyester blanket,” Valera said, “with pictorial images of, you know, really big cultural images. So whether it’s an American landscape with an eagle or a tiger or a Disney character, there’s just these really large, fluffy icons that are printed on them.”
The cobija, also sometimes called a San Marcos blanket, is Varela’s chosen medium.
“It’s like a staple of the Latino or Mexican home,” she said.
She deconstructs images in the cobijas and mixes them with found objects.
“So I think the simpleness of it,” Varela said “and the playfulness and the humor of it – the humor, especially like I want people to laugh because if you laugh at something, I feel like that’s already a sign that you’re picking up on the joke.”
At the gallery the animals of her cobjias are front and center. There’s a giant shark biting a border patrol truck in half, and an eagle with a hilariously-placed American flag bikini top – bringing to mind those airbrushed bikini body T-shirts. And because of the playfulness of the materials, Varela’s work invites you in in a non-traditional way.
“You know, you go to a gallery space, there’s like all these rules of how you’re supposed to act – hands behind the back. You can’t touch anything,” Varela said. “These are none of these things that you cannot touch, because they’re just like, why would you not want to touch something fuzzy?”
On the opposite side of the gallery on the second floor, another familiar fluffy element is brought into a sculpture: fuzzy dice – the kind you hang from a rearview mirror. This pair hangs from one of three elaborately-adorned saddles by artist José Villalobos.
“I pretty much pimp them out so they’re lowrider saddles,” he said. “I’ve used a lot of things that you would normally see on vehicles and painted them to resemble lowriders. So they have chains. They have chain steering wheels, they have name plaques.”
Villalobos is originally from El Paso and his art reflects the masculine spaces in the Latino border culture he grew up with. But he views them through the lens of his queer identity – not just juxtaposing these perspectives, but combining them.
“It’s just kind of spaces you never really see queer people exist in,” he said. “These specific works are called “Queer Riders.” And they’re kind of like these titles, right, that are very heavily embellished and very lowrider-inspired, but they have no remorse in representing who they are. So some of the plaques say m—– and j—, but it’s also a way of taking ownership of those words, as well.”
At the gallery, Villalobos’ lowrider saddles are even displayed like a car show. The saddles are shiny, bright and colorful. Each has a large chrome element integrated, including a purple chrome heart-shaped muffler.
In the 20,000 square feet of gallery space, each exhibit plays off its neighbor, like a conversation. And yet, the mediums in the exhibition vary wildly – sculpture, textiles, oil paintings, digital media, sound, performance art.
But the constant idea curator Rigoberto Luna and all the artists share is the drive to make space for themselves in the art world and their community.
“No one was going to invite me to do this show, right?” he said. “There wasn’t going to be like a museum that was going to reach out to me and say, ‘Hey, can you come and do a show about Texas and pull together 40 Latinx artists from across the state that represent every region and 15 cities?’ And that just was never going to happen”.
“Soy de Tejas: A Statewide Survey of Latinx Art” is now open and runs for six months until July 2nd.
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