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Arts & Culture

Tear Down And Speak Up: San Antonio Art Exhibit Sparks Tensions Over Race And Gender

Jacqueline Saragoza McGilvray
Image courtesy of BSC
"Teardowns" included monochromatic figures described by artist Joey Fauerso as self portraits. There were also images of bodies stacked atop one another, abstract shapes and body parts, images of nature and several live performances.

In the final days of a San Antonio art exhibition, several artists traded accusations — mostly through Instagram — of racism, sexism and cultural appropriation. Soon after the conversations began, attendees of the Blue Star Contemporary art gallery said they noticed strategic security measures being taken during Southtown’s monthly First Friday artwalk.

The exhibition at the heart of the controversy is “Teardowns,” a multimedia performance piece that ran from early October 2019 to Jan. 5, 2020, at Blue Star Contemporary.

Joey Fauerso is an artist and associate professor of studio art at Texas State University who spent several years researching, planning and creating “Teardowns.” She said it’s about the inherent instability of life, her experience with breast cancer, the current state of politics in the U.S. and the history of the suppression of women’s voices and stories in western art.

Online Infighting

On a since-deleted Instagram post by Fauerso promoting the event, San Antonio-based artist Jonathan Treviño commented, “What is the significance of the Indigenous aesthetic, iconography, decoration and bodies piled in mass in this work/installation?”

Credit Courtesy Jonathan Treviño

Treviño studied sculpture at San Antonio College and photography at The New School’s Parsons School of Design in New York City. His studies included art history, theory and criticism.

After the exchange, Chad Dawkins — director of exhibitions at the Southwest School of Art — entered the conversation in defense of Fauerso.

Dawkins called Treviño a troll, not a real critic. He compared Treviño to an “idealistic child.”

Treviño posted publicly about the exchange, and his conversation with Dawkins continued via private messages. Dawkins used strong language. He declined to comment for this story.

The Southwest School of Art, where Dawkins works, is one of the biggest arts schools in San Antonio. It calls itself “the only independent college of art in Texas.”

In an emailed response to TPR, school officials wrote, “Chad Dawkins commented as an individual and at no time presented his personal opinions as representative of those of the institution. Southwest School of Art respects the right to freedom of speech and encourages open dialogue including the opportunity for artists to explain their work.”

Credit Courtesy Jonathan Treviño

‘Someone Could See Something Completely Different’

In his critique of “Teardowns,” one of Treviño’s Instagram comments drew scrutiny from Fauerso. In it, he referred to the artist and professor as a “stay at home cis woman.”

Treviño said the phrase wasn’t intended to be taken literally.

“That ‘stay at home’ part is in reference to the way she’s approaching other people’s culture as if it’s some arts and crafts that you do at home with your kids,” Treviño said.

Credit Courtesy Joey Fauerso

While Fauerso said she can’t determine Treviño’s motivations, she believes he used sexist language in his critique. Treviño believes that claim is a distraction intended to change the topic from race to gender.

Fauerso maintains her art is not influenced by Indigenous imagery.

“But I don’t think that it’s necessarily crazy to see that within the work,” Fauerso said. “Often times within artwork, you can see many influences. Someone could see something completely different than my intention or what I see.”

Treviño said he believes there were obvious Indigenous and African influences in the “Teardowns” exhibit.

“We’ve seen this kind of art. We’ve seen African art. We’ve seen art from artists of color,” Treviño said. “I don’t know how there’s any disputing it. We know each other by our physiology.”

When Does Art Become Misappropriation — And Who Gets To Decide?

America Meredith is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation and a former instructor of early Native American art history at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She’s now the publishing editor of the First American Art Magazine.

She delineated cultural appropriation from cultural misappropriation. She said the question of cultural misappropriation is less about whether or not a culture is being borrowed from and more about when that borrowing is inappropriate.

“To look at that, you really have to look at [the fact] that all cultures in today’s world are not equal, and some have massive power behind them — you know, numbers, money, governments,” Meredith said. “And then some cultures have barely survived genocide for centuries, so there is definitely a power dynamic at play.”

As for who gets to decide whether or not cultural misappropriation has taken place?

“Ultimately, it’s the people of the culture that is being appropriated,” Meredith said.

Meredith told TPR she personally doesn’t see Indigenous iconography in photos or videos of the exhibition. Meredith specifically addressed the role that experimental musician David Hurlin took in the piece. He drummed on ceramic bowls crafted by Fauerso.

“I don’t really see how that’s Native American because in any major city you’ll see people drumming on the street,” Meredith said. “Drumming is pretty universal, and the beats he’s using have nothing to do with Native American pow wow music or ceremonial music.”

She added that ceramic arts are common across many cultures, and that Fauerso’s monochromatic, dark self-portraits also don’t appear to draw on Indigenous traditions.

Prayxplot (Pray and Plot, or Plot for short) — the preferred name of the San Antonio artist, founder of Black Dot Studios and community organizer Jon Tyson — said he found some problems with the exhibit. Plot is black, and said he saw African influences in some of Fauerso’s art. He raised questions about the facial structure and styles in some of the work.

Fauerso mentioned one black artist — Kerry James Marshall — as an influence in her artist’s statement for the exhibit. She told TPR that the sole inspiration she drew from him was his use of large-scale murals and the way he constructs his work, rather than the specific content of his art or any African American experiences that inform his art.

Plot said his primary concern isn’t just about misappropriation, but also about who is offered space in the art community — and who isn’t.

“We really need to start providing spaces for black artists and Indigenous artists to display their point of view — their lifestyles from their perspective, not from anyone other than theirs. So that’s my main concern,” Plot said.

Plot mentioned that for hundreds of years, people of color were unable to raise their concerns about cultural misappropriation. He said that’s changed now, partially because of the openness of social media.

“Everyone has access to it, so it can’t be controlled by the status quo. It can’t be controlled by the ones in power. Everyone can kind of have a conversation and have their own opinion,” Plot said. “But that should always lead to some kind of meeting or workshop or something so everyone can be in-person and discuss the issue.”

He emphasized that face-to-face dialogue is critical.

“Nothing ever really gets solved through social media,” Plot said.

Meredith said that regardless of the validity of specific concerns around cultural misappropriation, conversations like the one in this case are important. But she also said the social media dialogue can only go so far.

“I think there’s a lot of conversation in today’s society about how social media forums are not the best place to have an in-depth conversation, even though that’s where they take place,” Meredith said. “Because things are soundbites, and people come to the table with a lot of preconceived assumptions, but I’m definitely not for shutting that down. It’s just acknowledging that having a verbal conversation might be a better instance where people can be heard and flesh out ideas.”

Social Media Alarms And Security

In the wake of the protracted social media activity over “Teardowns,” Treviño and others said they noticed increased security presence during First Friday at the Blue Star Contemporary art gallery — one venue within the larger Blue Star Arts Complex. Treviño posted photos of two uniformed sheriff deputies who he felt were present because of him.

Two off-duty deputies are hired for every First Friday event due to the crowd size and the serving of alcohol. Mary Heathcott, executive director of Blue Star Contemporary, explained that one deputy is hired to secure the MOSAIC space, and one is hired to secure the main gallery.

When Treviño arrived at the main gallery, both deputies were present there.

Several people familiar with First Friday events at Blue Star said it was unusual to see two deputies in the main gallery at the same time. Heathcott said, however, they often flow between spaces “depending on crowd numbers and programs that are taking place.”

While there, Treviño attempted to disseminate flyers for an upcoming workshop at Black Dot Studios. The workshop, slated for Jan. 20, is titled “Destroy White Supremacy.”

The promotional materials were collected by Blue Star staff and eventually returned to Treviño after he asked for them back.

Heathcott said the flyers could not be distributed because Black Dot Studios isn’t a non-profit organization. Treviño said while the studio isn’t a 501(c)(3), the event is free and public. He said he’s previously posted similar flyers without issue.

Where To Go From Here

Treviño told TPR the entire situation isn’t solely about appropriation. He said it’s also about the dismissal of his concerns and the way he was treated — as if he was a threat to Fauerso and Blue Star.

Fauerso pointed to Treviño’s social media activity as a reason she felt threatened. She said the sheer number and length of Treviño’s posts were concerning.

Aside from one comment in which Fauerso offered to meet with Treviño, she has not spoken with him about the exhibit. She said she is open to dialogue about interpretations of her art.

America Meredith, the First American Art Magazine editor, says concerns about appropriation should be heard and responded to — and that responses to those concerns should also be heard.

“One of the points of art is to spark conversation, and responses are valid. You shouldn’t silence other people’s responses. I mean, that’s the whole point,” Meredith said. “And it’s really hard in today’s world to have a conversation — an intelligent conversation where all sides are heard.”

Dominic Anthony can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Instagram at @Dominic_Anthony_Walsh.