‘We Are’ Exhibition Blurs Boundaries to Paint Diverse Portrait of SA’s LGBTQIA Community

Antonia Padilla (Photo: Michael Cirlos)

Originally published in the San Antonio Current.

What a difference 21 years can make.

In 1997, then-mayor Howard Peak led city council to a vote that would disqualify the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and two of its sponsored organizations, the San Antonio Lesbian and Gay Media Project and VÁN, from city funding due to its social-justice work and political leanings.

Fast-forward to June 2018, and city council has unanimously voted to accept a near-$20,000 dollar donation from the local LGBTQIA community to defray the costs of installing a rainbow crosswalk at the corner of Evergreen and Main, the heart of the city’s so-called “gayborhood.”

Even more astonishing is a first-of-its-kind art exhibition presented by San Antonio’s Department of Arts & Culture titled “We Are” in recognition of Pride Month.

As the San Antonio LGBTQIA community gains greater visibility and makes strides in equality, artists continue to play an important role in documenting the struggles and everyday experiences of this still-vulnerable community. The city’s embrace of public art projects and art exhibitions within the LGBTQIA community are a far cry from the 1980s and ’90s when such proposals were unthinkable.

Curated by Lady Base Gallery founder Sarah Castillo, “We Are” gathers 12 local multidisciplinary LGBTQIA artists who are also writers, activists, entrepreneurs and educators, and whose impact can be felt on the local community. From the more established community figures such as David Zamora Casas to emerging artists like Jose Villalobos and Juan Zavala Castro, the artists in “We Are” paint a diverse picture of the San Antonio LGBTQIA community.

During a recent panel discussion held in conjunction with the exhibition, several of the participating artists, along with Castillo, gathered to discuss their work and their experience working as LGBTQIA artists. For Castillo, whose gallery provides an outlet for women and LGBTQIA artists, the exhibition is an extension of the work she does as a gallery owner. “Being an artist myself, it was important to create safe spaces for artists, and that’s been my intention from the beginning,” Castillo said.

Rainbow colored banners are part of installation by Michael Martinez. (Photo: Sarah Castillo)

In “Show of Force,” Michael Martinez presents a 30-foot rainbow Pride flag interwoven with the transgender Pride flag comprising pink and light-blue colors. Hanging from the ceiling at the center of the gallery, the work offers a striking view for gallery viewers below. As a gender-nonconforming person of color, Martinez creates work that confronts issues of identity. “I find there is a lack of communication with folks who are of a non-cisgender persuasion,” Martinez said. “So often when Pride month comes around, we are dominated by [images of] Absolut Vodka and other corporations, when, in reality, the architects of the Pride movement were trans women of color. So, this is my way of opening the door to that conversation.”

In “Nonconforming,” photographer Julián Pablo Ledezma presents a series of photographs depicting some of San Antonio’s biggest drag icons — from a comical portrait of drag performer and comedian Tencha la Jefa watering her lawn to a more somber portrait of the late drag star Erica Andrews. Ledezma, who specializes in drag photography and is a frequent Current contributor, revealed what it is about the art form that attracts him so much. “I was raised by women, and only women,” Ledezma said. “So I celebrate femininity … They taught me to be strong and valiant.”

Among the most personal and revealing artworks in “We Are” is Antonia Padilla’s series of Polaroid self-portraits, “Becoming Antonia.” Taken over a 30-year-period, the series documents Padilla’s transition as a transgender woman and reveals intimate moments as the artist poses for the camera inside her home. Here, the promise of privacy and instant gratification afforded by Polaroid cameras in the 1980s provides an outlet for Padilla’s exploration of gender identity and sexuality. “The work I have here on the wall was my means of discovering myself and validating myself,” Padilla said. “I’m a resistor, and I will not conform.”

Jose Villalobos (Photo: Michael Cirlos)

In “We Have Always Been,” artist Jose Villalobos presents a horse saddle fabulously lined with layers of fringe around its outer ends. Villalobos, who was born in El Paso and lived in the border town of Juárez, deconstructs symbols of masculinity adopted by Mexican Americans living along the border. Raised within a religious, conservative family, Villalobos creates work that encapsulates the conflict many gay men feel as they struggle to come to terms with their identity. Villalobos’ creative output blurs lines between fashion, performance art and visual art as he repurposes Western attire and accessories associated with masculinity.

Much like Martinez, Villalobos also expressed his goal of bringing greater visibility toward an often-silenced LGBTQIA community. “We have always existed,” a defiant Villalobos explained. “We have always been and will always be.”


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