Postcard from Austin, Texas: Exposing an unpleasant underbelly of America

There is Eugene Delacroix’ “The Massacre at Chios,” with its 1824 showing in the Salon de Paris igniting European concern about tragedies occurring during the Greek War of Independence.

There are Francisco Goya’s “Fatal Consequences of Spain’s Bloody War with Bonaparte, and Other Emphatic Caprices,” prints so controversial they were not published as “The Disasters of War” until 1863, 35 years after his death.

There is Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” his 1937 painting of the German bombing of a Basque town that attracted the world’s attention to the atrocities occurring during the Spanish Civil War.

And now there is Vincent Valdez’ haunting 2016 black-and-white monumental depiction of Ku Klux Klansmen in “The City I,” owned and currently on exhibit at the Blanton Museum of Art.

This could be any city in America. These individuals could be any Americans. There is a false sense that these threats were, or are, contained at the peripheries of society and in small rural communities. . . . It is possible that they are city politicians, police chiefs, parents, neighbors, community leaders, academics, church members, business owners, etcetera. This is the most frightening aspect of it all.

Vincent Valdez, Blanton Museum of Art website

Vincent Valdez was born and raised in San Antonio; an artist about whom we boast. Yet you want this enormous painting stretching across the gallery wall to please be a scene from any other city in America. Please not here. Not my neighbors.

The KKK and other racist groups exist throughout the country; denial does not help; you cannot simply wish them away. They might indeed be your neighbors.

The menacing eyes peering out from the holes in the white hoods glare at you, following you around the room. There is no place to hide.

We have interrupted their gathering. The group looks warily at us as we look at them; no one appears to be welcome here.

Blanton Museum of Art website

 

After viewing Valdez’ powerful punch, the antidote in the next gallery, a 2012 neon by Tavares Strachan, offers relief. “We belong here.”

As humans, we all struggle with how we fit in and belong…. Who gets to determine who belongs where? And where is here? And why does it matter?….

I wanted to make a work that everyone can own—one that everyone can have….Because as soon as you read it, you say, “We belong here,” and we do belong.

Tavares Strachan, Blanton Museum of Art website

Postcard from Budapest, Hungary: When monuments stand as salt in the wounds

Photograph from “The Cold War Builds in the 1950s”

While Nikita Khrushchev declared it was time for the de-Stalinization of Russia in what became known as his “secret speech” to Congress in 1956, the revolt against Soviet control in Hungary in October of the same year probably was not what he had in mind.

On October 23, with great exuberance and much difficulty due to its substantial size, defiant students and workers managed to topple their most hated symbol of Soviet domination – a statue of Josef Stalin. Only his boots remained standing.

Independence was short-lived. Less than a month.

As the western powers stood by, Russian tanks plowed into Budapest, brutally crushing the rebellion. Thousands lost their lives, and hundreds of thousands fled the country.

Hungary did not reemerge as a republic until more than three decades later, on October 23, 1989. The last remaining Soviet tanks and troops rolled out of Hungary on June 19, 1991.

Hungarians found themselves with major monuments espousing communist ideals in their midst. Rather than toppling them; Hungary elected to remove them to a more remote location outside of downtown Budapest.

A design competition was held, with the concept of architect Akos Eleod winning. Forty-two statues from the Soviet era, like a hall of fame for Communist heroes, are now displayed in the dignified setting of Memento Park.

The monument museum is regarded as an educational tool for generations with no memories of pre-democratic Hungary.

Memento Park is about dictatorship. And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described and built up, this Park is about democracy. After all, only democracy can provide an opportunity to think freely about dictatorship.

Akos Eleod, architect of Memento Park

A replica of the fallen Stalin’s boots stands near the entrance of the park. Old black-and-white secret police training videos run continuously in one building.

A parked Trabant serves as a reminder of the lack of purchase choices and the scarcity of items during the Soviet rule. Hungarians able to save enough cash were offered one vehicle in one color, gray. The 26-horsepower Trabant, manufactured in East Germany, required half of its price as down payment with a delivery time of six to eight years. (So, how would a space-cadet such as myself ever find one’s gray Trabant among a street lined with parked gray Trabants?)

The move-all-the-statues-to-a-park solution in Budapest seems appropriate to ponder in light of issues in two different countries.

First, Poland:

Last month Poland updated its “de-communisation” legislation, banning “totalitarian” symbols, which would include Soviet propaganda monuments.

Now Russian foreign ministry officials have warned of “asymmetric measures” if Poland removes Soviet war monuments. Russia could refuse visas for Polish officials or downgrade trade relations….

The Red Army’s defeat of Nazi German forces on Polish soil in 1944-1945 remains a thorny issue in Russian-Polish relations. Many Poles viewed the Red Army as an occupation force, not as liberators, as the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact had carved up Poland between two dictatorships….

The (Russian foreign) ministry accused Poland of “Russophobia” and of “striving to belittle the USSR’s role as liberator.”

“Russia Warns Poland Not To Touch WW2 Memorials,” BBC News, July 31, 2017

And now in the United States with the issue of monuments to Confederate heroes. To many Americans these statues stand as symbols of an ongoing effort to whitewash over the painful period of slavery in this country. Recent clashes over monuments in Charlottesville resulted in tragedy.

In San Antonio, we are confronted with frightening images of heavily armed vigilantes, calling themselves the This is Texas Freedom Force, in our public parks and plazas to theoretically guard their leaders speaking against removal of a Confederate monument in Travis Park.

Senator Ted Cruz weighed in yesterday:

But I think that’s a decision each community needs to make as to how to appropriately acknowledge that history, how to commemorate that history, how to recognize that history.

Daily Post, Texas Monthly, August 18, 2017

How can the community freely debate when one side is threatening the other with arms?

Statuary issues also are surfacing in Austin, with several Confederate monuments, or as some refer to them as “monuments to states’ rights,” standing on Capitol grounds.

“The goal is to learn from history, all of our history, including events and times that many would like to forget,” said Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a member of the State Preservation Board, whose duty is to preserve and maintain the Capitol complex. “Our goal should be to have a meaningful dialogue for future generations so those moments in our history are not repeated.”

“Confederate Icons Have Backing at State Capitol,” Allie Morris, San Antonio Express-News, August 18, 2017

The teaching moment is undermined by the prominent plaque bearing the words of “The Children of the Confederacy Creed:”

We therefore pledge ourselves… to study and teach the truths of history (one of the most important of which is that the war between the states was not a rebellion nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery)….

And, of course, Confederate Heroes Day remains an official state holiday in Texas, conveniently falling within less than a week as Martin Luther King Day.

August 19, 2017, Update: And Prague. “Empty pedestals can offer the same lessons,” Kevin Levin, The Atlantic, August 19, 2017

Postcard from San Miguel: What borders mean to children

panchorabbit

Art from Duncan Tonatiuh’s Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote

I was not a real Mexican, and I was not a real American.

Benjamin Alire Saenz

That’s how author Benjamin Alire Saenz recalled his feelings as a young boy growing up in Mesilla, New Mexico, and crossing weekly into Ciudad Juarez for flat-top haircuts. Staring at the giant flags fluttering over the bridge:

I wondered if the American eagle was that much different than the Mexican one.

kentucky-clubSaenz is the author of Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, a collection of short stories winning a PEN Faulkner Award for Fiction. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Saenz chairs the Creative Writing Department at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“Juarez Doesn’t Stop at the Border” was the title of the powerful keynote address he delivered two nights ago at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference. The visibly affected crowd quickly rose as one the second he finished the final sentence of the emotionally charged presentation. It was the topic on everyone’s lips the next morning as attendees flocked to the bookstore to purchase recordings to share with others.

Saenz’s talk was preceded by an introduction to Duncan Tonatiuh, the artist/author who designed the conference posters. Although Tonatiuh is young – he graduated from college in 2008 – he already has several award-winning books to his credit.

In an article in USA Today, Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, labels Tonatiuh’s Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale “propaganda.” But the author of the fable, in which the coyote stands in for those who smuggle immigrants into the United States from Mexico, believes he has created a bedtime story to which many children in North America can relate.

At the Writers’ Conference, Tonatiuh screened a short video made for him by a fourth-grade class in Austin, Texas.

Many a Kleenix was lifted up to dab away a tear.

It appears Tonatiuh’s book provides a key for teachers to encourage children of immigrants to open up and discuss their experiences.

Perhaps Pancho Rabbit serves as an even more valuable tool for helping children of American-born parents understand and empathize with the issues confronting some of their classmates.

Oh, I’m sorry Mr. Krikorian. Is that “propaganda?”

Update posted on March 19, 2014: Duncan Tonatiuh will be appearing from 11 to 11:30 a.m. in the Children’s Book Tent at the San Antonio Book Festival on Saturday, April 5.