Section: Arts

Zapata explores link between social media and social justice

Zapata explores link between social media and social justice

Zapata | COURTESY OF BRITTANY LIN

What place does a social media post have in a museum collection?

This is one of many questions Claudia Zapata, associate curator of Latino Art at the Blanton Museum of Art, discussed during their talk in Oden Auditorium, “Curating Latine and Chicanx Art in the 21st Century.” Throughout their lecture, they described the pushback experienced by proponents of Latine and Chicanx art and the perseverance that led to the display of works such as Lalo Alcaraz’s I Stand with Emma in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The screen behind Zapata displayed a screenshot of the Facebook post in which Alcaraz shared his poster. As Dr. Zapata explained, I Stand with Emma depicts X González, a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, who later became an advocate for gun control. 

Next to the poster, some of the Facebook comments were clearly legible in the screenshot, one reading “Can we put it on a shirt for the March?” and another “Thank you Lalo for sharing your art for the greater good.” These comments reveal the context and community that underlies Latine and Chicanx artwork such as I Stand with Emma and which are too often undermined or not even considered by cultural institutions.

As Zapata began their lecture, they reflected on their studies at the University of Texas at Austin and the cultural tensions they observed surrounding BIPOC experiences in the professional art world. “The underlying responses among the BIPOC students were the desire for community representation of arts and a complete rejection of the museum space,” they explained. “Artwork was less about its role in the art world and more about acting as a revolutionary tool and supplemental image for political action.” 

While working as an art professional, Zapata found the students’ grievances to be concerningly well-founded, with one museum director even dismissing the suggestion of labels in Spanish as they would include an audience that, according to this director, doesn’t frequent museums. “The assumption of absence is as powerful as any dangerous adversary,” Zapata said. It is an assumption that they are actively dismissing.

“Curating Latine and Chicanx art in the 21st century is about championing a community of artists that have existed primarily on the margins of the art world,” Zapata said. However, marginalized in the art world, these artists often share art created under the central tenet of accessibility, whether this be financially or through mass dissemination across social media platforms.

This, Zapata explained, is something that all too often runs contrary to museums’ focus on exclusivity in the art they collect. As an example, Zapata described their work in 2018 as a curatorial assistant on the traveling exhibition ¡Printing the Revolution! The Rise and Impact of Chicano Graphics, 1965 to Now, which was first displayed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The project required Zapata to explain the significance of proposed acquisitions to museum professionals all too often unfamiliar with Latine and Chicanx art.

One of Zapata’s slides showed Eric J. García’s zine Chicano Codices #1: Simplified Histories: The U.S. Invasion of Mexico 1846–1848. When the Smithsonian considered purchasing the zine, it was selling for two dollars — a price so low that the registrars thought there had been a clerical error, and administration expressed concerns that the financial value of the piece equaled its cultural value. They were eventually convinced otherwise, and the work became part of the show.

On another slide was the previously mentioned I Stand with Emma poster, just one of many shareable graphics that revealed a certain technophobia in the institution as Zapata worked to convince them of its value as an acquisition. They described the process as “talking your mom through how to turn on Zoom.” It was a process repeated multiple times. However, they eventually succeeded in the acquisition of activist works from Julio Salgado’s I Am UndocuQueer! series and Oree Originol’s Justice for Our Lives: Both works circulated on social media platforms.

¡Printing the Revolution! is one of many projects Zapata discussed in their presentation that aim to do Latine and Chicanx art history justice in institutional spaces, and to a degree unprecedented in the art world.

Supporting artists, increasing Latine and Chicanx art scholarship and criticism and showing both Latine- and Chicanx-specific and broader-themed exhibitions: These are just a few of the many necessary courses of action that Zapata outlined in their presentation. Zapata refuses to let marginalized artists be ignored when their artwork can already be found displayed on social media feeds, asking to be engaged with.

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