An art exhibition at the JCC of San Francisco that confronts the U.S.-Mexico border crisis has sparked controversy after administrators removed two works deemed inappropriate for children. Both either directly or obliquely referenced Palestinians. In response, some of the 36 artists in the exhibit have claimed censorship and threatened to withdraw their pieces.
“La Frontera: Artists Respond to the U.S.-Mexico Border Crisis” opened April 22 at the Katz Snyder Gallery, a public exhibition space lining second-floor hallways and overflowing into the building’s atrium. The exhibit features about 60 artworks — paintings, pencil drawings, quilts, prints — mostly from artists of Mexican and Latin American heritage. The work reflects on “global turmoil, migration, and border issues,” an exhibit synopsis says. Overlooking the atrium’s seating area is the phrase “A sanctuary is a home away from home” written in large blue lettering.
David Green, JCC chief program officer for cultural projects, called “La Frontera” one of the center’s most “boundary pushing” exhibits in recent memory, depicting sensitive and difficult subject matter, including desperate migrants, encounters with police and overtly political themes. Curated by David J. de la Torre, a freelance curator with the JCC since 2015 and former director of San Francisco’s Mexican Museum, the exhibit is meant to study “one of the most challenging humanitarian crises of our day,” Green said.
But less than a week after opening, the JCC felt it had pushed boundaries a bit too far.
According to Green, after receiving complaints from a “handful” of visitors, and after internal deliberations with JCC leaders and early-childhood teachers, the two artworks were removed.
“Borders,” by 31-year-old San Francisco muralist Lucía González-Ippolito, is a colored pencil drawing that imagines the U.S.-Mexico border wall morphing into the West Bank barrier, along a body of water. It shows migrants paddling to shore, a dead child lying face-down in the sand — a reference to the highly publicized photo from the Syrian refugee crisis — and a kaffiyeh-clad woman in chains who is Palestinian, according to the artist.
The second work, a painting by San Francisco artist Christo Oropeza called “Untitled,” shows a soldier pointing a military-grade weapon in the direction of a child. The child, drawn with a halo, is standing before a wall that looks much like the West Bank barrier, although Green said the piece is a reflection on the artist’s experiences crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to visit family.
According to Green, both “Untitled” and “Borders” were removed because their depictions of violence toward children were unsettling for summer campers and preschoolers who travel through the hallways every day.
“We decided to remove the piece because it is inappropriate to show an image of a soldier pointing a gun at/near a child in an open space preschool and camp children regularly use,” Green said.
Green and a selection committee initially approved “Untitled” for hanging but did not fully appreciate its possible impact.
“When we selected it we knew it was going to be a hard piece,” he said. “But we didn’t realize we would be showing it to little kids on a regular basis.”
A third artwork that did not make it into the exhibit is a woodcut in triptych showing a man wearing a kaffiyeh underneath the word “Gaza,” standing alongside a striking worker and a Zapatista militant. Green said the piece, titled “Triple Thread,” was not in the show because it was not directly related to the subject matter, but that other works by the artist, Juan Fuentes, were included.
Fuentes said he opposed the JCC’s decision not to show his print, and thought the decision was politically motivated. But he decided not to withdraw his other works from the show.
“I was not happy with the work being excluded, and I knew it was because it depicted an image of a Palestinian,” he wrote in an email to J.
“I did not take out any of the other works I had contributed,” Fuentes continued. “I wanted to support David de la Torre and the issue of the border needs to be addressed in a dialogue with the community at large.”
In an open letter to the JCC after the pieces were removed, Josué Rojas and Oropeza, two of the artists in the exhibit, criticized the decision to remove the works without dialogue with the artists as “severe and unnecessary,” and said doing so “block[s] the noble mission of these works — to create dialogue.”
“We believe art is a powerful tool to connect with other human beings, and to shine a light on things that are unseen,” Rojas and Oropeza wrote in the letter, signed “We the Artists.” “Art can go where other things cannot.”
Ippolito was more pointed in a statement posted to Facebook. She noted that the three works in question, including hers, seemed to either overtly depict or subtly evoke Palestinian issues.
“Since the removal of the piece, other works have been removed as well,” she wrote, referring to the Oropeza and Fuentes works. “Both of these two other works also depicted imagery of Palestine,” she said, calling the JCC’s choices “unacceptable censorship.”
Ippolito said she was honored to be included in the exhibition but shocked when she learned her work was removed.
“My piece does not actually depict anything graphic or obvious and is certainly not violent,” she wrote in a public statement titled “Censorship at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco.”
“The child is in the background and only someone who remembers the news of that child’s death would understand the context,” she said. “It would be irresponsible to depict this humanitarian crisis and not address the violence against children.”
Submitted artwork was reviewed by the curator and JCC staff before being selected, Green said. He did not want to get into the details of the deliberative process, but he said going forward, more input would be sought from a wide range of JCC community members.
“One of the things that we have figured out in this process is that we didn’t have enough stakeholders from the different communities that we serve,” he said. “We need to be clearer with the artists that that’s a process we’re going through. And we need to bring more voices and eyes in from our community.”
The Ippolito piece was a late addition to the exhibition, Green said, and did not go through a full round of vetting.
The JCC did not wish to make de la Torre available for comment. In an interview on the KQED website, the curator said he stood “in solidarity” with the artists.
In a letter of apology to Ippolito, Green called the incident a “disappointing outcome” and said that the JCC had made a mistake.
“We must prioritize the well-being and emotional safety of our children and community members,” he said. “Depictions of violence against children and dead children in our common areas is not acceptable, even in dedicated gallery space.”
He said he regretted the sequence of events that led to the controversy, and offered the artists the opportunity to submit different works to take the place of the pieces that were removed.
“This is out of order,” Green said. “We need to be doing this work in advance, and in dialogue with the artists.”