I ran into a prominent Austin city councilwoman while viewing Vincent Valdez’s panoramic piece, “The City I.” She was leaning against a wall and holding onto her chest as she took in the four-paneled piece, on display at the Blanton Museum through October 28. The councilwoman looked like she was having a hard time breathing and I asked her what she thought of the piece. She said, “there isn’t a word for it.” Though the painting left her speechless, it’s generated a lot of conversation elsewhere.
The painting depicts a present-day Klu Klux Klan meeting at a dump overlooking an unnamed city and has drawn discussion from local activists and critics alike. Some have brought attention to those who felt left out of the year of conversations the Blanton hosted within the community leading up to the piece’s public debut. Debates have centered around whether the work glorifies historical violence, how it represents consumer culture and religion, and the appropriate context with which it should have been presented to the public.
On July 17, when “Latino USA”’s Maria Hinojosa interviewed Vincent Valdez, a Mexican American artist who has also tackled the lynching of Mexican Americans in his work, she described the series as “art that asks a question.” The quandary is implicit in the work’s background: behind the subjects, city lights glisten across meticulously planned streets, serving as a reference to the relationships between white supremacy and segregated housing.
For local communities of color, however, the most urgent question has gone missing from the conversation: what does the racial landscape of Austin look like today?
In late June, Austin’s luxury shopping center, the Domain Northside, released a promotional brochure meant to attract new tenants to the area that identified their “quintessential” shopper: a “classy, trendy, well-heeled woman” who “carries a Louis Vuitton, Céline, or Givenchy bag” and who is “most likely to describe her ethnicity as Anglo, Jewish, or Asian.”
Until recently, Austin was embroiled in controversy over CodeNext, a set of zoning rules that critics argued reinforced the city’s 1928 Master Plan, the set of regulations that forced Black and Latino residents into segregated communities east of interstate highway 35. Just last March, when a series of bombings terrorized the city, communities of color on Austin’s east end were most affected. Tensions rose as Austinites learned that the first three victims were people of color and that the first bombing received relatively little media attention. Black and Latino residents felt deprioritized as the police department ruled out racial resentment as a motive early on in the investigation. The Austin Police Department hesitated to call the incidents terrorism.
“The City” series’ presence in Austin acts as a way of making visible the sorts of pervasive and everyday incidents that go unnamed in this city. Long before the Domain Northside’s brochure blunder (pushback prompted diversity training for the agencies that created the brochure), popular Domain bars like the Dogwood enforced a “sneaker ban,” which disproportionately kept Black and Latino people out. Before the package bomb murders of Anthony Stephan House and Draylen Mason, unaffordability and gentrification were pushing communities of color even further east and, often, out of the city altogether.
Austin’s position is a comfortable one: we can be hailed as a city of progressive values, even as our social outcomes demonstrate ongoing racial disparities. Though the city is engaging in dynamic efforts to address its confederate past, its progress on economic and racial segregation is slow.
During his conversation with Maria Hinojosa, Vincent Valdez said the subjects of “The City I” could be anyone under their robes—judges, police chiefs, teachers. He said that he imagines the subjects confronting the viewer. What I love best about the works is that the city in question could be any American city. To me, it’s Austin. The work is holding a mirror up to us, confronting us with an ugly truth. It asks us how we participate in the banality of white supremacy and what, if anything, we’ll do about it.
Lauren Lluveras is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, housed at the University of Texas at Austin and is a Public Voices Fellow with the Op Ed Project.