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Race in America

Vincent Valdez’s art exhibit strips away the KKK’s invisibility in America

‘I felt like I had had enough’ about the treatment of black and brown Americans

Exactly what was it that persuaded Houston-based artist Vincent Valdez to spend 11 months creating a haunting image depicting more than a dozen Ku Klux Klan members gathered in isolation with a city looming in the background? What was he trying to accomplish?

Valdez’s oil paintings titled The City I and The City II (known together as The City) were unveiled this week at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin amid a firestorm of controversy.

“For me, it’s giving a platform to the narratives that are untold and invisible in this country,” said Valdez. “The premonition that I had in my head [racism in America] was the elephant in the room. I wanted to push the envelope in terms of widening my panoramic scope.”

Given the unsettling nature of Valdez’s artwork, museum officials approached the opening with caution. Concerns ranged from the fear of potential protests to museum curators initially neglecting to consult with the Austin NAACP after acquiring the 30-foot piece in 2016 despite connecting with numerous other individuals and organizations.

The four-panel painting of modern-day Klansmen by Mexican-American artist Vincent Valdez in his studio in San Antonio. It is now at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin.

Michael Stravato

The NAACP, founded at the turn of the 20th century, led anti-lynching campaigns against the Klan. In what could be viewed as an attempt to right a wrong, current Austin NAACP president Nelson Linder sat in the front row at the opening Tuesday night.

“Vincent’s work and others in our galleries confront uncomfortable questions. Talking about racism is confusing. You’re bound to make mistakes. I’ve made my share,” said museum director Simone Wicha, who took into account protests of a painting of lynching victim Emmitt Till’s disfigured body by a white artist at the Whitney Museum in New York when deciding the best way to present Valdez’s work.

“Controversy is always good. It breeds criticism. Art makes you think,” said Linder, who wasn’t contacted by museum officials until a week before the opening. “You don’t want to sit there with your arms folded and have nothing to say. You can’t just be an art show. If we don’t know what’s going on, we can’t get the truth. The lesson is you need to reach out and include as many people as possible.”

Valdez, who is Hispanic, explained that his work is a raw response to the treatment of black and brown Americans.

“In 2015 in the fall, I felt a sense of outrage as I normally do in the studio,” said Valdez, a San Antonio native whose work has been exhibited at the Ford Foundation and the Parsons Paris. “I felt that the premonition I had in my head was the elephant in the room. Why was no one talking about this? The idea of white supremacy in this country was everywhere I looked. It’s very evident to me, throughout my lifetime, that the social reality I encounter outside the studio — when I think about mass incarceration, economic inequality, segregated cities in the 21st century, biased justice systems, police brutality, broken education systems — in 2015, I felt like I had had enough. Here was my opportunity to stand up and speak up.”

The result led Valdez, who wrote a dedicatory inscription on The City I to musician Gil Scott-Heron based on his 1980 song “The Klan,” to pour out his soul on canvas.

Valdez’s Strangest Fruit series, also on display at the Blanton and depicting Hispanic men being lynched by whites, references Billie Holiday’s song describing lynchings in the South: “Southern trees bear strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood on the root. Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

It’s very evident to me, throughout my lifetime, that the social reality I encounter outside the studio — when I think about mass incarceration, economic inequality, segregated cities in the 21st century, biased justice systems, police brutality, broken education systems — in 2015, I felt like I had had enough.

In The City I, 14 Klan members are presented in black-and-white and shades of gray. The painting features men, women and a child wearing baby Nikes and a man giving a Nazi salute. Another man, whose face is partially hidden, is the only Klan member not wearing a hood. Yet another man drinks from a can of Budweiser. A pricey bracelet dangles from a woman’s wrist. A late-model Chevrolet truck approaches, suggesting this gathering could be taking place right now, anywhere in America, and that the Klan members could be anyone.

“What disturbed me the most was these were ordinary citizens and human beings, no greater or lesser than I,” said Valdez, who answered questions from the multicultural audience after a one-on-one discussion with journalist Maria Hinojosa. “Representing them in ordinary acts was my way of stripping them of their power.

Artist Vincent Valdez works on an four-panel painting of modern-day Klansmen in his studio in San Antonio.

Michael Stravato

“For far too long, it’s been too easy for Americans to avoid the conversation about racism and how it’s so imbedded in our DNA and American way of life,” said Valdez. “I wanted to do something that not only stood in solidarity with my black brothers and sisters, with Native Americans, with Americans of any color and any American who has been willing to confront the subject of racism in this country. I wanted to further examine how the idea of white supremacy in this country goes much further than the Ku Klux Klan.”

“What’s revealed in that painting is emblematic of our past and, to a certain extent, the present,” said Ted Gordon, chairman of African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas. “We’re liberal here and all that, but one of the things that painting helps support is that’s a key aspect of Austin’s history and the University of Texas’ history, and we’re not exempt from those kind of feelings and that kind of ideology even here in the present.”

Kazique Prince, senior policy adviser for the city of Austin, noted that “art has a way of tapping into parts of us. If you say, ‘Let’s have a conversation about race,’ you wouldn’t do it. But art has a way of getting you out there in ways that maybe you weren’t prepared to do. This was a great opportunity to talk about race and racism in America.”

Said Valdez: “My mission is to hold up a reflective mirror because the one thing America in the 21st century has yet to come to grips with is the truth. We’re trapped between the myth of who we think we are and the reality of who we really are.”

John Harris is a writer, editor and digital journalist who has worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer, St. Petersburg Times, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He's a managing editor at Hunt Scanlon Media, and a former writer for CBSSportsline.com.