Lucia González Ippolito's colored pencil drawing "Borders" shows the U.S.-Mexico wall becoming the West Bank barrier among other imagery related to the refugee crisis. (Courtesy Lucia González Ippolito)
Lining the atrium of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco are the faces of hundreds of hopeful migrants. They’re passport photographs of Salvadorans looking to flee the country’s 1980s civil war, images collected by San Francisco artist Victor Cartagena. Their collective anxiety anchors La Frontera: Artists Respond to the U.S.-Mexico Border Crisis.
The Katz Snyder Gallery exhibition curated by David J. de la Torre, which opened in April with work from 36 artists, explores immigration, detainment and asylum. It includes stirring depictions of refugees, pointed criticism of American border policy and even a self-portrait by homeless undocumented immigrant José Inez García Zárate, who was controversially acquitted in the killing of San Francisco resident Kate Steinle in 2015, created while he was in custody.
Yet there are also conspicuous gaps on the wall where, until recently, artworks sympathetic to Palestine drew connections between the U.S.-Mexico border and the West Bank Barrier in Israel. Their removal has now prompted several participating artists to sign a letter promising to withdraw their work in protest of what they call an act of censorship—an assessment shared by the show’s curator.
Community center leadership says two pieces were removed not for political content but for depicting a gun and a dead child in a gallery space that is also a thruway to classrooms, and acknowledged that a third piece was preemptively excluded because it references the Gaza Strip.
Underlying the controversy is a question: Can community center leadership avoid confronting viewers with potentially disturbing and provocative art without undermining its stated goals of raising awareness, cultivating empathy and calling for justice in the refugee crisis?
Eight protesting artists and artwork lenders argue community center leadership has deprived the public of “an opportunity for respectful dialogue,” as they recently wrote in a joint letter, and curator de la Torre said in an interview with KQED that he stands in “in solidarity” with their dissent. “When censorship—and this is censorship—raises its ugly head, it’s a lose-lose situation,” he said.
Lucia González Ippolito’s colored-pencil drawing shows the U.S.-Mexico border wall becoming the West Bank barrier, which Palestinians consider a symbol of apartheid, along with imagery related to the Syrian refugee crisis. Christo Oropeza’s painting shows a child and a soldier holding a gun in front of a wall.
Participating artists and lenders Adrian Delgado, Calixto Robles, Dana Smith, Josué Rojas, Matt Gonzalez and Mike Hinckley signed the letter calling the two artworks’ removal “ill-advised and irresponsible actions” and “an affront to our greater international San Francisco community.”
Another piece selected for the show, by Juan Fuentes, depicts a man in a Palestinian keffiyeh below the word “Gaza” next to a man in a hat bearing the word “huelga,” Spanish for “strike,” and what appears to be a Zapatista militant. The print, part of a series by Fuentes, was vetoed before the show opened.
Ippolito, 31, a Mission District painter, learned of her piece’s removal shortly after the April 25 opening and received an explanatory email from the center’s “roots and culture” director, David Green. “Depictions of violence against children and dead children in our common areas is not acceptable,” Green wrote, referring to the drawing’s allusion to a 2015 photograph of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Kurdish boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as his family fled Syria.
In an interview, Green said the community center nixed Fuentes’ print supporting Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which Israel has blockaded since Hamas took power in 2007, because it doesn’t connect to the show’s U.S.-Mexico border theme. “And I’ll be honest with you, Israel is a sensitive issue,” he said. “We felt it would distract the core constituency of JCC from the rest of the show.”
But Green said Ippolito and Oropeza’s works were removed because the gallery area of the Presidio Heights facility is a hallway used by young children and parents: Ippolito’s drawing was installed next to a room used to host prenatal yoga classes. “Due to the artwork depicting triggering imagery of violence against children and dead children, we decided it was best to remove it, especially in light of chronic gun violence in schools and gathering spaces,” he said.
Green added that his mistake was not engaging enough stakeholders at the community center to anticipate the effects of the offending art. “All of this has happened out of order,” he said.
Ippolito, a member of the San Francisco Poster Syndicate collective known for her murals in Balmy Alley—most recently Women of the Resistance—isn’t buying the explanation. She pointed out another painting in the show depicts a soldier with a rifle slung over his shoulder patting down detainees, while a more abstracted mixed-media piece is about a young migrant’s death in custody.
According to Green, those pieces are different. “We’re trying to challenge people without it being so jarring for someone who’s just walking by on their way to a classroom,” he said.
Ippolito called her drawing’s exclusion an attempt to suppress comparisons of Israeli and American immigration policy. “I was hoping people would consider the connection between the U.S.-Mexico border and the Israel-Palestine wall,” she said, noting President Donald Trump often cites the West Bank barrier as a model for his U.S.-Mexico border wall.
Ippolito also said Green extended an invitation to replace her drawing with another piece, but that her counter-proposal to mount a statement about what she considers censorship was ignored. Green said he would consider including her statement, but that Ippolito hasn’t sent it.
De la Torre, a freelance curator who previously led the Mexican Museum, said there’s “some validity” to Ippolito’s claim. Community center leadership discouraged his original proposal for a show themed around walls throughout history because it would've opened the door to work referencing the West Bank barrier.
“That’s their institutional choice,” he said.
More broadly, the curator believes the controversy is a test of the community center’s credibility as an exhibition space. He said he advocated for relocating or draping the offending paintings, and that he’s heard from staff both supportive of and disappointed by leadership’s decision to remove them. “I told JCC if they go down this path, there will be consequences,” he said.
Still, de la Torre isn't surprised the show has elicited strong responses. A tour he led for the community center's housekeeping staff ended with a worker breaking down and sharing her own immigration story. One afternoon recently, Rabbi Zac Kamenetz stopped to admire La Guia (The Guide) by Rigoberto Gonzalez. "The Israelites fleeing Egypt comes to mind," he said.
Correction: This post has been updated to accurately describe Christo Oropeza's painting. An earlier version incorrectly stated it depicts an Israeli soldier.
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