In a move that some have said harkens back to the culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s, a city official has pulled an artwork from an exhibition on the grounds that it is “obscene.” San Antonio City Attorney Andy Segovia made the decision to remove a video work by Oakland-based artist Xandra Ibarra from an exhibition of contemporary Chicanx art at the Centro de Artes, which is under the control San Antonio’s Department of Arts & Culture.
Hours before the show, titled “XicanX: New Visions,” opened on February 13, Segovia notified the art center that the work had to be removed for its “obscene content.” Ibarra’s piece, titled Spictacle II: La Tortillera (2014), was to appear in a black-box viewing space in the show alongside other artists’ work, and a description nearby it was also scrubbed of Ibarra’s name and any mention of her art.
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Ibarra’s performances and artworks have appeared at numerous international venues, including the Broad museum in Los Angeles, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art in New York, El Museo de Arte Contemporañeo in Bogotá, and ExTeresa Arte Actual in Mexico City. In August, she had a solo exhibition at the Knockdown Center in Queens.
In a letter sent to San Antonio’s mayor, Ron Nirenberg, the National Coalition Against Censorship expressed concern about the work’s removal “because of your apparent discomfort with its unconventional viewpoint on representations of sexuality and the challenge it presents to gender stereotypes.” The letter continues, “This act of censorship flies in the face of the city’s First Amendment obligations.”
A spokesperson for the City of San Antonio said, “To be clear, nothing was censored.” The city maintains the right to decide what is exhibited in city-owned spaces, the spokesperson said.
The four-minute video, which is part of a series re-creating performances from the early 2000s, shows Ibarra as her character named La Chica Boom, garbed in a green dress with a red-and-white gingham apron. After dancing with two handmade tortillas while Eddie Dimas’s “El Mosquito” plays, Ibarra removes a black thong she was wearing and places it into one of the tortillas. She does the same with a pair of underwear printed with the Mexican flag. The music changes to the opening fanfare of Richard Strauss’s 1896 Also sprach Zarathustra, and Ibarra, with her back to the camera, removes her dress, showing her exposed buttocks and a corset. When she turns around, the viewer sees that she has on nipple tassels and a strap-on constructed from a bottle of hot sauce. With the strap-on, Ibarra then mimics ejaculating hot sauce onto both of the panty tacos.
Reached by email, Ibarra said that she was not surprised by the city’s decision, as her work has previously been pulled from exhibitions. She said she made the work and its associated series as a way “to develop art about the incompatibility that existed between my activist life and my aesthetic production.” The short performances, done in bars and other venues, merge “burlesque and raunchy low-brow Mexican humor.” She eventually called them “Spictacles,” a play on a racial epithet for Latinx people.
“I used sexualized tropes of Mexicanidad to create a parodic persona, called La Chica Boom,” Ibarra said in her email. “Through this self-other, I explored the embodiment of what I call ‘spichood,’ or my own racial and sexual abjection, themes mostly taboo in activist and community organizing circles I belonged to.… These ‘Spictacles’ allowed me to take seriously and laugh at identitarian claims to legible representations of Mexican and Chicano sexuality and gender.”
In its letter, which alleges that Ibarra’s “free speech rights” are potentially being violated with the decision, the NCAC said, “As a public space open to exhibiting artwork, city-owned spaces are ruled by the free speech clause in the First Amendment. This means that government officials cannot arbitrarily or systematically impose their prejudices on a curated exhibition. Suppressing everything that could potentially generate an objection would jeopardize the City’s entire art and culture program. Allowing public officials to remove anything having sexual references or content is likely to violate First Amendment principles and generate—as in this case—decisions based on subjective interpretation.”
Among the demands in the NCAC letter are that the work be restored, the exhibition extended for the same amount of time it was “illegally censored to rectify the harm caused by illegal censorship,” and that the city “draft exhibition policies that are consistent with First Amendment principles.”
San Antonio–based artist duo Dos Mestizx (Suzy González and Michael Menchaca), who guest curated the show and started a petition this week to reinstate the work, had told the Centro during the installation process that it might be necessary to post signage near two of the works in the exhibition advising viewer discretion—Ibarra’s for its sexually suggestive content, and another by Tanya García and Juan Ortiz for its use of profanity. Ultimately, the request reached Segovia’s office, which reviewed the videos and said the Ibarra piece must be removed. (The second piece remains in the show, and a sign warning viewers about its explicit content was posted near it.)
“We feel that this is an act of discrimination and a homophobic response to the artist and the artist’s artwork,” Menchaca told ARTnews in a phone interview. The duo said that they want the exhibition to be staged as originally planned, with Ibarra’s work restored to the video program.
“They saw it as obscene, and we see it as pure expression,” González added. “If artwork isn’t challenging folks, then what is it doing? That’s something that we really wanted to do with this exhibit as a whole is to present a challenge, so people who might identify with Xandra can see her work and know that they can make that work freely.”
Ibarra said, “I’d like to seize this moment on the display of sexual content in art spaces to question the cultural crisis and anxiety that the arts is STILL experiencing. Whether it’s sign, a curtain, a peep box, or just outright censorship of art works that address racialized sexuality and/or sex, they are the markers and tools for enforcing sexual normalcy.”