On ViewKnockdown Center
August 29 – October 27, 2019
In the early 1980s, postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha coined the term “fixity” to describe the motifs and symbols visual discourse has used to craft harmful stereotypes and establish the “difference” of minoritized communities. Usually involving references to supposed violence or sexual deviance by highlighting the physical body and its flesh, this covert language of images perpetuates prejudice against the Other. It is this visual lexicon that the Oakland-based artist Xandra Ibarra explores, parodies, and reclaims in her exhibition Forever Sidepiece, showing at Queens’s Knockdown Center through October 27.
Ibarra's multidisciplinary practice explores queer identity and sexuality, femininity, and Mexicanidad through a mixture of performance, video art, photography, and sculpture. Forever Sidepiece, Ibarra’s first solo show in New York, is a small retrospective of her artistic practice from 2012 to 2019 with special attention given to her work regarding Chicanx stereotypes, racial dynamics in queer sexual relationships, and racism. Informational packets distributed at the exhibition’s entrance attempt to explain its title: the “sidepiece” is the partner in a loose, no-strings-or-expectations-attached sexual relationship, but here, the term is also used to describe an Othered entity or “an object at the sidelines of history.”1 This exhibition dives into the experiences of people like Ibarra who feel stuck inside an anti-Latinx and anti-queer society, taking this abject marginalization and exploring it through parody, raunch, and an unparalleled use of symbolism throughout her work.
Perhaps the exhibition and Ibarra’s work as a whole is best represented by her Spictacles video series (2014-2015), which is displayed on three monitors near the end of the exhibition. She describes her “spictacles” (an amalgamation of the racial slur and “spectacle”) as “violently and satirically [exploiting] Mexican iconography” by taking mainstream stereotypes of Mexican-American femininity and subverting them in sexually charged and exaggerated ways.2 These mini-burlesque performances take the Madonna/whore/housewife archetypes that American culture so often stuffs Mexican-American women into and radically redefines them by leaning into the sexual connotations and ridiculousness of those stereotypes. The gum-smacking Virgin Mary character in Spictacle III: La Virgensota Jota (2015) births a vibrator and climaxes to “Ave Maria,” all while maintaining the traditional garb seen in Catholic Latinx depictions of Mary. In Spictacle I: Dominatrix of the Barrio, from 2014, a dominatrix with a luchador mask violates a cheery-looking donkey piñata, and the housewife from 2015’s Spicatcle II: Tortilleria strips down to reveal the strap-on made with a Tapatio Hot Sauce bottle underneath her skirt (the Tapatio bottle and the strap-on are seen elsewhere in Forever Sidepiece as sculptural objects).
For all of Forever Sidepiece’s earned brashness, the quieter moments of the show are arguably more successful. The newest video included here, Turn Around Side Piece (2018), features a nude Ibarra perched on a slowly turning rock in a pastoral scene akin to the classical landscapes of Nicolas Poussin. As the rock turns, Ibarra moves her body so as to not show her face, which is further obscured by her hair. Just as she analyzes the racism in common stereotypes in her “Spictacles” series, Ibarra breaks down the ways that aesthetic conventions in the Western art canon—where white, delicate conventions of femininity are seen as the standard and women of color are namelessly portrayed and often sexualized—have anonymized “sidepieces” throughout our visual history. Ibarra furthers her critique of visual language’s racist possibility in the exhibition’s selection of photographs, including Molting in Pool (2014), which features a mostly nude woman floating in a pool beside a larger-than-life cockroach (referred to by the artist as a “cucarachicx”). Ibarra’s code of signifiers throughout Forever Sidepiece—the hot sauce bottles, the Virgin Mary, the cucarachicx—subverts the symbols meant to “fix” Chicanx, queer, and feminine stereotypes and applies them to her sharp analysis of life as a sidepiece and the all-too-common images that further push communities towards the margins.
The strength of Forever Sidepiece is certainly the result of Ibarra’s experimental and deeply personal artistic practice, but I also want to acknowledge the exhibition’s curator, Alexis Wilkinson (Knockdown Center’s Director of Exhibitions and Live Art). In less capable hands, the exhibition could have been organized in a way that did not recognize the depth of the Ibarra’s work and instead relied on cheap exploitation, but Wilkinson’s curatorial choices show a level of commitment to, and understanding of, the artist’s practice. With Wilkinson’s thoughtful collaboration, this exhibition establishes Xandra Ibarra as a necessary voice willing to dive deeply into the problematic history of the image in relation to race, gender, and sexuality.
Forever Sidepiece may be Ibarra’s first solo show in New York, but I believe that it certainly will not be her last.
Daniella Brito, “Xandra Ibarra: Forever Sidepiece.” Knockdown Center, 2019. Exhibition Text.