Xandra Ibarra is an Oakland-based visual artist from the El Paso/Juarez border. She works in performance, video, and sculpture. Her work often addresses abjection and joy and the borders between proper and improper racial, gender, and queer subject. Ibarra’s work has been featured at Ex Teresa Arte Actual (Mexico), El Museo de Arte Contemporañeo (Colombia), the Broad Museum (Los Angeles), Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (San Francisco), and Joe’s Pub (New York), to name a few. Read more.
During a recent studio visit, a curator told me that I was self-loathing and self-hating. I don’t necessarily disagree with this, per se, but what’s more interesting are the assumptions that inform the taste and task of the curator. For the curator and many others in the art world, identity must be situated optimistically; otherwise, the artist is seen as overly negative, self-loathing, and self-hating—como yo. It seems there’s an expectation that identity should be some naïve celebration, meant to work against the onslaught of images of suffering and state violence enacted upon racially identified bodies. Put another way, identity frequently feels like a sad appeal for minoritarian subjecthood, scrubbing or working with meanings and consequences of an externally determined “self.” It’s a bureaucratic nothing trying to be carried out as a vital and recognizable something. It’s a biopolitical networking task administered through institutions and assholes with money. It’s a model of obedience. It’s so old school it relies on Enlightenment assumptions, the casta system, Christianity, and maps to make sense.
It’s fucked up, but we participate in this sense-making, in the management of our own difference. We compartmentalize through our bodies, mediums, disciplines, and then our knowledge. If I don’t address myself as an object within this network, I am unintelligible. So I drone on about the geographical location of my birth because somehow I think I can alter the horizon of what I am through the geographical site of the US/Mexico border.
Creating work about conditions and structures that shape my body is not always helpful for me as an artist. The nonprofit art industrial complex and foundation funding want to give racialized artists the big bucks to make legible work about identity, racial injury, and recuperation. The funder is the shepherd and the artists are the sheep in a state of subordination, confessing and making legible their identities through their work. But I am not interested in making my pain and my body consumable for liberal satisfaction.
In fact, I have a hard time getting interested in this prompt to discuss identity in the arts. It demands and expects certain legible responses as predefined by the state, academy, and the arts, entities that have driven an unprecedented explosion of impoverished normative discourses and practices which merely circulate capital and shape the American arts. I’d rather be incoherent. I want to be incoherent so viciously. Like that time I took in an immeasurable amount of nitrous with my brothers and I fell to the floor and asked for more. That unknowing was constituted with so much possibility. I finally stopped clinging so fiercely to a singular idea of who I was. I made no sense. Together and separately, my brothers and I witnessed me, fully separate from the logics of the present; it was intimate and radical. Thank you, almost death.
If, in the end, I am going to be constituted through these decidedly unradical, violently coherent clusters of discourse, then I want to at least be promiscuous with my designation. I am going to keep fantasizing that I am not what I am. I am the liar lining up for well drinks on a Monday. Maybe this is my identity.