By Jewel Chuaunsu
Artist Chalk Zaldivar’s show, Itaga Mo sa Bato, which opened at Modeka Art Space on July 24, 2021, has drawn the ire of netizens for making certain statements that are considered offensive to women and the LGBTQ+ community.
Zaldivar’s artworks for the exhibition consist of marble gravestones (lapida) bearing various texts which the exhibition notes characterize as “sardonic witticisms,” “cheeky and biting satire,” and “dark humor.”
Some of Zaldivar’s text pokes fun at memes and Internet humor (“Better late than pregnant,” “Pag lumindol, post ko yan”). However, other texts mock physical appearance (“Walang ginawang pangit ang Diyos, nanay mo meron”) and negatively stereotype older people (“Bawal matanda sa ATM,” “Bawal mag-TikTok, may anak ka na”).
Perhaps the most offensive statements reek of misogyny (“Hindi naghihirap ang babaeng malaki ang suso”) and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (“Pansexual, scientific name ng malandi”). The former objectifies women, reducing them to a sexualized body part. The latter fetishizes pansexual identities, translating it as promiscuity and flirty behavior. Perhaps these sexist jokes and forms of casual bigotry are meant to be provocative or humorous, yet they promote damaging misconceptions about women and LGBTQ+ individuals.
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After facing backlash for giving a platform to Zaldivar’s exhibition, Modeka released a statement which read, in part: “We would like to offer our sincerest apologies to the ones affected by the works made by our showcased artist. It is never our intention to offend people with the things we do.”
Modeka stressed that they are a “neutral platform for expression” and have “given a voice to a wide spectrum of community representation and opinions.” They added, “Whatever views expressed by an artist doesn’t necessarily translate our views and beliefs as a gallery. At the same time, the worse thing we could do is to fall victim to the pressure of censorship, no matter from which side it may come, and regardless of how controversial the works are.”
Modeka concluded their statement by reaching out to have an open dialogue with those who have concerns and objections regarding the show, particularly from the LGBTQ+ community.
Zaldivar has remained noticeably silent on the controversy.
On social media, queer artists and members of the art community reacted strongly to the issues surrounding Zaldivar’s exhibition and Modeka’s response.
“The virtue of neutrality in the museum and gallery spaces is a myth especially when artworks, over the time of art history, were never neutral to begin with. As much as these spaces maintain this façade of neutrality, it becomes a vehicle for the artist’s statement, becoming a platform for ideas,” wrote AK Ocol, adding, “It seems like ‘freedom of expression’ is always argued on things that are not satire but poorly excused as ‘satire.’”
“Public apologies become performative when it’s not followed by swift action and reform. What transpired with Modeka and the show ‘Itaga mo sa Bato’ wasn’t a mere error in judgment, it’s compounded neglect and insensitivity that spilled over,” posted Ginoe. In light of the situation, Ginoe pulled out the pieces he submitted for Modeka’s group exhibition.
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“This is a time of reckoning, not a time of making queer struggles a butt of the joke,” Isola Tong stated in an illustration depicting the death of Philippine art.
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“Artists and art spaces have accountabilities. We may not get it right all the time but we should strive to do so,” wrote Mono8 Gallery’s resident curator Gwen Bautista. “Cancel the show or speak why you thought it’s important to do it, why is this even an exhibition. Make the artist accountable.”
“Is it really censorship when the message is practically inspiring even more hate to an already oppressed group of people?” commented Soleil Ignacio.
Bahaghari – a progressive national organization of members of the LGBTQ+ in the Philippines – stated: “Art must serve to emancipate, not to fuel bigotry. To this end, we urge Modeka and all other creative spaces to oppose works that only enforce our macho-feudal culture. Platform artists—not merely over identity, but over the emancipatory character of their works for queer people. It is time we proactively reshape the culture that kills the LGBT+. Let us stand for art that serves the people, and which shapes a new culture for all of us—a culture of love, justice, and genuine equality.”
This is not the first time Zaldivar has created works that put forth homophobic, transphobic, and misogynistic rhetoric. In his previous exhibitions with Vinyl on Vinyl Gallery, he used offensive and discriminatory language in his artwork titles. These include “I Know You’d Cut Your Dick Off Just To Prove a Point,” “Visibly Gay Man,” and “Woman Ate Too Much Dick.”
Bahaghari noted: “It has not escaped our knowledge that Chalk Zaldivar produced ‘art’ in 2018 titled ‘I Know You’d Cut Your Dick Off Just To Prove a Point,’ which clearly reeks of transphobic sentiments, the likes of which fuel the continued violence against transgender women today.”
Art must serve to emancipate, not to fuel bigotry. To this end, we urge Modeka and all other creative spaces to oppose works that only enforce our macho-feudal culture. Platform artists—not merely over identity, but over the emancipatory character of their works for queer people.
— Bahaghari 🇵🇸 🏳️⚧️#TransLivesMatter (@Bahaghari_PH) July 30, 2021
The controversy surrounding Chalk Zaldivar’s latest exhibit and his body of work raises issues about balancing freedom of expression and social responsibility, and the difference between art as provocation or as bigotry. Recognizing how prejudice creeps into our lives through casual jokes and remarks, we can reflect on whether offensive humor and satire excuses dehumanizing messages. On the use of satire, author Terry Pratchett perhaps said it best: “Satire is meant to ridicule power. If you are laughing at people who are hurting, it’s not satire, it’s bullying.”