Why Did This Artist Lock Lips With Ancient Works of Indigenous Mexican Art?

Pepx Romero kissed and licked centuries-old archaeological wonders to raise awareness of the ongoing, contested sale of pre-Hispanic treasures

In a screenshot, a man in a yellow jacket licks the carved stone facade of an ancient work of Indigenous art
In a screenshot from a short video posted to Instagram, performance artist Pepx Romero licks a work of ancient art at Mexico City's Museo Nacional de Antropología.  Screenshot via Instagram / Obras de Arte Comentada

On the afternoon of March 31, performance artist Pepx Romero strolled into the Museo Nacional de Antropología (MNA) in the heart of Mexico City.

He wore a bright yellow jacket and dark sunglasses, reports María Julia Castañeda for El País. Accompanied by three friends, Romero wandered the museum’s halls, which boast an encyclopedic collection of Indigenous Mexican art that spans dozens of cultures and dates back thousands of years.

To the unsuspecting onlooker or security guard, the small group might have resembled typical museumgoers intent on seeing some ancient art.

But Romero had riskier plans in mind. While his friends stood watch and filmed him with their phones, the artist proceeded to kiss and lick some 30 items in a bid to raise awareness of international auctions of Indigenous Mexican cultural heritage.

Romero, who also works as a theater director in Mexico City, deemed the bold act a work of protest and performance art, reports Elaine Velie for Hyperallergic. He compiled footage of the stunt into a video art piece, which he posted online on various Instagram pages. A longer version of the video, titled Mexique 2022, also screened at the Ceremonia music festival in Mexico City in early April.

In the videos, Romero places his lips against glass display cases and slowly licks and kisses the carved facial features of large stone artworks. A robotic voiceover criticizes the plunder and illegal sale of pre-Hispanic works from Indigenous Olmec, Maya and Aztec cultures.

“Of course this places viewers in an awkward position,” writes art publisher Obras de Arte Comentadas on its Instagram page, per Google Translate. “[T]hey are witnessing apparent damage … to ‘our heritage’” from the artist’s saliva.

The publisher contrasts Romero’s actions with auctions of pre-Hispanic art “that are carried out almost without the generalized indignation of the audience.”

Romero hopes his stunt will draw attention to the widespread, unauthorized sale of pre-Hispanic artworks by European—and especially French—auction houses.

“The action of kissing and licking the objects shows that the pre-Hispanic objects are objects of desire in the context of auctions in France,” he tells Hyperallergic in an email.

French laws “allow the shameless sale of the historical past of cultures of, primarily, less developed countries,” the artist adds. “The public auction of these valuable objects … vandaliz[es] and strip[s] these objects of their historical and symbolic value, turning them into simple objects of decoration.”

Romero is not the first person to speak out against the sale of Mexico’s cultural heritage. As recently as February, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador chastised French auction houses for the practice, as the Associated Press (AP) reported at the time. The president added that he had instructed Mexico’s federal cultural bureau, the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), to refuse requests for information from French auction houses, some of which had reportedly reached out for assistance authenticating pre-Hispanic items.

The auction houses “are so brazen they ask the INAH for information, they send photos, so the INAH can tell them if these are authentic or fakes,” López Obrador said at the time, per the AP.

Parisian auction houses, including De Baecque et Associés and Binoche et Giquello, held large auctions of Indigenous Mexican artworks that same month. In November 2021, Christie’s Paris branch sold 72 artworks created thousands of years ago by members of the Maya and Olmec cultures.

As Hyperallergic reports, the Mexican government has petitioned to stop several auctions of pre-Hispanic items over the years with little success.

Romero’s “provocation,” as he terms it in one of his videos, does not seem to have caused lasting harm. All works of art that Romero touched, licked and smooched display no signs of damage, says the INAH, which oversees the museum, in a statement, per Google Translate.

“[T]he INAH expresses its respect for creative freedom, its gratitude to the voices that reject the illicit sale of cultural property abroad,” the statement notes.

Still, the institution adds, Romero’s conduct goes against the rules put in place to guard cultural objects in Mexico’s museums.

The agency “has followed up on this matter,” according to the statement, and will consider legal action based on the video evidence.