El Museo del Barrio in Upper Manhattan has canceled its upcoming retrospective of Chilean-born artist and director Alejandro Jodorowsky. The exhibition was set to open on February 28.
The decision comes in the wake of community activists in East Harlem raising concerns over a decades-old statement by Jodorowsky regarding his breakout avant-garde film El Topo (1970), in which Jodorowsky indicated that he raped his co-star, Mara Lorenzio. A screening of the film was set to be part of the exhibition’s programming, as was a tarot reading by Jodorowksy and the premiere of his latest film, Psychomagic: A Healing Art (2018). In its place, El Museo will extend its current survey of Liliana Porter until March 3, and then will mount unannounced programming related to its 50th anniversary.
A statement sent to ARTnews reads, “El Museo del Barrio is continuously evaluating the ways in which we advance our mission within the evolving social and political landscape. This includes an ongoing review of our programming. Following an assessment of the planned Alejandro Jodorowsky exhibition, we have decided not to move forward with the presentation at this time.”
“We cannot endorse words that go against the identity and the context that El Museo serves,” El Museo director Patrick Charpenel told ARTnews by phone. “We began to understand that this was not the right moment or the right context. It was a process.” Around two or three months ago, he said, the museum began to reassess the mounting of the exhibition.
“We always have to be connected to our audiences and our mission as an institution,” he added.
A lengthy report published in December 2017 in the Telegraph, by Helen O’Hara, details the Jodorowsky controversy, tracing it back to as early as 1970, when the director claimed in an interview that a scene depicting him raping Lorenzio was, in fact, an actual rape. In the film, Jodorowsky’s character takes Lorenzio’s character, also named Mara, captive; he then rapes her, “causing a sort of mythic flood,” according to O’Hara.
O’Hara cites an account that Jodorowksy provides in El Topo: A Book of the Film (1972), in which the director said that the two stars had not talked to each other prior to the scene and that it was not rehearsed. He then directed Lorenzio to hit him for a while: “After she had hit me long enough and hard enough to tire her, I said, ‘Now it’s my turn. Roll the cameras.’ And I really… I really… I really raped her. And she screamed. . . Then [Lorenzio] told me that she had been raped before. You see, for me the character is frigid until El Topo rapes her. And she has an orgasm.” (Jodorowsky released a statement via Artforum about this description on Thursday, January 31.)
Jodorowksy went on to have an influential career, O’Hara writes, while the “rape claim was, at the time, largely ignored” and “rarely raised in interviews.” In a 2007 interview with Empire magazine, Jodorowsky changed his story, saying, “I didn’t rape Mara, but I penetrated her with her consent.” O’Hara cites a 2017 Facebook post in which Jodorowsky wrote that he “said things to shock interviewers.” (O’Hara also discusses other statements that the artist has made over the years that mention rape.)
O’Hara notes that, “Set against this history of—at least—violent imagery is the fact that Jodorowsky should not, necessarily, be taken at face value, since he revels in the same sort of metaphor and dream logic as his films. . . . And even if Lorenzio did consent, given the power imbalance between a debutante actress and the charismatic director/star on a film’s set, the degree of that consent must be up for question (and the need for any penetration, given the way the film is shot).”
Debbie Quinones, one of the community activists who raised concerns about the planned Jodorowsky exhibition, called the show “clearly diametrically opposed, the antithesis of the mission. The mission is talking about community, equity, and identity. Then how do you go to the dark side?”
Quinones said that while she realizes that museums often must balance and provide context for provocateurs and the avant-garde, she did not understand the museum’s decision to mount the exhibition in the first place.
“Art is something that is such a moving target,” said Quinones, who was interviewed prior to El Museo’s statement being released. “But do we have to the engage in the same exploitation of identity as well as sensationalism? It’s not just about art. It’s about the social determinants of art.”
When asked for further clarification, a spokesperson for El Museo sent the following:
We reassessed the presentation of Jodorowsky’s work against our mission and the evolving socio-political landscape. We, like many other institutions, are dealing with issues that were previously not visible or talked about. As a museum—and especially as one founded with an activist mission—we are committed to addressing complex and challenging issues, but need to do so in a way that generates productive dialogues, discussions, and debate. Our ultimate goal is for visitors to engage in and investigate these issues in new and critical ways, and we have a responsibility to make sure that each program we present advances this goal. Following our reassessment, we realized the issues raised in Jodorowsky’s practice require additional consideration and contextualization beyond the original concept of the show and have therefore made the decision to not present it at this time.
The exhibition had originally been organized by María Inés Rodríguez for CAPC Musée d’art Contemporain of Bordeaux in France, where she was director until August 2018. That iteration opened in May 2015 and its traveling to El Museo had been in the works for around a year. Charpenel said that the original idea was to show the diverse practice—including graphic novels, experimental theater, performance, and drawings—of an artist who is best known solely as a filmmaker.
El Museo has faced continued scrutiny in the past few weeks. The museum, which was founded in 1969, is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary and had planned to honor Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, a conservative German socialite and prominent art collector, at its annual gala later this year. It rescinded that decision after facing criticism from some observers, including Ana Dopico, a professor of U.S. Latinx studies at NYU, as well as queries from the New York Times, which first broke the news.