A video shows Pepx Romero licking and kissing works across several galleries at the Mexico City museum. (screenshots via Instagram)

As part of a performance at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) in Mexico City, performance artist Pepx Romero kissed and licked around 30 pre-Hispanic objects on display. Compiled into a short video, the performance was intended to draw attention to multiple auctions of pre-Hispanic objects held in France over the last few years, many of which the Mexican government has repeatedly tried to repatriate.

Romero’s video was screened as part of a larger art piece, titled “Mexique 2022” and performed at the Ceremonia music festival in Mexico City last week. It was also posted on a popular Instagram page that offers subversive commentary on art and art history. Romero is a theater director and runs the queer arts collective Traición.

“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,” Romero told Hyperallergic in an email. While filming the video, Romero had two other people with him to warn of approaching guards.

The performance lasted an hour on the afternoon of March 31 and went unnoticed by museum personnel, but was recorded on security cameras. Romero kissed or licked artifacts exhibited in the institution’s Gulf, Mexica, Teotihuacán, Toltec, and Oaxaca galleries.

“France, a country known as the luxury capital of the world, has private property laws within its legislation that allow the shameless sale of the historical past of cultures of, primarily, less developed countries,” Romero said.

“The public auction of these valuable objects has allowed monetary speculation on these important objects from different cultures since the 1940s, vandalizing and stripping these objects of their historical and symbolic value, turning them into simple objects of decoration,” he added.

In February, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador publicly denounced France’s auctioning of pre-Hispanic objects and asked INAH not to respond to dealers’ requests to verify the authenticity and dates of these works, stating that the dealers use this information to inflate prices.

Romero’s kissing performance is part of his broader project called MEXIQUE, Boutique de decoración, started in 2019 when French auction house Drouot held a large sale of pre-Hispanic artifacts in Paris. The Mexican ambassador to France asked the auction house, unsuccessfully, to return 95 of its 122 lots.

Pepx Romero shows a video of the kissing at his “Mexique 2022” performance in Mexico City (image courtesy of Archivo Pepx Romero)

In February of last year, the Mexican government tried to stop the sale of 30 objects including Mesoamerican and Andean masks, carved stones, and other Aztec, Mayan, Mixtec, and Toltec pieces included in a Christie’s auction in Paris. INAH said that of the 39 available lots, 30 belonged to Mexico and three were fake; 36 were sold, with Christie’s pulling in $3 million.

Last September, the Mexican government also attempted to stop the auction of 74 pre-Hispanic objects in Munich. Again in November, the Mexican government tried to intervene in a sale of 37 pre-Hispanic objects at the Paris auction house Artcurial. It also tried to stop another Christie’s auction in Paris, this one offering 72 Mayan and Olmec objects.

In 2018, France issued a report on repatriating African objects (the country houses 90,000), but only 27 objects belonging to Benin and Senegal have been returned, according to the Associated Press. The return of other items in public collections would require a broader new law, but proposed policy does not appear to be moving forward.

Some social media users criticized Romero’s performance, calling it “vandalism.” In a statement, INAH’s director said that none of the works were damaged.

Editor’s note 4/18/22 10:30am EST: A previous version of this article referred to objects returned by France to Benin City, not the country of Benin. The article has been corrected.

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.