Local Artist’s Goal: Circumcision Awareness

Hugo Ximello-Salido in his studio. Photo: Bradley Osborn

Hugo Ximello-Salido grew up in the late 1980s and ’90s in Guadalajara, Jalisco – Mexico’s second largest city. As in most places on Earth, according to the World Health Organization, the vast majority of males around him were uncircumcised; only about one-third of males in the world have undergone circumcision.

When he moved north at age 25, Ximello-Salido came to realize that the norms were reversed in the United States, with circumcision prevailing. He began to wonder why.

A January 2019 trip to Europe confirmed his suspicion that the United States is unusual in this way. Reasoning that routine, non-religious, infant circumcision is medically unnecessary and potentially dangerous, is done without consent, and removes a substantial number of sensory nerves, he decided to use his talent and platform as an artist to heighten awareness and get people talking.

It is not Ximello-Salido’s intent to shame parents for acceding to the common and generally accepted procedure. Nor is he implying that a circumcised penis is ugly or underperforming. He simply wants the public to be educated about perfunctory circumcision, a practice that insinuated itself into late 19th-century American society. It was rarely questioned for about a century and continues to be a taboo discussion topic.

‘A Phallic Expression’ exhibit

Ximello-Salido’s one-night exhibit, plus a silent auction, took place March 7 at Bistro 303, 303 Westport Rd., Kansas City, Mo. Male attendees could choose nametags that read either “uncut” or “cut.”

Title: Docking. Artist: Hugo Ximello-Salido. Photo: Susan McSpadden

His description of the exhibit, called A Phallic Expression, focuses on circumcision as a human rights violation, comparing it to female circumcision (also known as female genital mutilation), a practice that many people see as barbaric.

He notes that there’s no consent in male infant circumcision, but that the decision plays a huge part in the babies’ sexual and social lives as adults. He also talks about the unnecessary excision of sensitive tissue and the spurious hygiene claims that first helped to popularize the procedure.

In the weeks running up to the exhibit, Ximello-Salido used photographs of 13 European and American volunteers’ members as guides to create 28 pencil, chalk and ink pieces in total, with eight of the pieces being large. No flesh-colored pigments were used, in order to keep the pieces race-neutral. He hopes this artwork will help to demystify foreskin and inspire conversation, if not action.

Five speakers briefly shared their perspectives.

Sex therapist Chuck Franks confirmed that the issue is rarely talked about, even though it affects most U.S. men.

Linda Gust recalled that no one discussed circumcision back the ’70s.

Lance Pierce, born and raised in a small town, said that the existence of uncircumcised penises was virtually unknown during his formative years.

Belinda Breckenridge Manos gave the crowd a mother’s perspective from recent years.

Hyunki Yoon, a native of Seoul, talked about the situation in his country of birth. South Korean men are subject to compulsory military service. Due to the strong influence of the U.S. military after World War II and beyond, circumcision became more available and acceptable.

This effect, plus a desire not to stand out while participating in the ancient cultural tradition of public bathing, caused the rate of uncircumcised men in South Korea to be extremely low during Yoon’s youth. He says males are usually circumcised there at age 13-17 years.

Rates of infant circumcision in the United States and rates of circumcision in South Korean teens have decreased significantly in recent years. If those trends continue, both countries will fall out of the high-incidence group.

Art Title: Notas de una Viola. Artist: Hugo Ximello-Salido. Photograph: Susan McSpadden

Artistic style and previous exhibits

Ximello-Salido’s frustration with Americans’ misapprehension of Mexican culture, such as the false, but common belief that Cinco de Mayo is Mexican Independence Day (it’s actually Sept. 16), led him to express himself through art.

Self-taught, but empowered by a family of artists, he has chosen as his subject matter elements of both ancient Mexican culture and modern life.

His most common theme is La Catrina, the name given by Diego Rivera to Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada’s satirical female skull (Calavera Garbancera) image. The image was created to mock indigenous women who were trying to emulate European aristocrats by applying excess powder to their faces.

Rivera created a mural with this image at its center. He called her La Catrina, meant to be a female version of el catrín, the well-dressed gentleman on lotería cards. La Catrina has since become an icon of the Day of the Dead (Mexican Día de Muertos). Ximello-Salido invokes her image often.

Title: Muxe. Artist: Hugo Ximello-Salido. Photograph: Susan McSpadden

He employs a variety of techniques and media to accomplish his goal of marrying old to new and traditional to contemporary. (You can see his work at hugosalido.com.) An acrylic on canvas might include a painting technique like that used on Talavera pottery. He might use a non-traditional color to symbolize indigenous blood.

A piece could start with a silhouette to capture the essence of his subject.

Cut-out designs on colored tissue paper (papel picado) might be torn up and turned into papier-mâché to apply to a canvas. Lotería cards or pottery could suffer similar fates for art’s sake.

Ximello-Salido has found inspiration for his art in both his home city, which is the gay capital of Mexico, and the largely indigenous southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, which is home to the muxe, a sort of third or nonstandard gender with variable roles and expression.

He has exhibited his art in Guadalajara and began showing it in Kansas City in 2007. He has since participated in many other local solo and group exhibits. In 2018, his art was part of The Figure and Unknown Places, displayed at Agora Gallery in Chelsea, New York City.

Ximello-Salido also works as a prevention specialist at Good Samaritan Project (GSP). Each year, he donates art to:

  • GSP’s Flavor! fundraising event series.
  • An AIDS Walk donor event (two pieces).
  • Heartland Men’s Chorus Dinner of Note.

Hugo Ximello-Salido at "A Phallic Expression" exhibit. Photo courtesy of Hugo Ximello-Salido.

Current and upcoming exhibits

Ongoing: Oak Street Mansion, 4343 Oak St., Kansas City, Mo.

April 3: Oak Hall Condominiums, Oak Room, 4550 Warwick Blvd., Kansas City, Mo., part of the Oak Hall Art Soirée Series.

Aug. 16-Sep. 20: Kansas City Artists Coalition, TBA, solo underground exhibit.

September-November: Cafe Trio, 4558 Main St., Kansas City, Mo., for Day of the Dead season.

October-November: Mattie Rhodes Art Center & Gallery, 915 W. 17th St., Kansas City, Mo., for Day of the Dead Celebration.

A Primer About Circumcision

Circumcision is the surgical removal of the foreskin, which covers the glans of the penis. Historically, it was a religious rite, but fairly recently it was adopted by some for social and supposed health reasons. Its earliest depiction is in a 3rd-millennium B.C. Egyptian tomb. Judaism, Islam, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Eritrean Orthodox Church perform it as a religious ritual.

Some scholars have suggested that sacramental circumcision first developed as a substitute for child sacrifice.

Initially in Judaism, only very tip of the foreskin was removed, as a symbol of Abraham’s covenant with God. In that covenant, Abraham agreed that he and his descendants would obey God, and God agreed to make Abraham the father of a great people, to whom he gave the land of Israel.

This method and practice of circumcision continued with the Hebrews, Israelites and Jews. Then Hellenistic Jewish athletes began passing as Gentiles in athletic games where the competitors were naked. It is hypothesized that rabbis consequently ordered a more radical procedure, called peri’ah or priah (פריעהuncovering).

This procedure which removes the entire foreskin, resembles the method that is now usually used. Jews perform circumcision on the eighth day of an infant’s life. Muslims usually perform it at a very young age. Some societies wait until the teen years. Still others perform partial circumcisions as part of their cultural heritage.

Circumcision is performed at nearly a 100 percent rate in devout Jewish and Muslim areas. Its current prevalence varies, with the highest level reported in the band of Muslim-majority states that run from north Africa through the Near East on to northern South Asia, Malaysia and Indonesia. Insurance, hospital births and societal acceptance also factor into a nation’s rate of circumcision.

Non-religious circumcision began in Victorian England in the late 19th century as a means to prevent masturbation. It spread to the United States for the same reason and also because U.S. physicians thought the practice would improve hygiene and lower disease rates, a belief that was not supported by proof.

Periods of heightened religiosity in the mid-1700s and then the late 1700s – partly a reaction to the Enlightenment – were called the Great Awakenings. During this time, some Christians felt that America was the New Jerusalem, the City upon a Hill, and that circumcision would bring them closer to righteousness (even though the Apostle Paul makes it clear that circumcision is not required of Gentiles).

Brendon Marotta directed, produced and edited the 2017 documentary film American Circumcision (circumcisionmovie.com), available on Netflix. The movie states that circumcision is the most common surgery in the United States and that “no other industrialized country routinely practices non-religious infant circumcision.”

Those fighting for a ban on infant circumcision are called Intactivists. There is no nationalized U.S. system for tracking the number of circumcisions and/or botched procedures.

U.S. rates of opting out of circumcision have increased only in recent years, and that hasn’t been enough time for much information about foreskin care to be passed between generations. Opting out is still unusual enough that it’s relatively common for parents of an uncircumcised child to forcibly (and prematurely) retract the child’s foreskin, causing permanent injury.

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