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Encore: East LA exhibit features Latinx artists using sound

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A new exhibition in East Los Angeles showcases the work of more than 30 Chicano artists and collectives who use sound in dynamic ways. This is the last week the exhibition is up at the Vincent Price Art Museum. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has details.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Strewn on the floor of one gallery is what's left of a baby grand piano after Nuyorican artist Raphael Montanez Ortiz destroyed it for an art performance. There are splintered fragments of its wooden case and shattered piano keys.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEL BARCO: A video shows the time Ortiz took an ax to a piano in 1966.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO KEYS CLANGING)

DEL BARCO: He tells a news reporter about channeling aggressive instincts to create destructivist art.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAPHAEL MONTANEZ ORTIZ: Destructivist art exists because murder exists in society. And perhaps if destructivist art became an important movement in civilization, then perhaps wars would end, perhaps murders would end, perhaps suicides would end.

DEL BARCO: Ortiz founded El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem. At age 88, he's still a working artist whose use of sound inspired others in the Sonic Terrains of Latinx Artists exhibition at the Vincent Price Museum. Joseph Valencia is one of the curators.

JOSEPH VALENCIA: It's by no means a full historical overview of sound in Latinx art. But what emerges is this really interesting, polyphonic expression of sound in our culture.

DEL BARCO: That includes avant-garde visual artists, spoken-word performers and pop culture musicians.

VALENCIA: The art in this exhibition engages with history, engages with community, political activism, art for identity formation, cultural belonging, collective healing.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING)

DEL BARCO: Another video in the exhibition documents a sound ritual by an artist collective called AMBOS Project. In 2017, artist Jackie Amezquita read a list of 96 immigrants who died trying to cross into the Arizona desert from Mexico. Many of them could not be identified.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACKIE AMEZQUITA: (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING)

DEL BARCO: In memory of each, the other artists gong the metal border fence with a stick, says Amezquita.

AMEZQUITA: We're using the border as, like, an instrument to kind of re-embody people who lost their lives in the desert.

DEL BARCO: The exhibition also features Chicano spoken-word artist Ruben Guevara, using the sound of his voice as a call to action in 1992.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUBEN GUEVARA: Raza. Wake up.

DEL BARCO: In his performance piece "Aztlan, Babylon, Rhythm & Blues," Guevara referred to the 1970 anti-war protest in East LA that was marred by police violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GUEVARA: Hey, fellas, have you heard? There's been a shootout at the Silver Dollar Cafe.

DEL BARCO: The 79-year-old artist told NPR he started out singing doo-wop, gospel and rock.

GUEVARA: Words are musical. They evolved into theater, poetry and song. So the poetry became my instrument.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUENOS DE CALIFORNIA")

LOS TIJUANA FIVE: (Singing) California mia...

DEL BARCO: Another artist curated a display of novelty radios transmitting bilingual music on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. A sound piece called "Distant Lover" documents the impact of California radio DJ Art Laboe as callers ask for oldies to reach incarcerated loved ones.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JESSICA: Baby, I love you. I miss you. I can't wait to see you again.

ART LABOE: What are you going to play for him, Jessica (ph)?

JESSICA: I want to dedicate "You're All I Need" by Marvin Gaye.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE ALL I NEED")

MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) Like sweet morning dew, I took one look at you.

DEL BARCO: For the exhibition, LA artist Marcus Kuiland-Nazario created an interactive sound installation that's an homage to his late father, an audiophile. He invites visitors to relax inside a space wallpapered by images of reel-to-reel tape recorders.

MARCUS KUILAND-NAZARIO: I wanted you to feel, like, held or hugged by sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A PAPA")

CELIA CRUZ: Bomba.

DEL BARCO: Visitors can play Nazario's collection of 1970s vinyl records on a vintage turntable and listen as cassettes play recordings in which he talks to men about their dads.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I always had this idealized version of my father, you know, because I never really got to know him.

KUILAND-NAZARIO: When you listen to these interviews and you listen to this music and you're in this environment, it's like a big altar, really. It's a sonic altar.

DEL BARCO: In that sense, he says, sound can be used as a healing kind of magic.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A PAPA")

CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.