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Arts & Life

Kansas City's salsa community dances into the spotlight at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art

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E.G. Schempf
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Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art
"Aliza Nisenbaum: Aquí Se Puede (Here You Can)" includes three large-scale portraits of a DJ, a dance instructor and a couple connected to Kansas City’s salsa music and dance communities.

The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art’s atrium project features Kansas City's salsa community and is dedicated to commissioned works by Hispanic and Latinx artists.

On the dance floor and against the backdrop of the Latin American rhythms of the music, a salsa community has sprung up in Kansas City. And it’s the focus of the exhibition, "Aliza Nisenbaum: Aquí Se Puede (Here You Can)" at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art through July 31.

The exhibition features three brightly-colored portraits of a DJ, a dance instructor and a couple with musical ties to Cuba — all painted by Nisenbaum.

“In some way, my painting is about the individuals and their faces,” Nisenbaum said during a recent artist talk, “but the formal elements of the work are kind of a fleshing out of their stories.”

Nisenbaum worked closely with the Kemper to identify the subjects of her three Kansas City portraits, using Zoom to connect with them from her studios in New York City and Los Angeles.

“This project really embodies the energy and the spirit and the history and the motivation and all of the wonderful people, you know, involved in the salsa community,” said Erin Dziedzic, the Kemper’s director of curatorial affairs.

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E.G. Schempf
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Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art
Luis Sainz, who goes by the name DJ Luis, started working with artist Aliza Nisenbaum to help select members of the salsa community. But, he said, then she decided to paint his portrait.

Luis Sáinz, better known as DJ Luis, is the first portrait Nisenbaum says she started, describing him as "really central" to the salsa dance community.

“It was quite an experience, you know,” he says. “I never thought I will be the subject of a portrait.”

Nisenbaum says she took the title of the show from one of Sáinz's records.

“He showed me all his records," she explains, "and that’s where we took the title of the show: ‘Aqui Se Puede (Here You Can),' which just means a sense of possibility. Here something is possible.”

The pandemic shut down a longstanding salsa night Sáinz hosted at The Chesterfield (inside the now-closed Alamo Drafthouse Cinema). He has worked professionally as a DJ since 2002, and these days he hosts gigs at the recordBar and The Ship.

“It’s very rhythmic. It's about dancing more than anything else,” Sáinz says about salsa, which mixes jazz and Latin rhythms. “It's about learning how to communicate with the other person, it’s a very beautiful dance and very passionate too.”

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E.G. Schempf
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Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art
Dance instructor Sheree Watson, who's featured in one of Nisenbaum's portraits, teaches at Viva Social Dance Studio in Shawnee, Kansas.

Salsa dance instructor Sheree Watson is also featured in the exhibit.

Watson, who’s African American, grew up dancing to R&B and hip hop. But shortly after moving to Kansas City in 2006, a friend took her to a Latin night, and she was "pretty much hooked ever since."

For the past decade, she's taught classes at Viva Social Dance Studio in Shawnee, Kansas.

“I describe it as almost a love language dance for me, a love language when I dance,” she says, “whether it's mambo, whether it's bachata when I hear the music, my body is just like, ‘Yes, that's it let's do this.’”

“And I was thinking (of that moment) when you’re about to start dancing,” Nisenbaum says about Watson's portrait. “Kind of measuring time where you start to use your fingers, (you’re) about to start engaging in a dance activity.”

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E.G. Schempf
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Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art
Musician Michael McClintock traveled to Cuba in 2013, where he was introduced to Cuban music and salsa. It is also where he met Dálida Pupo; the couple married in 2015. In Nisenbaum's portrait, McClintock is serenading Pupo.

The third portrait shows Michael McClintock, a classically trained guitarist, and Dálida Pupo Barrios. The couple met in Cuba in 2013, and now run a cultural project in Kansas City called Cubanisms.

“I wanted something that will keep me connected to Cuba in some way because I love my country and our culture,” says Pupo Barrios. “And we also wanted to do something together."

McClintock and Pupo Barrios spent several sessions over Zoom with Nisenbaum, providing a virtual tour of their home, its artwork and McClintock's instrument, the tres Cubano.

“They were telling me about a song he composed for her, while he was waiting for her to join him in the States,” Nisenbaum recalls. “The name of the song is ‘Waiting for You.’ I was thinking of making a painting that was basically a serenade in some ways.”

When they first saw the painting on the atrium wall in the museum, McClintock and Pupo Barrios say it was a little larger than expected — and they view it with a sense of responsibility.

According to Pupo Barrios, there’s “a little bit more pressure on doing things better, trying to work harder, trying to represent in some way the Latin community and all the dance and music community.”

McClintock adds, “It kind of made me want to up my game as far as being part of this community.”

“Alisa Nisenbaum: Aquí Se Puede (Here You Can)” is on view through July 31st in the atrium of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Blvd., Kansas City, Missouri.

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