A new installation at the Kemper Museum explores the history of Kansas City's lesbian utopia
Peruvian American artist Sarah Zapata, who's based in New York, combines sculptural and textile techniques to create a site-specific installation for Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art’s eighth annual Atrium Project.
New York artist Sarah Zapata was on hand Wednesday morning to offer advice as exhibitions coordinator Sam Maloney and assistant preparator Darby Rolf draped a purple shag carpet over a ladder in the atrium of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. Zapata’s textile pieces hung like flags, banners, and quilts along a 20-by-20-foot section of wall, painted with bold stripes of lavender.
The museum commissioned the Peruvian American artist for its eighth annual Atrium Project. In the wall-mounted piece, Zapata used traditional handicrafts of hand-weaving, latch-hooked shag, and sewing, combined with sculptural and textile techniques, to create the site-specific installation exploring local lesbian histories.
In "Sarah Zapata: So the roots be known," Zapata pays homage to Womontown, a collective of primarily queer women who established a community in Kansas City's Longfellow neighborhood in the late 1980s, and the national lesbian magazine The Ladder, one of the earliest lesbian publications in the country.
"I focused on these aspects to think about world-building, and how that relates to queer spaces, and how that is physically manifested," Zapata explained. "Womontown was a city within a city here in Kansas City."
Zapata said the work is about provoking curiosity and sparking interest into a history that belongs to everyone.
"So many people that I have spoken to that are from Kansas City didn't even know that Womontown was here," Zapata said. "That in itself has been a really powerful moment, to think about how it's just so great to be awakened to what has been behind and how we can use that to move forward."
Zapata is the daughter of a Peruvian immigrant and a first-generation American born in Texas, and she's a queer woman who was raised in an Evangelical household.
Before starting work on the installation, Zapata spent several days in Kansas City conducting research at the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. At GLAMA, she sifted through boxes of magazines, fliers, and photographs of everyday events like potlucks, musical performances and porch gatherings. Zapata said the documents she found in the archive helped shape her work.
"That's what was so humanizing, seeing their day-to-day existence and how different and how similar that is to things now," Zapata said. "I think just seeing that flourishing and that existence was really profound and exciting — and also just so normal, which is really important."
Photographs of everyday life in the neighborhood helped inform Zapata's choices of color and texture. She chose purple as a dominant theme of the installation in honor of the purple and yellow tulip flags that once hung on the doors of Womontown residents.
"There's something very powerful about work just being seen and how it's experienced by the viewer, and how every person has, like, a very different understanding of different objects, different contexts, different colors," Zapata said.
GLAMA preserves back issues of The Ladder published between 1956 through 1972. At a time before the Internet, it was a way for lesbians to connect and feel less isolated.
"If you can imagine at that time, it must have been truly profound coming upon these magazines," Zapata said, "because we didn't have the interconnectedness that we do have now with social media and the internet."
Zapata said a 1971 issue of The Ladder discussed the debate between "femme" and "butch," and whether those terms were even relevant.
"It's an age-old conversation and it's so funny because it's still a conversation that we're talking about, and that was 50 years ago," Zapata said. "These really interesting sort of threads connect us to these very human experiences and the pitfalls and the triumphs of language."
Stuart Hinds, curator of special collections and archives at UMKC Libraries, says the typical researcher is combing through GLAMA archives to write a paper or article or book, but a number of young artists like Zapata have looked to their collections for a different kind of inspiration.
"One of the things about working in a collection like this, is that you never know how the materials are going to be used by researchers," Hinds said. "To see the creative process be influenced by the material in the collection is really exciting."
Zapata said her look back through the archives has given her new perspective on history and the events that are shaping queer spaces today.
"As queer spaces, queer histories continue to be demonized, I think it's really important to see that we've always been here," Zapata said.
Sarah Zapata will give an artist talk during the exhibit's a opening reception at 6 p.m. on Thursday, August 17 at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Blvd., Kansas City, Missouri 64111.
The “Sarah Zapata: So the roots be known” installation will be on view in the museum's atrium from August 18 through July 28, 2024.