A new exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art features Latino artists from Kansas City
Twenty-two Kansas City-based Latino artists spent close to a year curating an exhibit called “A Layered Presence.” It is the third installment of the KC Art Now initiative to display more local work in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
When sculptor Cesar Lopez immigrated from Guatemala with his family in early 2001, he didn't expect that politics would engulf his existence more than two decades later.
“That was such a big factor in understanding not only were we about to go through such a large change by coming to America, but that the country itself has changed,” said Lopez, who is a graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute.
The painter-turned-sculptor is one of 22 local Latino artists who contributed to the “A Layered Presence /Una Presencia Estratificada” exhibit at Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Its focus is the stories, memories, sociopolitical issues and conflicts in the personal or national identities of Latino immigrants or their children.
Lopez’s sculptures feature a sequence of symmetrical aluminum strips joined together with rivets and other materials like PLA plastics made by 3-D printers.
“As a DACA recipient … I'm undocumented. So all those things sort of tied together into this really interesting push and pull, this plus minus and this duality,” he said.
DACA is short for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which was signed into law in 2012. It provides protections against deportation for people who were brought to the United States by their parents when they were children.
“I went to school at Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, and I only went there because of President Obama's signing of the DACA program,” said Lopez. “So it's all kind of tied to the politics in my life. And also that's exactly what's in the practice as well.”
For some of the relatively new artists, having their work on the prestigious museum’s walls is a monumental opportunity.
“I think it's a bittersweet thing … and I'm extremely happy and privileged to be here,” said Lopez. “I'm gonna support it the whole time. And I have loved working with every single individual that I've met here.”
His colleague and friend Kiki Serna is also featured in the exhibit and a beneficiary of DACA. Her family immigrated from Mexico to the Kansas City area when she was 7 years old.
She said growing up in Blue Springs, her family thought living in the suburbs was the best thing for her. Today, she says it hindered her from fully accepting her heritage.
“It was a very, very white space. I was super embarrassed of being Latina … There was a lot of shame tied to it. There was a lot of vulnerability tied to it. There was fear,” said Serna, who specializes in visual arts. “So it really wasn't until coming to college that I started to feel that there was this little small identity hidden. Like there were layers of me being kind of peeled back. And little by little I started to kind of feel more comfortable with myself.”
The exhibit opened to the public on Oct.14. Each piece of art has a placard next to it in English and Spanish, written by the artist.
It's part of the KC Art Now initiative, a program created by the museum in 2020 to promote more work from some of the metro’s most talented artists.
Stephanie Fox Knappe is senior curator of Global Modern and Contemporary Art and the head of the American Art Department at the museum. She said the collaboration is about more than just hanging art on the wall.
“It's a relationship that's built on a great deal of trust. So the artists needed to kind of trust the museum that we are going to support them and create a place and a platform for them to express themselves authentically,” she said.
This third installment of the KC Art Now initiative is all about Latin America and features an intergenerational group of artists who have roots in Cuba, Mexico, Uruguay, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Guatemala and Colombia.
The first two installments featured the work of local African American and Asian American artists.
Fox Knappe said having a mix of ages speaks to the exhibit’s title and the nuanced identities of each individual artist.
“Many layers inform their identities and the stories they choose to tell through their art, which itself is layered in terms of subject matter, materials, and meaning,” she said. “I am honored to be working with these local artists who have been so generous in sharing, on their own terms, their personal experiences, passions, and cultural ties to their homelands or those of their ancestors.”
Painter Socorro Rico is the child of Mexican immigrants. She moved to Kansas City from Los Angeles seven years ago against the advice of her parents, who wanted her to take the more traditional route of finding a career, getting married and having kids.
It was her tenacity and willingness to take chances that put her in the room with another prominent Latino artist in Kansas City, Chico Sierra, which she said helped her get noticed by the museum.
“I feel like through that I met other Latinx makers and creators, painters and writers, and a few of them, I see them in the show as well,” she said.
Rico, a Purdue University graduate, went to school for printmaking. She applies that knowledge when prepping the wooden canvases she uses for her acrylic paintings.
She said her paintings often present a duality that mirrors the pain of trying to choose between her Mexican and American heritage.
“What I've chosen is to take the opportunity to share my vulnerability and share my emotions. A lot of my paintings kind of have this symbolic of, or like a feeling of sadness, mourning and loss,” she said. “But also I, I make it look cute and nice soft colors and it's whispering to you, but it is my feelings.”
“A Layered Presence / Una Presencia Estratificada” exhibit runs through Sept. 8th of next year.
A community discussion called “We Are Latinos: Discovering the Latino Community of Kansas City Film Screening & Discussion, begins at 2 p.m. on Sunday, December 10, 2023, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St, Kansas City, MO 64111.