By Darienne Stiyer & Sydney Padgett
For the last two months, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art hosted a piece of Latin American sunshine, the Visual Clave exhibit. On bright blue walls, Latin album covers ranging from the exoticism of the 1950s to the political messages of the 1970s tell an important narrative of Latinx identity politics in the United States. At the center of the vibrant cove lay “claves,” both a Latino percussion instrument and the Spanish word for “key.”
Across the foyer from the exhibit, Santana-inspired guitar riffs and the rhythmic beat of conga drums echo in the ears of the late-afternoon museumgoers. The band, Malanga, took the stage following a discussion between the curators of the exhibit, Philip Scher and Pablo Yglesias.
Yglesias, a Cuban-American researcher, writer, musician, artist and DJ, met Scher, an anthropology and folklore professor at the University of Oregon, in college, where they bonded over their shared love of vinyl records. While Scher eventually gave up on his vinyl collection, Yglesias persisted and his continued passion for albums resulted in the genesis of the whole exhibit.
For Yglesias, the lack of discussion surrounding the Latin diaspora to the United States was at the foundation of Visual Clave. While he observed many discussions and studies engaging in American and European culture, he saw nothing addressing Latin music, “and yet in the United States, there’s tons of Latin music out there and great designs,” he said.
In the same way that Latin music reveals a multicultural narrative of identity, the representation of Latinx people and culture on the album covers is telling.
“The cover art is a piece of culture shrunk down to this small window,” said Yglesias. “To me, the most important aspect aside from the visuals were the stories behind it and what does that mean in terms of identity politics and evolution over the decades of who’s controlling how the music is presented.”
For Latinx groups in the United States, these albums and the ways in which they represent Latinx people are essential components of a transnational experience. In many ways, Yglesias sought to reach these often marginalized communities by subtly communicating a multicultural identity.
“There’s a lot of visual cultural markers that you can see in these album covers that if you are familiar with the cultures involved, you might understand on a different level,” said Yglesias.
Citing La Lupe’s album cover where she is holding a cigar, Yglesias explains tobacco’s sacred role in Santeria, an Afro-Cuban religious practice.
“There’s a lot of secret subtext in these album covers, but I didn’t want to spell those things out,” said Yglesias.
Instead, he leaves it open to the audiences, especially those who self-represent as part of the Latinx community, to interpret these hidden subtexts.
Kelley Leon Howarth, a Spanish professor at the University of Oregon, has visited the exhibit multiple times, once bringing along her second-year Spanish heritage class, in which she already focuses on music as a form of cultural belonging and expression.
“The exhibit really ties in nicely for those students who identify as Latinx from the U.S. because it gives them representation,” said Leon Howarth.
Leon Howarth isn’t the only professor to introduce students to the exhibit. According to Cheryl Hartup, the associate curator of academic programs and Latin American art at the JSMA, professors from several departments, from music to sociology, have brought their students to engage with the decades of album covers.
“I am thrilled to have Pablo’s piece here,” said Hartup, who has been working to bring the exhibit to the JSMA for four years. “I think it is very forward thinking to do a show that focuses on and exalts everyday objects.”
Hartup looks forward to hosting more Puerto Rican art exhibits in the coming months. Visual Clave will remain in the JSMA until April 21