Work Of 20th-Century Artist Martin Ramirez Kicks Off Opening Of ICA

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Originally published on September 12, 2017 8:06 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So here in Los Angeles, more than 70 cultural institutions are participating in an event celebrating Latin American and Latino art. It is called Pacific Standard Time, and one museum taking part is the Institute of Contemporary Art. The ICA is a new incarnation of a museum that has moved from Santa Monica to downtown LA. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The ICA opened this space last weekend with bilingual tours, art workshops and a concert that reflected its new neighborhood - an arts district just east of downtown Los Angeles. Central American and Mexican day laborers in a band called Los Jornaleros del Norte welcomed visitors to the museum singing about equality and immigrants.

LOS JORNALEROS DEL NORTE: (Singing) The America.

PABLO ALVARADO: The America of the most humble workers.

LOS JORNALEROS DEL NORTE: (Singing) Yo soy.

ALVARADO: That's my America, the America of the day laborer. Like the - like the beautiful painter that you are celebrating today.

DEL BARCO: The late Martin Ramirez was a self-taught master of 20th-century art. The museum is showing 50 of his works - images of trains and tunnels, men with pistols on horses, plants and animals from his memories. The exhibition includes his 17-foot-long scroll that illustrates his journey from Jalisco, Mexico, in 1925. Ramirez had hoped to send money to his family back home by working on the railroads in California. Cultural historian and MacArthur Fellow Josh Kun says Ramirez ended up unemployed and homeless, picked up by immigration agents.

JOSH KUN: And declared mentally ill, insane. And whether or not he actually was or if he just didn't speak English is an open question.

DEL BARCO: Ramirez was labeled a catatonic schizophrenic and spent most of his life in mental institutions. There he made his artwork using whatever paper he could scrounge. He used melted crayons and matchsticks to draw, and he made collages glued together with paste he made of mashed potatoes, chewed bread and his own saliva.

KUN: This was a DIY artist, and he was somebody who was making art out of emergency, if you will, from his hospital bed and having to hide his work. And right now, as our political climate is forcing us to think about detention and deportation and all kinds of perhaps new and urgent ways, Ramirez's work puts this in historical perspective. These are not new issues.

ELSA LONGHAUSER: Immigration, incarceration, economic volatility, national borders and the rights of the mentally ill - it couldn't be more timely.

DEL BARCO: Elsa Longhauser is executive director of the ICA. She says the non-collecting museum will be showing works of emerging and experimental artists, just like the Santa Monica Museum of Art did. It opened in the 1980s, along with other art galleries, a theater and a cafe, in the Bergamont Station Arts Complex. Longhauser says she and the museum's board of directors were excited about a long-awaited light rail that opened at Bergamont Station four months ago, but plans to redevelop the city-owned complex made it clear it was time to move. So the museum migrated across town and got a new name.

LONGHAUSER: Downtown is so vibrant and exciting, and the community is quite different. It's very inclusive where you have people from all walks of life. So it stands for the values that we stand for.

DEL BARCO: The ICA rehabbed a nearly 13,000-foot space that once was a garment factory. Across the street is the Greyhound bus station. Their neighbors are homeless people on Skid Row and artists living in rehabbed industrial lofts. Not far are working-class Latinos living in east LA.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEL BARCO: Pablo Alvarado works for the National Day Laborer Organization Network. At the opening, he performed with Los Jornaleros del Norte and also sang the praises of the new ICA.

ALVARADO: Art is oftentimes inaccessible to poor people, and it being in the middle of the neighborhood will, I think, wake the interests of people who have never seen these type of things, you know? And I think that the story of this guy, of Martin Ramirez, you know, is the story of many people who live around here.

MARIA REYES RAMIREZ MILLER: (Speaking Spanish).

DEL BARCO: Maria Reyes Ramirez Miller says it means a lot that the new museum decided to open with the artwork of her grandfather. It's not the first time the work has been shown. Ramirez's great-granddaughter Elba Alonso de Ortega says it's important to show it in Los Angeles where his family still lives.

ELBA ALONSO DE ORTEGA: It talks about heartache and bittersweetness and melancholy, and for many of these pieces, we've never seen them before. Many people haven't seen them before, so it's a huge treat. It's a huge honor. Having it here is - it's like he's here with family.

DEL BARCO: And like Martin Ramirez, the new museum is learning to navigate a new home. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.