Los Angeles

Sounds in Oaxacalifornia: Gala Porras-Kim Investigates Indigenous Tones

Notes after G. M. Cowan 1, 2012.
In partnership with 18th Street Arts Center
18th Street Arts Center is an artists' residency program that provokes public dialogue through contemporary art-making.

By Sara Schnadt and Pilar Tompkins Rivas

Getting to know Oaxacan Los Angeles is more than sampling molé negro and chapulines at Guelaguetza restaurant. Within the expansive Mexican population in L.A., residents hailing from the southern state of Oaxaca are estimated at anywhere between 50,000 and 250,000 according to the 2007 overview of Indigenous Oaxacan Communities in California by the California Institute for Rural Studies. That group in and of itself is widely diverse and encompasses families whose principal languages are Zapotec, Mixe, Mixtec and Triqui. With most of the population living in the city's west side neighborhoods of Mar Vista, Santa Monica, Venice and Culver City, the aforementioned report also states that "limited Spanish skills and lack of written indigenous languages are some of the most significant barriers to outreach among this population."

The indigenous Zapotec language from the Tlacolula Valley in Oaxaca, Mexico is tonal in nature. Word content and semantic inferences are communicated partially through intonation and, consequently, are also understood through whistling. In the colonial period, the whistled version of the language became a tool of resistance to Spanish authority. Existing as an exclusively oral language until recently, Zapotec is today an endangered language under the social and political stratification of indigenous groups in Mexico.

Mapping Tones (Zapotec dialects in Oaxaca), 2012 (detail.) Gala Porras-Kim.<br />
Graphite, ink, tape, pins, post it, paper, wood. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist

In the exhibition "Prospecting Notes About Sounds" now on view at 18th Street Arts Center, contemporary artist Gala Porras-Kim researches Zapotec culture, its tonal language, and the variations of dialects contained within Oaxaca. She examines whistling as means of carrying hidden transcripts and as a strategy of dissent. Included in the exhibition is the LP "Whistling and Language Transfiguration," a collection of regional stories translated into whistling as a contemporary media format and artistic context.

Porras-Kim makes work that questions how knowledge is acquired, tests the potential of the art object to function as an epistemological tool outside of its traditional, art historical context, and challenges the possibilities and limits of learning about the cultures that surround us. Her work can be perceived as both aesthetic and utilitarian, capable of serving as a means for an outsider to access information about an unfamiliar culture.

We sat down to lunch at the Oaxacan restaurant Axiote on Sawtelle near Santa Monica Boulevard to ask the artist about her project.

Whistling and Language Transfiguration, 2012. Gala Porras-Kim.<br />
LP album, ed. 100 unique cyanotype prints. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Your work includes sound, record production, ethnography, language study, and sculpture, among other things. How do you think about your work and describe it to others?

I think of my research as a sculptural process, where you make a work using information from different fields. Then once you have all these elements that inform each other the physical production begins. I think of what medium is best suited for what I am trying to communicate and it always begins with research in one specific field, until I find a different one that is more efficient. I am interested in translation, sounds, and the meanings that are produced not just as a result of the inherent transaction, but I also consider this shifting process as the work itself. I say it is interdisciplinary work, because it belongs in many categories but cannot really exist just within one.

Map of Indigenous languages in Mexico, 1964.

What background research went into your current project, Prospecting Notes About Sounds?

In 2010, I wanted to make a project where tones alone could be used to communicate, and make tools or strategies for learning about and navigating through a foreign language. I began researching tonal languages, which led to finding Zapotec. I then spent a year and a half at the UCLA Latin American Studies Department learning the Zapotec language with Felipe Lopez, who told me about how the language came to be whistled during the colonial era.

Read more about Mr. Lopez's class here.

I learned there about Zapotec's linguistic struggle which then began a period of research of dying languages and political diglossia within the indigenous community in Oaxaca. Domination and the Arts of Resistance by James Scott was also a resource wherein I discovered strategies for language revitalization. To produce the vinyl record I made for this project I investigated different whistling techniques, as well as learned how to manipulate sound files and how to produce an LP. Additionally, I went around Los Angeles, mainly to Oaxacan restaurants, to listen to and be around the Oaxacan community.

For Learning Zapotec Verbs, 2012 (detail.) | Gala Porras-Kim.<br />
Wood, paper, graphite, wire, stones. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Who are some of the local resources that you relied on to learn more about the Zapotec language?

UCLA's Young Research Library; Felipe Lopez who taught Zapotec was a very helpful resource; Frente Indigena de Organizaciones Binacionales; Federación Oaxaqueña de Comunidades y Organizaciones Indígenas en California (FOCOICA); the Mexican government's website for the Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas; the Oaxacalifornia guide from Cultural Survival was a source; and also "El Oaxaqueño," a Oaxacan newspaper that stopped circulating in 2012.

I've also made a map of some Oaxacan spots in L.A.

View Oaxaca in LA in a larger map

Event: Mole festival, October 7, 2012

Why is the Zapotec language important to you - and important in general?

It is important to me because Oaxaca is one of the most linguistically diverse places on earth, where there is a socio-political struggle that is manifested by the deterioration of these languages. This is where a linguistic colonization is happening, and where strategies of dissent could actually be implemented. It is important in general because the world's knowledge is contained within its languages. Where else do we find what the word is for the second clipping of an agave plant after it has been harvested? I didn't even know there was any difference between the two. But there is a specific regional knowledge that is contained within the words of each village that needs to be available.

Notes after G. M. Cowan 10, 2012. Gala Porras-Kim. Graphite on paper, post it, wood | Photo: Courtesy of the artist

How do you see your work bridging the worlds of ethnography, linguistics, colonial politics and artmaking?

I've presented the project in various fields because the content of the work belongs in all these categories. The form that it is presented in might not be familiar, so it requires a little more patience at the beginning because it might feel out of place at first. I met with historians, linguists, artists and activists, and they all contributed with their conversations to the development of specific parts of the work reflecting their specialties.

For Learning Zapotec Verbs, 2012. Gala Porras-Kim.<br />
Wood, paper, graphite, wire, stones. |  Photo: Courtesy of the artist

What is an ideal outcome for this project?

To be presented and used in Oaxaca!

Gala Porras-Kim at Axiote restaurant.


Gala Porras-Kim was born in Bogotá, Colombia and lives and works in Los Angeles. She received her BA from UCLA (2007), MFA from the California Institute of the Arts (2009), and attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (2010). Her work has been included in exhibitions at Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles; Vincent Price Art Museum, Monterey Park, CA; La Central, Bogotá, Colombia; FOXRIVER, Singapore and Dobaebacsa HQ, Seoul, Korea.

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Top Image: Notes after G. M. Cowan 1, 2012. Gala Porras-Kim. Graphite on paper, post it, wood. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

About the Author

Sara Schnadt is a curator, technology project designer and new media artist.
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