6HWbNHN-show-poster2x3-c7tgE2Y.png

Artbound

Start watching
MJ250sC-show-poster2x3-Bflky7i.png

Tending Nature

Start watching
Southland Sessions

Southland Sessions

Start watching
Earth Focus

Earth Focus

Start watching
5LQmQJY-show-poster2x3-MRWBpAK.jpg

Reporter Roundup

Start watching
City Rising

City Rising

Start watching
Lost LA

Lost LA

Start watching
Member
Your donation supports our high-quality, inspiring and commercial-free programming.
Support Icon
Learn about the many ways to support KCET.
Support Icon
Contact our Leadership, Advancement, Membership and Special Events teams.

Sounds in Oaxacalifornia: Gala Porras-Kim Investigates Indigenous Tones

Support Provided By

In partnership with 18th Street Arts Center: 18th Street Arts Center is an artists' residency program that provokes public dialogue through contemporary art-making.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

What is an ideal outcome for this project?

To be presented and used in Oaxaca!

Bio:

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.

Dig this story? Sign up for our newsletter to get unique arts & culture stories and videos from across Southern California in your inbox. Also, follow Artbound on FacebookTwitter, and Youtube.

Support Provided By
Read More
A portrait of Larry Baza from shoulders up. He's wearing thick, tortoise shell glasses, a beige plaid suit with yellow details and a gold tie. Baza is smiling and looking off to the side.

The Legacy of Larry Baza, San Diego Activist and Arts Advocate

A prominent advocate for the arts, BIPOC and LGBTQ causes, Larry Baza served on San Diego's Commission for Arts and Culture and was later appointed to the California Arts Council in 2016.
CityofGhosts_Season1_Episode5_00_13_53_04_1778127.jpg

Animated Series 'City of Ghosts' Explores L.A.'s Rich Histories for Kids

Award-winning animator Elizabeth Ito explores L.A.'s rich, diverse history in a hybrid documentary and animated series, "City of Ghosts."
Kid Congo Powers in the desert

Gente from La Puente: Underground Punk Icon Kid Congo Powers Still Rocks

Kid Congo Powers is a Brown, queer, underground punk glam rock guitar legend who grew up in the East L.A. suburb of La Puente, California. His work over decades with worldwide bands places him firmly in the L.A. and international punk music scene. He returns to the spotlight with a new album, video and even a line of eyewear.