How Made in L.A. Forged a Kinship with the City’s Arts Community

Curators of the biennial, Diana Nawi and Pablo José Ramírez, speak on their collaboration and what it means to share community in an ever-expanding art world

BY Diana Nawi, Pablo José Ramírez AND Terence Trouillot in Interviews | 03 NOV 23

Terence Trouillot Tell me about the title of the exhibition, ‘Acts of Living’. I know it’s derived from a Noah Purifoy quote inscribed on a plaque at the Watts Towers in Los Angeles. How did you agree on this title?

Pablo José Ramírez Titles for shows are always a challenge because you’re trying to keep it earnest in terms of what kind of show you’re envisioning. There is always this thing where you want to communicate some synthesis of an idea, but at the same time you want to be flexible and wide ranging enough for the title to be porous, and friendly to everyone. We floated many ideas around.

We knew from the beginning that we didn’t want to do a thematic show. Made in L.A. is a very particular biennial. It’s very specific to this city, but Los Angeles is also an international hub. We felt that the title had to somehow reflect that spirit and ethos. So, one of the first things we did, when I was travelling back and forth between Berlin and Los Angeles last year, was visit the Watts Towers in South LA.

Diana Nawi We had a studio visit in South LA with the artist Teresa Tolliver, who is in the show.

Left: Pablo José Ramírez; Right: Diana Nawi. Courtesy: Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Left: Pablo José Ramírez; Right: Diana Nawi. Courtesy: Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

PJR Yes and afterwards, we stopped at the Watts Towers. It was my first time there and we had this nice, almost revelatory moment. This urban altar was just fascinating. We knew that there was something about the Watts Towers and the show; some connection between the two. And then we were thinking about the Noah Purifoy inscription at the Towers: ‘One does not have to be a visual artist to utilize creative potential. Creativity can be an act of living, a way of life, and a formula for doing the right thing.’ 

The quote opened a path to unleashing the idea that artists do things because they need to; this will to create that’s so ever present in this city. It’s something that we were both very much invested in.

DN The other thing about titling exhibitions is: how do you hold so much? The point is that you want this varied exhibition. You want to represent many kinds of artwork, and many different themes. But how do you hold all that under a single idea? I think the meaningfulness of creative work is what ended up unifying the breadth of practices in this biennial.

Tying the project into specific Los Angeles art histories feels like an important orientation for us, as well. Past curators of the biennial have always paid tribute to Los Angeles in some way. For us, it felt important to highlight Purifoy’s legacy, which is now part of mainstream art history. But there was this stewardship, care and preservation that had to happen within a community – scholars, curators, and friends and colleagues of the artists – to make that happen.

Esteban Ramón Pérez: I Can Feel Myself Turning Into Dust, 2021
Esteban Ramón Pérez, I Can Feel Myself Turning Into Dust, 2021. Photograph: Elon Schoenholz

TT I want to pick up on this idea of Los Angeles’ art history and what the show brings within that context. In some part, this biennial, like many before it, is looking at LA’s past through a corrective lens.

DN We should start by noting that this is not an art historical show, in the sense that it’s not research-driven in that way – it’s not an art historical corrective in and of itself. But in many ways, the artists in this show have been part of or have inherited the legacy of those broader art and cultural histories. So, within the works themselves there is a manifestation of those histories, sometimes many of them at once.

TT Can you both speak to the research that went into organizing this biennial. I know Diana you’re originally from California and went to school here in LA, but Pablo, before Made in LA, you had very little experience with the city.

PJR The Hammer has had this model with the biennial where they have one curator that has a more organic relationship to the city and another curator that comes from abroad, or from another city. That’s been the formula. In our case, Diana has spent many years in LA. I am from Guatemala, originally, and before moving to LA I was living in Berlin. I did feel like an outsider when I first landed here. But the Central American community here is huge. I was suddenly speaking way more Spanish than I did in Berlin and eating all this amazing food.

It forced me to think again about Guatemala and the many diasporas in the US. In terms of the biennial, one thing that I see differently now than I did a year and a half ago, is this model of conceptualizing a biennial that is so specific to a city, about one place. Keeping that ethos alive speaks to larger issues that are not just about regionalism.

Akinsanya Kambon: Equestrian Queen, 2021 Photo credit: Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Akinsanya Kambon, Equestrian Queen, 2021. Courtesy: the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

DN It’s also a very tight timeline. A biennial is quick. And it’s a show that’s process-based; you do 200 visits and go from there, bringing different perspectives to the experience. My approach to this show begins with a relationship to the arts community here, which given the amount of studio visits, given the conversations, given the way that the show is received publicly, feels like an important starting point. And that’s broadly defined: different kinds of practitioners and educators and practicing artists and retired artists, all the cultural workers, all of us who do this for a living that form this huge, extended network. The project resonates out into the larger world, but it’s grounded here in that way.

PJR In many cases, biennials and museums can hardly build community. It’s just that the infrastructure of the art world is sometimes so disconnected from the lives of people, from the lives of the artists. And exhibitions and biennials can be very alienating spaces. One thing that we have on our side is the fact that we need to do serious research when we do these kinds of projects.

DN There is this continuity and relatedness to our lives because you do build community yourself as a social network, over long periods of time, but also project by project. The term is so often weaponized or instrumentalized by institutions as an abstract idea. For Pablo and me, there’s a literalness, a tangibility.

Page Person, "a person", 2019
Page Person, “a person”, 2019. Courtesy: the artist and Hammer Museum; photograph: Isodoro Quezada-Ramirez

TT Who are the artists in the show that you’re most excited by? Or, put differently, who are some of the artists that have surprised you the most from their contribution?

DN We love all of our children equally but, for instance, Page Person’s in on our minds today. Her work in the show is this incredible body of paintings and assemblage that are really an outgrowth of a long-standing practice that is very tied to her life, her performance practice, her studio-based work, and her existence as a trans person in the world. The body appears throughout as both subject and a site for humour, defiance, pleasure and pain. The multivalent relationship between performance and object making, and the formation of one’s community and life around their practice, is emblematic of some important threads in the exhibition.  

Pippa Garner, Tongue-Texting, n.d.
Pippa Garner, Tongue-Texting, n.d. Courtesy: the artist and Hammer Museum; photograph: Paul Salveson

PJR We’ve talked many times about Pippa Garner. I was just very impressed by Pippa because I think that by getting to know her work, I also came to understand LA a little bit more. She’s 81 now but her work continues to feel cutting edge. She has these amazing drawings, but also is resistant, to some extent, to the commodification of her work. She has all these instructions to create these absurd objects, which she herself will not author. Anyone can create them. She’s hilarious. 

I’m also very excited about Ishi Glinsky’s work. Again, not favourites. I’m just mentioning some artists that pop to mind. Ishi is doing this collaboration with other Native American artists. He’s inviting Teresa Baker and others to create this regalian assemblage of different objects that are going on top of each other, eventually resembling a huge Scream [1996–2023] mask [Warn the Animals, 2023].

Ishi Glinsky, Inertia—Warn the Animals, 2023
Ishi Glinsky, Inertia—Warn the Animals, 2023. Courtesy: the artist and Hammer Museum; photograph: Charles White

DN It’s a monumental sculpture.

PJ It’s a very ambitious piece. You just must believe and have faith in the artist.

DN We should say that there are different sections within the exhibition. One is very painting-heavy and very much thinking about landscape and site and memory. And that ranges from somebody like Paige Jiyoung Moon who’s doing these fine detailed paintings, to Victor Estrada’s psychedelic landscapes. There’s a section dedicated to the body in relation to performance and queerness and transformation and humour, and a section that thinks more overtly about indigeneity in terms of visual cultures and ways of making. But many artists could move fluidly between sections, whether there’s overlap in the use of materials or in subject matter.

Victor Estrada, Big Rock Candy Mountain, 2017
Victor Estrada, Big Rock Candy Mountain, 2017. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Martin Elder

TT Can you speak to this idea of collaboration? I know from talking to Diana previously and hearing you guys speak now, that you both have a very productive and seamless working relationship. Can you tell me how that experience has been for both of you?

DN We didn’t know each other before. We had a couple of good mutual friends and colleagues, but we had never met or been in the same space. Early on, Pablo and I went and met with people that are important to me in terms of the arts community here in LA. And it felt, for me, easy to share community with Pablo and to invite him into these networks and friendships, and to see the ways in which he expanded and interpreted these relationships from his perspective. That’s the point of this collaboration in some way, to create and build on dialogue.

PJR I guess we were lucky because it’s arranged by the Hammer. Sometimes, I guess, it doesn’t work. And that’s fine. But in our case, it worked well. We might have different opinions about art and artists at some specific moments, but in general, I do think that we share a way of doing things. That’s important because in the end, you must enjoy the process. And I think that we have.

Main image: Devin Reynolds, Happy Days, 2020. Courtesy: Residency Gallery; photograph: Elon Schoenholz

Diana Nawi works as an independent curator based in Los Angeles. She She is a guest curator and curatorial advisor for The Contemporary Austin and serves as a curatorial consultant for Orange Barrel Media. She is the co-curator of Made in L.A. 2023: 'Acts of Living.' In 2022, alongside Naima J. Keith, she was co-artistic director of Prospect.5: 'Yesterday we said tomorrow'.

Pablo José Ramírez is curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angles and co-curator of the Made in L.A. 2023: 'Acts of Living'. He was formerly the adjunct curator of First Nations and Indigenous art at Tate Modern. His work revisits post-colonial societies to consider race, indigeneity and forms of racial occlusion.

Terence Trouillot is senior editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.