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Hispanic, Latino culture on display as Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art showcases Kansas City-area artists

Isaac Tapia and Rodrigo Alvarez
Posted at 7:10 AM, Oct 09, 2023

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The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art will display a new exhibit called "A Layered Presence or Una Presencia Estraficada," highlighting 22 Latin-American artists in the Kansas City area.

Two of the featured artists are Rodrigo Alvarez and Isaac Tapia.

Rodrigo and Tapia have collaborated on several murals seen across the city, including the Crossroads, Westport and the new KCI terminal.

"Art is my savior," Rodrigo said. "I feel like I was always destined to do art, but I wondered 'Why am I not breathing? Why am I not happy? Why am I not tuned in with me?' and then I started doing art and I woke up. Art is my savior."

For Tapia, art tells stories.

"It's storytelling," Tapia said. "Leaving behind something for people. They get to see it. They get to experience it that way."

Soon, they'll be sharing a part of their story inside the Nelson-Atkins' new exhibit.

The exhibit, which opens Oct. 14, "addresses personal and national identities, socio-political issues and healing."

Alvarez moved to the United States from Uruguay when he was 14 years old.

"I went to Paseo High School and that was majorly known for its arts," Alvarez said. "I’m currently a DACA recipient but prior to that I was limited to where my education took me, or that’s how I felt. And so I worked as a mechanic for almost a decade and I had the opportunity to still be in tune with the machinery that allows me to create. So I was creating at work. I was still sculpting with metal at a paint booth at a mechanic shop."

The welder and muralist says he still works on certain pieces in his backyard and basement.

Tapia moved from Mexico City, Mexico, to Kansas City when he was nine years old.

"My mom brought me with my sister," Tapia said. "My sister and I got picked up from California, were brought to Kansas City and we’ve been here since 2000. I'm a DACA recipient as well."

The pieces that will be on display are dedicated to their family.

"This is for my parents, my mom and my stepdad," Tapia said. "The piece is about all of the sacrifices they made for me to be here. The painting is basically about them being here at the moment with where they are, but at the same time, a little bit of a reminder of the immigrant story."

Alvarez's piece, about maternal sacrifice, is dedicated to his mother.

"My mom has absolutely given everything that she had for all six of us," Alvarez said. "When we first got here to the United States, I heard her cry and I knew that part of her was dead. I knew that she had given something to us that'd she’d never get in return, and that is that connection with her mom, her dad and everyone that she left behind."

Alvarez says he owes everything to his mom.

"If she wasn’t there with me, or if she hadn’t given so much for me, I wouldn’t be anywhere," Alvarez said. "I would definitely tell her how much her sacrifices meant for me. I would tell her that it counted."

He says while creating the piece for the Nelson Atkins exhibit, he thought of spiders.

"How they start dissolving their organs in order to feed their offspring," Alvarez said. "I know it’s very morbid to say... no one sees a spider and says, 'oh I wonder what mom's doing.' But for me, it’s the act of giving it all to her kids that made me represent her in such a wonderful space."

A space these local artists will share together; artists who have become family.

"I feel like Rico’s more of a brother to me, more family to me then a friend," Tapia said. "I don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing right now without Rico being there."

While the pieces aren't for the eyes to see just yet, when people do visit the exhibit, their advice is to take your time.

"Take your time in looking and listening to each individual artist. We all have different stories. We all have different backgrounds and we all come from different places," Tapia said. "We're both DACA recipients and everything, but our stories are still a little bit different."

Tapia and Alvarez are also apart of MASA, a collective local Latin artists started and currently showing at the KCKCC Gallery.

Tapia is also Mattie Rhodes 2023 Dia de los Muertos featured artist. His artwork is on a Boulevard can right now and it’s going to be sold and $5 will be given back to Mattie Rhodes.

Both Alvarez and Tapia will be featured in a PBS mini-documentary, 'We are Latinos II'. It'll broadcast Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023, at 7 p.m. on Channel 19.1. 

Tapia and Alvarez are two of 22 artists who will be featured in the Nelson Atkins' newest exhibit. It is free and runs from Oct. 14, 2023, through Sept. 8 of next year.