Visual Clave explores the evolution of Latin music album cover art over the last 50 years, paying critical attention to issues of identity and aesthetics through depictions of Hispanic people and cultures, with an emphasis on historical context and the unsung graphic artists who helped present Latin music — and its attendant socio-cultural themes — to the world. Taking inspiration from Pablo Yglesias’ book Cocinando: 50 Years of Latin Album Cover Art, this exhibition weaves a compelling narrative through the display of over 50 albums that range from 78 RPM album jackets from the 1930s and 40s to vinyl LP covers from today’s digital era where vinyl is experiencing a new vogue. Visual Clave proposes that the album cover is not only an invitation to dance, dine, and romance, but is also fine art worthy of serious consideration. The exhibition’s premise is that the record jacket is not just an ephemeral mass-produced object to be relegated to the trash heap of a bygone era, but rather a unique 12 by 12 inch window onto a culture’s soul.
The concept of “clave” is essential to understanding Afro-Antillean popular music forms and the dance culture that surrounds it, and is therefore a perfect metaphor for describing Latin album cover art. Clave is the African-derived 2-3 or 3-2 beat used in all genres from the Cuban son to the Colombian cumbia, the Dominican merengue, and the Mexican son jarocho. It is also literally a percussion instrument (two sticks beaten together to mark the clave beat). While the origins of the use of the word “clave” to describe this key rhythmic ingredient in Latin music remain in dispute, two linguistic elements in the term’s etymology point us to its central place in the Hispanic musical lexicon and its attendant role as a marker of cultural heritage, for in Spanish clave also means “key” (with multiple definitions: a ‘musical key’, a tool used to open something, as a ‘code’ to solve a mystery, and to denote something essential). The word ‘clavo’ in Spanish means nail or peg (hence, something used to join together, as the clave holds together all of Afro-Caribbean music together), from the Latin clavus, and it’s not a big leap from clavo to clave, especially when it also means “I nailed” when used as a verb in the past tense, as in “Yo clavé el clavo” (I nailed the nail”). It has been posited that the original clave percussion sticks were taken from the Cuban hardwood pegs used to hold together ships where enslaved men once worked in the harbors of New World port cities. These sticks were beaten to mark time and were used along with wooden packing crate drums after hours for dockside percussion, song, and dance rumba sessions, where music and lyrics from Africa were combined with Spanish counterparts. Whatever the case, these root meanings of the word help make the clave such a layered and nuanced term, for these simple, humble hardwood sticks trace the entire arc of the monumental Diasporic migrations from Europe and Africa to the so-called New World and back again and the various cultures brought together by this shared Latino/a history.
Charlie Rosario wall and entrance
It is this fundamental cultural essence, with its roots in Afro-Caribbean culture, that Visual Clave picks up on, offering a unique way of studying the evolution of attitudes and notions of culture, race, ethnicity, place, gender, and sexuality through the graphic presentation of Latin music in both domestic and international markets. Curatorial themes of transnationalism, spirituality, social justice, youth culture, immigration, civil rights, sexuality and sexism, race and racism, and border culture, as well as markers of identity like food, traditional pastimes, death and celebrations, are raised through the presentation of album covers specifically chosen to inspire debate and reflection. Many covers in Latin music seem to be about one subject on the surface but upon deeper analysis reveal often opposing or contradictory narratives embedded beneath.
Looking into the gallery space from Charlie Rosario wall
Much like the intricate polyrhythms found in Latin music that can at times seem cacophonous, intricate, or jumbled to the uninitiated, these images taken from salsa and other popular Latin music weave interlocking counter-currents that show not only the mixing of races and cultures at the root of Hispanic societies and histories, but also reflect the inherent complexities and contradictions of Latino/as living “on the hyphen” (as in ‘Cuban-American’ or ‘Mexican-American’) in the USA, a society within a society that is itself made up of many different and often conflicting elements.
LP walls - main themed wall and designer wall
In addition to more obscure or provocative covers with social sub-texts, this exhibit also includes some well-loved examples of popular classics sure to inspire feelings of nostalgia in older viewers who might have collected or danced to the music “back in the day”. These iconic images may also conjure recognition in younger viewers who recognize favorites of their parents or grand parents’ generation. Nostalgia, as well as strategically placing cultural markers of an idealized home on album covers (‘everything was so much better back home’ goes the lament) has been a very potent tool in marketing Latin music, especially for immigrant populations in the US. And though much of the cover art here speaks to Latinos on a deeper level in most cases, it is also fair to say a good portion display universal concerns that require no cultural allegiance or prior knowledge of Latin music and cultures to be understood, and in this way we can see these ephemeral products as touching us all in a perhaps unexpectedly meaningful way. On the other end of the spectrum, the show also includes examples of LP jacket art chosen purely based on the merit of their design aesthetics alone. But even in the case of a seemingly purely aesthetic graphic cover in the Latin music genre, the use of color, shape, texture, and line can sometimes take on a double significance due to underlying cultural markers, sometimes positive and sometimes negative, that may not be readily obvious to the casual observer.
Facing the entrance, main themed wall
Many of these album covers have fascinating stories behind their creation and this show focuses partly on the rich cultural bed of activity in New York where much of this music was nurtured, developed, and came to fruition. Initially in the 1940s and 50s much of the album cover art generated to sell Latin music in New York was controlled by the white Americans who owned the record labels or worked in advertizing, promotion, and printing, and therefore often reflected their un-informed concepts of Latino culture, many of these notions being full of clichés, misconceptions, or prejudices. In early decades, Latin music (and its audience) was depicted as dance-obsessed, wanton, exotic, savage, sexy, ‘other’ and foreign. Of course much of this marketing angle was a calculated move, emanating from the basic concept that “sex sells” with an emphasis on the exploitation of the female body and the exorcism of repressed desires that was part and parcel of the prevalent male-dominated sexist attitudes of the Atomic Era, and reinforced by the machismo inherent in the Hispanic culture of the time. This sexism in Latin music packaging is a legacy unfortunately still present even today and was certainly prevalent during salsa’s heyday in the 1970s and 80s.
Main themed LP wall
However, once the Latin music industry in New York was taken over and run largely by Latinos (or assimilated Anglos) in the 1960s and 70s, the visual presentation of salsa became more of a “Latin Thing” (to quote a particular movie and soundtrack title on Fania Records from 1972, Our Latin Thing) and that is when the level of design really began to reflect some of the earlier mentioned themes of civil rights, cultural pride, and what it meant to be brought up in the unique cultural environment of el barrio y la calle (the ethnic neighborhood and the street). These themes were approached with firsthand knowledge and sensitivity at times, and at others with a satirical attitude bent on subverting some of the more negative depictions of Latinos/as as bad, stupid or ‘other’.
Themed wall: Design; Vintage 78, 10-inch and 45 Covers (1940s-50s); Dance
Through Visual Clave the viewer will become familiar with the mainly New York-born and based designers from the salsa era, and will learn the names of the graphic artists who labored largely behind the scenes or in obscurity: Chico Álvarez, Ely Besalel, Drago, Dominique, José Expósito, Warren Flagler, Pam Lessero, Ron Levine, Lee Marshall, Abel Navarro, Charlie Rosario, Yogui Rosario, Izzy Sanabria, Jorge Vargas, Angelo Velázquez, Walter Velez, and others. In addition to examples of each of these designers’ LP layouts, the viewer will also have the unique opportunity to see some of the original art that was used for the LP packaging, some of it never seen by the general public. In this way one can see the difference between the mass produced end product and the original artistic vision of the piece’s creator.
Original designer art: We-2 Graphics; Izzy Sanabria; Walter Velez; Jorge Vargas
In particular the exhibit spotlights Israel “Izzy” Sanabria (aka Mr. Salsa) and his creative partner in the design firm We-2 Graphics, artist Walter Velez. We-2 Graphics made a conscious effort to play with stereotypes and subvert prejudice through parody and absurdist humor, developing a look they termed the “Deluxe Aesthetic”. The team utilized not only album covers to this end, but also a magazine called Latin NY as well as concert posters and television programming. With Sanabria as art director and Velez as primary artist, We-2 Graphics found inspiration in comic books, pop art, Surrealism (Salvador Dali in particular), psychedelic youth culture, gangster movies, and nationalist Puerto Rican imagery, which provided a framework for putting a brand new spin on the visual presentation of salsa at the time.
Original designer art: Charlie Rosario
In addition, graphic designer and illustrator Ron Levine (sometimes in conjunction with photographer Lee Marshal) brought his non-Latino experience in the rock and roll world as well as fashion advertising to further change and challenge notions of what salsa “should” look like through his unprecedented introduction of fantasy and science fiction imagery and costume set pieces. In this way he liberated the scene from decades of conformist expectations and accepted norms.
Rei Alvarez; Izzy Sanabria
And finally, artists Charlie Rosario and his cousin Yogi Rosario, as well as Ernesto “Chico” Álvarez and Ely Besalel, pushed the boundaries of traditional Latin music iconography by thinking “outside the box” and utilizing modern fine art techniques learned in art school (including mixed media and collage) to completely transform the notion of what a commercial Latin record could look like.
Ely Besalel; Chico Alvarez
Themed LP wall: Barrio; Oriza; Revolución
First group of LPs: Gallery of Design, Shape & Color
Latinos In The Movies; Ely Besalel; Henry Fiol; Chico Alvarez
Ely Besalel; Henry Fiol; Chico Alvarez; C. Rosario; Jorge Vargas
Chico Alvarez; Charlie Rosario; Izzy Sanabria
Izzy Sanabria; Various Designers
Wall of Designers LPs
Original out-takes and LPs: Ely Besalel
Artistic Process: Chico Alvarez
Thanks to Andrew Greto for his excellent photos of the installation!