The concert begins with a piano. The piano might be black or brown or, in one instance, green. It’s never situated on a stage, rather in the middle of the room where the audience can see the instrument from all sides. The performance begins. A man in a suit approaches, raises his arms as if he is about to play then brings an axe down onto the piano’s ivory keys.
You can find recordings of the various iterations of Raphael Montañez Ortiz’s piano destruction concerts on Youtube, sometimes filmed in an official capacity by museums other times by perplexed onlookers through their camera phones. The act of watching these performances doesn’t get any less jarring with each viewing; that cacophonous clang of ivory sending ripping reverberations through the piano’s splintering wood and shredded metal strings. In El Museo Del Barrio’s exhibition, Raphael Montañez Ortiz: A Contextual Retrospective, we see not only documentation of Oritz’s destructive showmanship in the moment but its ruinous aftermath: dismembered skeletal frames and leftover fragments of wood mounted on the floor and walls of the museum’s galleries.
Raphael Ortiz built his career on destruction. He made his early films (also presented here) by chopping up romantic scenes from Hollywood movies and repurposing footage from old Westerns. Ortiz would dismantle other furniture like couches, mattresses, and chairs, too, and reassemble them into sculptures as part of his Archeological Finds series. In the 1970s, he led guerilla performances that terrorized downtown residents. A New York Post clipping elicited a few chuckles from fellow visitors: “At NYU a frightened mother flees with her baby from a ‘guerrilla theater’ reenactment of the Kent State Massacre, complete with students drenched in slaughterhouse blood.” He led meditative rituals in the form of explosive in-gallery performances. One at Cornell College was punctuated by Ortiz repeatedly yelling “peace” as participants wrestled with each other and another resulted in his collaborators drenched in blood collected from slaughterhouses.
Part of the Destructivist movement of the 1960s, Ortiz involved himself in shock-inducing happenings alongside artists like Yoko Ono in the Destruction in Art Symposium of 1966. While some artists produced these violent, divisive works for controversy’s sake, Ortiz took an interest in the revolutionary potential of these acts. The ’60s and ’70s saw more and more Latin-American artists (American-born and not) reacting to socioeconomic and political violences at home and abroad: U.S.-backed violence across Central and South America, the Vietnam War and anti-war protests, the violent policing of Black and Brown communities who were responding to systemic racism and institutional failures through ongoing civil rights movements and direct action led by organizations like the Young Lords and the Black Panthers.
It was during this turbulent time that Ortiz, along with a group of Puerto Rican artists, activists, and community leaders, founded El Museo Del Barrio. El Museo was a direct response to a different kind of destruction — a loss of access to Caribbean and Latin American cultural education — experienced by East Harlem’s children through the public school system and by the continued underrepresentation and exclusion of Latino artists from New York City’s many museums and cultural institutions. In his 1962 manifesto for Destructivism, Ortiz wrote: ”The artist’s sense of destruction will no longer be turned inward in fear. The art that utilizes the destructive processes will purge, for as it gives death, so it will give to life.” And so the institution opened its doors to East Harlem’s Puerto Rican residents in proud defiance of the city government, setting up first in classrooms, storefronts, and even an old fire station, before settling into its permanent home on Museum Mile.
The retrospective, of course, devotes a significant part of its galleries to Ortiz’s destructive oeuvre, but the show’s real strength lies in its curation of works that embodied Ortiz’s values as an art educator, institution-builder, and museum director. Ortiz, who was of Taíno descent, challenged Eurocentric artistic norms and the colonial structures of museums both in his visual work and his writings. One piece, not by Ortiz but by German artist Lothar Baumgarten, features a slideshow of images taken in the Pitt Rivers Museum, a space that’s filled to the brim with artifacts from Indigenous cultures in the outdated spirit of salvage anthropology. There’s no sound, just the occasional flash of text like “consumed,” “ignored,” and “decoded” that speak to the objects’ decontextualization and exotification through the Western museum’s colonial value system. Facing this video are two of Ortiz’s sculptures, pyramids made of colorful feathers. Titled “Maya Zemi I” and “Maya Zemi II” (1975) after a kind of Taíno object meant to house ancestral spirits, the pieces are also placed in conversation with objects from El Museo’s rich pre-Columbian collection, tracing historical lineages to the present that oftentimes remain fragmented and ignored in most American art and natural history museums.
Baumgarten is not the only artist interacting with Ortiz, however. In a show of El Museo’s cultural power, other well-known contemporary Latino artists like Ana Mendieta and Belkis Ayón join Ortiz in the gallery. Also included are posters, fliers, and archival photographs from artist-led protests and organizing Ortiz participated in through groups like Taller Boricua and the Puerto Rican Art Workers Coalition. For Ortiz, the sharing of Caribbean, Latin American, and Indigenous art wasn’t just the static display of objects to tell a cultural story but also a dynamic engagement with the socioeconomic impacts shaping the community outside of the museum. In an interview for an exhibition at the Jersey City Museum, Ortiz notes, “ My idea is that ethnicity is important, but that you can’t think of ethnicity without understanding the role of disenfranchisement and class, that’s all.”
Calls to decolonize museums across America and Europe are nothing new. Although the Internet and social media platforms have certainly brought an unprecedented amount of attention to the issue in recent years, this retrospective is a reminder that artists, museum workers, and educators like Oritz have been demanding the right to respectful education about non-Western cultures and mobilizing for the equitable inclusion of artists of color in institutions for generations.
Debates and dialogues are happening now both inside and outside of the museum. Groups like Decolonize This Place have spearheaded protests and teach-ins to challenge museums’ collecting practices and call out trustees’ profits made from the abuse and exploitation of marginalized communities. Initiatives like Change The Museum have enabled museum staff to speak up about injustices they’ve experienced from enduring racist behavior to workplace discrimination and pay inequity. Many are seriously reconsidering their relationship to their local communities and reevaluating how they welcome in visitors and represent more diverse voices through their curation and programming. As scholar and curator Elena Gonzalez notes in a piece about the need for anti-racist curatorial strategies, “Just as exhibitions have been used to produce systemic injustice across our societies, they can also be used to create change.” Museums can no longer hide behind a facade of neutrality to avoid public accountability or act as islands of culture untouched by changing times.
How far museums will go in their radical restructuring and revaluation of museum operations? It is, perhaps, an unanswerable question, or at least one we won’t fully know until years from now when we will see the long term impacts of special collecting initiatives, more equitable employment opportunities and labor standards, and the implementation of new programs and museum-wide policies. Take, for instance, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Latino that will soon join the country’s constellation of Latinx-focused museums. It’s an ongoing process, one of promising moments and undone progress.
When asked about his performances, Raphael Montañez Ortiz described the experience as engaging in a kind of “hand-to-hand combat.” The fight for change never ends, but that shouldn’t stop us from continuing to push forward and dismantle our way into a better future for our institutions. It’s become clear that the status quo in our museums is not enough, it has never been enough. We will build something beautiful from the museum’s ruins.