‘Year of Wonders’

Art exhibit grows out of local protest work

By Bridgette M. Redman

For Elana Mann, her artwork and civic duties cannot be separated. 

Last summer, she co-founded — with Phung Huynh, Will Hoadley-Brill and Stefani Williams — the Anti-Racism Committee (ARC) of South Pasadena. 

She also continues to make folk instruments of protest, some of which are on display through July 2 at Santa Monica’s 18th Street Arts Center in an exhibition called “A Year of Wonders, Redux.” It features sonic sculptures, a video, and works on paper. They have commonalities — they connect people and amplify voices of protest. 

“My artwork and my community organizing are intrinsically linked,” Mann says. 

“I can’t separate them. Sometimes they are combined into one project; sometimes they are on parallel tracks.”

Mann began creating sono-sculptures in 2014, delving into works related to the time period in which they are made. For this production, Mann focused on politics, the pandemic and passionate social movements. 

“The body of work that is at 18th Street really comes out of the past year of the rise in protest movements, BLM and getting involved in anti-racism work locally in my hometown of Pasadena,” Mann says.

Activism in South Pasadena

The grassroots ARC tries to heal the deep wounds of systemic racism in Pasadena. The 70-some members work toward racial justice in government policy, public safety, education, housing, art and community services. 

Last year, their activities included hosting a community listening session with the South Pasadena Police Department, supporting local anti-racist arts initiatives — including a Black Lives Matter mural to be painted on city hall — and successfully pushing for an investigation of the police chief.

This year, the group worked on multiple citywide projects, including anti-racist lawn signs, a city council acknowledgement of South Pasadena’s racist past through a “Sundown Town” resolution, pressuring the city to hire a new anti-racist city manager and police chief and sponsoring volunteer events that assist the homeless.

ARC is planning a vigil to commemorate the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder. They’ll continue their call for greater racial equity in the schools.

Developing an artistic persona

Mann says her work began with the act of listening, a theme that is infused in her pieces. It started with a deep immersion in oral traditions as a Jew.

“I grew up in a very observant household, and Judaism is an oral culture,” Mann says. “The most important prayer starts with the word ‘listen.’ There’s even rules against visual representation. So much of my childhood was sonically oriented, not visual.”

As she developed her skills as a young artist, she mixed performance ideas into her work. Through natural evolution, she incorporated her background and interests. 

Her sculptures about the art of listening led her to antique listening objects and old-school cheerleader megaphones. 

“They are also listening devices,” Mann says. “You can receive sound through them. They amplify sound, and before there were electronic hearing devices, there were ear horns that were megaphone shaped. I was researching that and making art about that. Then I realized these can also amplify sound if I speak through them. I started making these modified megaphones and then just branching out to other kinds of instruments that could be used. It was a many-year evolution.”

Her instruments have been used in operas and by nationally and internationally recognized musicians. However, she ensures they are simple enough that anyone can use them even if they are not a trained musician.

“I’m not going to make something that I can’t play myself,” Mann says. “They’re all very easy to use, but a musician can use them in a different way than say I could use them — just like a trained singer could use the megaphone in a way that I could never do — but I can bring my instruments to a street protest or a demonstration and use them, and they’re really effective in that way.”

Her works are shown in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world. In 2020, she was a city of Los Angeles Individual Artist Fellow, and in the fall, she was a 2020 International Artist-in-Residence at Artspace San Antonio.

Pairing folk music traditions with protest

Since the exhibit’s opening, Mann has been working on a new project called “Let Suffering Speak.” It is derived from folk music traditions that are tied to histories of resistance and liberation.

“In 2018, I began to research folk instruments along with folk music traditions and their connections to political struggles,” Mann says. 

“I discovered a homemade six-person protest horn in Claremont, California, interviewed a craftsman of a Turkish folk instrument called the ‘saz,’ and researched ‘Rara,’ music associated with the Haitian revolution.”

She plans to further develop this line of inquiry, all a part of encouraging the act of radical listening and emboldening voices to speak up and speak out against injustice.

This work is not new for her. In 2017, in connection with the Women’s March, she began a street performance troupe called Take a Stand Marching Band.

“The project involves a revolving coalition of people who play my sculptural instruments, bringing creativity to the intense and often draining work of street demonstrations,” Mann says. 

The project’s sculptures have been shown in multiple solo and group exhibitions. Musicians have used them on stage.

Huge horn stresses communal speech

Dominating the sonic sculpture exhibition at 18th Street are the sculptural folk instruments. They include “Our Work is Never Done (Unfinished Business),” which is modeled on the “Mega-kazoo-horn” that legendary folk music figure Charles Chase made based on an instrument his grandfather, a folk musician and communist, took to Claremont protests in the ’70s. 

“I was inspired and made this six-person protest horn that amplifies six different voices,” Mann says. “It’s in two parts so it is easy to transport, it is very light, made of fiberglass. It could be brought very easily to a protest space, and six people have to agree on what they’re going to say and what their message is going to be — or if they’re all going to be shouting at the same time and not be heard.”

Maracas fill protest spaces with sound

Surrounding the horn on the walls are rattles or maracas, titled “Unidentified Bright Object 11-60.” They are part of Mann’s ongoing series. The display carries 49 of the 60- to 70-piece collection.

With individually turned wood handles and heads made of cast ceramic, she finds different things to fill the hollow tops including glass, metal, wood and plastic. 

Each rattle carries verbiage, such as “Truth,” “Say His Name,” “Say Her Name,” “Stop” “Rage,” “Justice” or “Equity.” Because they are so lightweight, they are designed to be used at protests. They are also COVID-19-friendly.

“For COVID time, the maracas are great because you don’t have to worry about using your voice or breathing in other people’s air,” Mann says. “You can just use touch and wash your hands afterward.”

They create a diverse sound at protests and encourage attendees.

“I’m a mom with two kids. If I’m going to a protest, I don’t have time to make a custom sign, so I can just stick these in my bag and they’re really loud,” Mann says.

“They create another kind of sound and space in a protest arena, where sometimes the sounds are people wanting to be louder to make their voice heard, sometimes they’re trying to drown out sounds — sometimes there are oppressive noises of helicopters or police. This is supposed to bring celebration and joy to the protest space. People really respond. It adds play and pleasure to these kinds of spaces. Also, if you don’t want to shout or you don’t know what to say, you can shake the maraca.” 

“Year of Wonders, Redux”

WHEN: Various times through July 2

WHERE: 18th Street Art Center, Airport Gallery,
1639 18th Street, Santa Monica

COST: Free; appointments required

INFO: 18thstreet.org

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