Atlas Miami: From the Margins

Miami

Glexis Novoa: Landscape of Symbols I, 2005, collage on paper, 10 by 16 inches. Courtesy David Castillo Gallery, Miami.

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In his book Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (2016), Joshua Clover argues that riots have displaced strikes as the dominant form of social contestation. Financial institutions now generate profits roughly equal to those derived from manufacturing sites, where large numbers of workers with similar economic interests come together. This situation makes it less attractive to accumulate wealth by extracting value from labor, while also diminishing opportunities for people to remain continuously employed, creating a surplus of idle citizens. These populations assume the riot as their insurrectionary form, since what they seek is not to disrupt the efficacy of production, which is the task of the strike, but rather to clog the spaces of circulation, where capital’s vulnerability now resides. The riot’s racial dimension is hardly a surprise, as marginalized populations feel the brunt of deindustrialization first and most heavily.

The Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965 and Detroit’s Great Rebellion of 1967 mark the beginning of the riot era. The 1992 LA riots were a climactic moment. The uprising that overtook Miami’s Liberty City on May 17, 1980, sits between those events on the timeline. For three days the streets were ablaze. Eighteen people were left dead. The riots were a reaction to the acquittal of Miami police officers who were charged with manslaughter in the death of black insurance agent Arthur McDuffie. After McDuffie surrendered to the officers in a traffic stop, they took his motorcycle helmet and beat him with clubs and flashlights, then ran him over with a cruiser to obscure the cause of his injuries. He was left in a coma, only to die a few days later. 

Liberty City is a complex foil to the sunny and depthless images that usually represent Miami. Founded in the 1930s by a conglomerate of white Miami attorneys to milk the provisions of the New Deal, Liberty City began as the first public housing project built for black people in the Jim Crow South: Liberty Square, known on the ground as Pork and Beans. This neighborhood is where the damage wrought by skewed social and urban policies and the war on drugs have left their deepest marks. Often demonized, Liberty City is also the wellspring of Miami’s deep-bass Dirty South ditties and many of its political activist movements.

Liberty City’s history provided the groundwork for the creation in 2006 of Umoja Village, an improvised encampment on appropriated city-owned property, assembled to serve homeless and under-housed populations and to test new modes of social cooperation. Spearheaded by local activists, the village was spared a police raid by court settlements allowing the homeless to undertake “life-sustaining activities” on public land. Although the shantytown burned in an accidental fire six months after it was inaugurated, before it could exert enough political and symbolic pressure to affect local policy, the fact of its existence marks the profound social contrasts in a city that sustains deep immiseration and perverse luxury simultaneously and unflinchingly, the two divided largely along the color line. Both the 1980 Liberty City riots and Umoja Village are now relegated to footnote status by a city magically blind to check cashing stores and ebt accepted here signs, a Miami determined to identify itself instead with luxury condos and creative economies. These events, lingering in a state of near erasure, are certainly black holes for contemporary art.

A few Miami artists have undertaken quiet but potent projects exploring—or perhaps even building—an archive of histories that have been disregarded or deliberately occluded. Juxtaposing images, salvaged materials, and sites, William Cordova creates collages and sculptures that reflect struggles for justice across the Western Hemisphere: Amerindian revolts, Black Liberation, and the work of the Puerto Rican nationalist group the Young Lords. He connects sixteenth-century Inca leader Túpac Amaru to Black Liberation Army activist Assata Shakur, and Lake Titicaca, with its islands full of Incan ruins, to the police murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.

In Túpac Katari (2007), Cordova haphazardly glued hundreds of free Home Depot paint samples into a seven-foot-square, roughly gridded collage. The collage is one of several by Cordova that look like the Wiphala, an ancient emblem that was taken up as a flag at the turn of the millennium by indigenous Bolivian activists protesting the accelerated privatization of natural resources. With their evocation of popular mobilizations and renewed communitarian politics, Cordova’s “flags” remind us that beyond the galleries of Chelsea and Wynwood, the world has witnessed a momentous era of upheaval and change, the beginning of a reconfiguration of the political classes and economic systems in certain parts of the hemisphere. In many indigenous communities, this period is called pachacuti—an upturning of space and time.

Túpac Katari is named after the leader of the Aymara people of the Andes who stormed La Paz in 1781 and held it for six months. But, of course, this is only the first layer. Túpac Katari was a pseudonym that the warrior Julián Apasa Nina took in honor of the leaders of two previous indigenous uprisings—Túpac Amaru II and Tomás Katari. One can weave an even more robust narrative from the associations conjured by the work, a history that would touch on Bolivia’s Maoist movements in the 1980s, and the recovery of indigenous intellectual production through the re-enfranchisement of Quechua and other Andean languages. One can even wonder, as Cordova has in other works, such as pachacuti, pachacuti, pachacuti (to bring about such a state of things we should have the ability to defend ourselves, that is, the ability to bear arms and to use them—Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi), 2011–12, how these historical Túpacs connect with rapper Tupac Shakur and his relation to Black Power movements and their rearticulations of abolition and emancipation. By juxtaposing graphite portraits of indigenous historical warriors and Tupac Shakur on a distressed piece of paper that seems to have been dug out of some dusty colonial archive, Cordova implies a connection without being too overbearing. This is how Cordova’s work functions: it provides richly suggestive clues and prods the audience to put them together and thereby learn about marginalized histories. The exercise is as much about recovering the past as it is about imagining the alternative timelines hinted at by his combinations.   

Recently, Cordova has applied his archive-diving and synthesizing impulses to a kind of low-visibility curatorial practice. Rather than pursuing large, institutionally supported shows, he has produced small, cogent exhibitions in out-of-the-way venues, such as the Art and Culture Center/Hollywood and the artist-run space Bridge Red Studios in North Miami. These shows bring together artists of different generations and communities that often exist in isolation—say, Cuban exiled artists and artists working in academia. In a recent exhibition, Cordova displayed a set of beautiful utopian science-fiction drawings from the 1960s by the late Robert Huff, an artist held in high esteem because, beyond making fine work, he educated multiple generations of artists at Miami Dade College. These drawings were placed, to felicitous effect, near small groups of collages in a darker mode of science fiction that Cuban artist Glexis Novoa produced a decade ago but never showed before.

If there is a “border” between the art world and the vibrant spaces of vernacular culture, and between the histories that are pushed on us and those that are hidden, Charo Oquet’s “Arrayanos” (2012–17) speaks to its nefarious presence in a roundabout way. A Dominican-born artist, Oquet is a staple of the Miami scene. Since 2003, she has run the alternative space Edge Zones, and in 2013 she established the yearly Miami Performance International Festival. Oquet is one of the few local artists whose work consistently probes the colonial legacies that affect the Caribbean experience and, more important, engage the popular aesthetics and spiritual practices that have taken shape in response—and as resistance—to those legacies and their continued impact. 

Oquet shoots the photographs and videos of “Arrayanos” on the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The title of the series is the name of a community of descendants of Haitian migrants who, due to lineage and skin tone—or, more precisely, due to Dominican society’s deeply ingrained racism—exist in a kind of limbo. Never having lived in Haiti, the members of this community are also refused a proper place in the social landscape of the Dominican Republic. This exclusion is enforced beyond the realm of everyday prejudice. In 2013, the country’s Supreme Court passed a law demanding the revision of birth certificates dating as far back as 1929, to determine who had been born to illegal migrants and therefore had no right to citizenship. Relegated to life in dire poverty in the inhospitable space on the border, the Arrayanos have managed to produce a rich culture in their spiritual practices, which Oquet captures in her photographs and videos. Arrayano objects and rituals feed on the traditions brought from Africa through the Middle Passage. While the work is not overtly about Miami, it addresses the problems of displacement and rejection facing the city’s communities, including Haitians. It speaks to the city’s disparities and exclusions. If nothing else, it represents the deep divisions that Miami’s residents live with and reproduce continuously.

Cordova’s and Oquet’s attention to histories that have been rendered “minor” or erased altogether by colonialism and its legacies exceeds commemoration. While they look back and highlight marginalized figures or episodes, in doing so they demand that the audience imagine a different configuration of the present. Because of this demand, their works do not come off as self-righteous or nostalgic. They feel, instead, like an investment in bringing about what may yet be.