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Miami Compendium: Dialog, Diaspora, Directions

Miami Compendium: Dialog, Diaspora, Directions

by Onajide Shabaka


Event: September 12, 2009

Miami Compendium: Dialogue, Diaspora, Directions
The African Influence in Contemporary
Part 1 of a 3 part series

An investigation into the influence of the African diaspora on art and artists in Miami (South Florida) would seem a natural fit for a large population from the Caribbean and the southern United States. The organizer, Marvin Weeks, asked a number of people he felt qualified to speak on the topic, including several scholars, an anthropologist, several artists and a museum curator. We each brought our particular perspectives to the table, mostly speaking in broad sweeps and generalities. We covered more territory than was easily manageable, and possibly diverged a bit more than we should have. The visual arts are so complex that it would really make sense to break up the topic. It is planned as a three part series but part one already diverged into too many cul de sacs. Thus began our evening at 4141 N.E. 2nd Avenue, a Dacra Properties space.

In trying to speak on such a broad subject it might have even made sense to think about whether the subject is one that still has relevance in the broader South Florida community. Being continually underrepresented, artists of the African diaspora have sought ways to highlight their art and achievements. While we all attempt to claim ethnic and cultural diversity as priorities, we still receive mixed messages from the "real world", a world that has been called "post Black."

It [post-black] was a clarifying term that had ideological and chronological dimensions and repercussions. It was characterized by artists who were adamant about not being labeled as 'black' artists, though their work was steeped, in fact, deeply interested, in defining complex notions of blackness. In the beginning, there were only a few marked instances of such an outlook, but at the end of the 1990s, it seemed that post-black had fully entered into the art world's consciousness. Post-black was the new black. --Thelma Golden, chief curator, The Studio Museum in Harlem

In 2005 many artists felt events such as National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, Georgia, ghettoized their work to a far greater extent than one would want, limiting the artists' exposure instead or broadening it. Artists want more recognition, of course, yet don't want to be ghettoized. While this is true, one audience member, a former art gallery owner who principally featured artists of the African diaspora, suggested there needs to be a "place" for artists of African descent to be recognized and marketed.

So perhaps we should title this panel a Miami Conundrum rather than a Miami Compendium.

There is certainly a history of places for this sort of exposure in Miami. The Haitian Cultural Museum was in the same building only a few doors down. There is the Caribbean Cultural Center on 60th Street and N.E. 2nd Av. There is Diaspora Vibe Gallery, which has been serving Miami for over 10 years. There is the African Heritage Cultural Center on the corner of 62nd Street and N.W. 22nd Av. There are other venues as well.

But as one might query, regarding the present crossroads: "What Is To Be Done?" Governmental agencies are struggling for their own survival. Non-profit arts organizations, who also depend to a great extent on those governmental agencies, will not likely fare much better at the moment. There was talk during the audience input portion of the panel which focused on education as a solution. We know what's happening in the local K-12 Miami-Dade School System and it isn't pretty. As mentioned from the audience, do you realistically think you're going to convince somebody buying new 20 inch chrome wheels to instead buy art as a recognition of his great cultural heritage? That, my friends, is unlikely to happen. So who, realistically, is the audience we seek?

Your author kept pounding on the one sure-fire nail available, which is that artists need to be fully and professionally prepared in both the studio and in their business dealings because that is both an area that needs work and that is within the artist's control and capabilities. Artists may not want to recognize the reality of their situation, but it takes almost the same amount of time to market and promote as it does to create work. Artists need to have their work professionally documented, archived, and, when necessary, crated and stored. Artists need to understand contract law or hire an appropriate attorney. Artists need to have accounting skills or hire an professional. Artists cannot pretend they do not know how to write an artist's statement by laughing it off and saying, "Oh, I let the work speak for itself." Artists need to be able to talk intelligently about their work. Artists need to know how to prepare proposals and deal with all classes of people, from various backgrounds and economic strata. Artists do have control of those things. They have no control over getting funded from the government, nor over who buys their work.

Even with the Miami Art Museum's senior curator, Peter Boswell, on the panel, the museum can only do so much. MAM's mission is broad and comprehensive. They have consistently featured exhibitions with work of the African diaspora. "Sacred Arts of Haitian Voudou" and the Franklin Sirmans curated exhibition "Neo Hoo Doo", which is currently showing, are just two examples. The Bass Museum, Lowe Museum, Historical Museum of Southern Florida, and Museum of Contemporary Art have also had significant exhibitions of African Atlantic diasporic art and culture and will continue to do so.

Both the University of Miami and Florida International University have African studies programs and have had significant exhibitions and programs, including bringing in scholars such as Robert Farris Thompson, Ph.D., and Wole Soyinka, Nobel Laureate. Edmund Abaka, Ph.D., of the University of Miami was also on the panel and has done a great deal of work to open up this topic (I met him several years ago at an event on the U of M campus with a lecture and exhibition by an Atlanta based artist). Florida Atlantic University also has programming featuring art and culture of the African diaspora. Of course there needs to be more of this sort of attention, but there is a certain inertia in getting the average Joe and Jane to attend this type of programming, no matter how important it is to our overall cultural history.

The one missing piece of the puzzle concerns the audience of collectors, and whatever financial capacity they are able to bring to support the artist and his/her ability to continue to enhance our cultural landscape. With so many events going on in South Florida, marketing a narrowly focused (and titled) event would seem a losing proposition. The venues and audiences have to work together to bring the finest cultural representation available to the forefront, irregardless of stylistic and aesthetic differences. Artists need to step up and be ready when an opportunity presents itself.

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