Andrea Sofia Rodriguez Matos is a junior majoring in Art History with a minor in Photography at Florida International University. Passionate for the art and culture of the Caribbean, Latin America, and the African Diaspora, she aspires to be a curator. She has had the privilege of working with various art institutions in Miami and Puerto Rico, which have challenged her visual literacy and exposed her to the contemporary art scene. As part of Art Society Conflict, Andrea desires to expand her knowledge in art and the history of Florida’s most vibrant city.
Deering as Text
Every generation is tackled with the exhausting question of identity, communal belonging to specific coordinates. Most of our life, we are told to affirm with conviction the “inherent” character of the spiritual practice, class, and community we are linked to. As we navigated through the outdoors of the estate, I found myself wondering how one could possibly engage the idea of identity in a land of so many. This terrain saw Paleo-Indian’s hunt. It observed how the Tequesta created tools and pottery and witnessed Seminole blood spilled in a gruesome war. These acres watched as European colonizers settled, as runaway slaves of the Caribbean took shelter, and as it was later purchased by the Richmond and Deering families.
To further layer the identity question to this experience, we made our way into the structures located on-site. We paced towards a Spanish inspired villa through roman archways with decorated capitals of distinctive tropical animals whose exterior holds beautifully sculpted Islamic arches. We find ourselves in a room with a checkered floor and a high ceiling, the very room which once hung paintings by Rembrandt and El Greco in its walls. As we continued the tour of this magical space, we were guided into a dark room with French-inspired catholic mosaics—these lit up the room just enough to see the Chinese artifacts in the adjacent wall.
The director of the Deering Estate, Jennifer Tisthammer, invited us to the rooftop that oversees a fantastic view of the estate and Biscayne Bay. She asks us another question I don’t have the answer to, the problem of preservation. Who decides what’s important enough to conserve and what is not? Who are we to say markings found on red ceramic roof tiles aren’t just as important as paintings only a floor below?
Failing to fathom how such a wide range of cultures, histories, and ideas have met within the 18-inch poured concrete walls, we sneak into the second structure. This wooden cottage breathes every time you take a step within it. One can almost hear the footsteps of the hundreds of travelers looking for comfort some 90 years ago. Science and religion coexist once we walk through a narrow hallway filled with botanical drawings of native plants that leads us to the kitchen. And right in the middle, the kitchen keeps a framed white and blue Spanish tile mosaic.
Eventually, I can process some of the information as we make our way to our destination, a Chinese bridge built by Afro-Bahamian workers. Only to remember that in an explosion gone wrong at the People’s Dock just south of the Estate, six of these very workers died, which nobody chose to recognize or honor. I stood still in the middle of the colorful bridge piecing the experience, the histories, and the cultures together little by little as we stared into the wilderness.
Yet, the question stands, who are we amidst this cultural fusion? Can anybody belong in the very soil who remembers Paleo-Indians hunting and the Tequesta gathering? It’s amidst this identity crisis where the answer lies. It’s the freedom our young bodies feel when we parade through these paths without fully grasping the absurdity of this terrain’s massive historical exchange. In a land so diverse, we all belong.
South Beach as Text
When they teach us about segregation, they often talk about the subject as if it happened in a time far from our own. Little emphasis is given to the closeness of the “Black Codes” and “Jim Crow” laws —which existed for about 100 years, from the post-Civil War era until 1968, only 52 years ago—that openly discriminated African Americans and other nonwhite groups. It is uncommon to sit through a lecture that explicitly informs us of the policies that ensured black people and their fellow third-class citizens could not achieve the progress they were promised and would not benefit from the “American dream.”
This deliberate ignorance has blinded us from the contemporary violations of civic rights and the microaggressions that continue to haunt the marginalized groups in our society. We often forget that through the exploitation and underpaid labor of black and brown bodies, the very cities and attractions we now enjoy were built.
The City of Miami Beach is home to various cultural and artistic attractions such as museums, artist residencies, Art Basel, and Art Deco architecture’s most extensive collection globally. Its vibrant nightlife, with regularly packed live music venues, restaurants, and bars only steps away from the beach, makes this city one of the most visited destinations. However, concealed behind its flashy neon signs and liberal flags is a long and repulsive history of discrimination.
Destroyed of its original blooming ecosystem of sandbars and mangroves lead by white upper-class businessmen with a god complex, Miami Beach is a perfect example of a city that was never meant to be. Laborers worked under severe conditions to clear the mangroves, deepen the water channels surrounding it and fill the area with sand and soil found elsewhere. This brief recollection helps us understand the lengths the ambitions of men will go to ensure a life of glamor, even at the expense of its community and environment.
Ever since the first constructions begun in Miami Beach, segregation laws permitted African Americans’ expulsion from its borders. African Americans could only enter in two conditions: as a worker or entertainer, and even then, they were not allowed to live in the municipality. Black tourists could not stay at the hotels on the beach and would only be permitted on specific beaches and others only on Mondays. Jews were another marginalized group that suffered maltreatment. Their skin color allowed them access to buy properties and visit beaches, hotels, restaurants, and other venues but restricted them doing so only south of 5th street.
Recent events in our sociopolitical climate have unearthed that racism and xenophobia are issues that haven’t been appropriately solved or given the necessary attention. To this day, north of 5th street continues to be an area privileged by the presence of heavily guarded police and many active maintenance and custodian teams, more so than in the south. So, as we paraded through the empty streets of Ocean Drive, it was evident that even 52 years after the end of Jim Crow, we still have a long way to go and a lot of work to do.
Bakehouse as Text
The minute we walked into the gallery, we came across giant wooden structures scattered all around the space. This site-specific installation, titled “Future Pacific,” is a work in-the-making by Miami-based artist Lauren Shapiro housed in the Bakehouse Art Complex. Shapiro’s project develops as a collaboration with the research of marine ecologist Dr. Nyssa Silbiger, whose objective is to create urgency for preserving the coral reef’s essential role for the environment. Academia often makes science and art into diametrical oppositions, but Shapiro and Silbiger are looking to enhance each other’s practice to preserve the most important aquatic species.
Shapiro’s practice focuses on viewing the parallels of art and science to create an interactive exhibition that enhances the environmental literacy of the community. Typically, museums and gallery spaces prohibit physical interaction with any exhibition or artwork, yet here we are encouraged to participate and get our hands dirty. There were no restrictions; we were free to explore the different possibilities the materials allow us. Our job was to press the clay into the silicone molds of coral skeletons and reef animal bones to adhere to the big wooden structures that, when finished, will transform into an artistic representation of a fossilized coral reef.
Shapiro invited us to view her studio where buckets of new and old clay filled the entirety of the space. It was interesting to see her whole process, from making the clay to the final product of 100% recycled material. Moreover, it allowed us to immerse ourselves personally, not just in the artmaking, but also in the artist’s daily routine.
We conversed about the oceans’ importance and the harmful impact our everyday activities cause during our time there. I distinctively remember Professor Bailly tells us: “If trees are the lungs of the earth, coral reefs are the lungs of the ocean,” this statement got me thinking about the issue of deforestation and how we are doing the same to our oceans. We live in a connected world, yet we have chosen to disassociate and ignore the damage we have caused. I am proud to have been part of a project that asked of its participants to be more conscious of the environment and demanded us to do introspection in how we contribute to the destruction of our marine ecosystems.
Rubell as Text
The art world is like the human body, where different parts with different functions ultimately come together to experience life. Similarly, the art world is an industry that divides itself into three major components: the art market, art institutions (both private and public), and academia. People often like to keep these three sections separate, unable to coexist, yet most don’t understand that, like the body, they collaborate to perform as efficiently as possible.
The formerly called Rubell Family Collection is a private art collection located in Miami, Florida, that began with the joined efforts of Don and Mera Rubell 54 years ago. The Rubell Museum is one of the world’s most significant contemporary art collections and a first-rate example of synthesizing the three major components within the art world. The Rubell’s acquire the artworks through the private art market, which gives them the freedom to display and champion artists they believe in and are seminal to the city’s cultural development and the world. To emphasize their public mission, the museum has implemented programs that invite local students to engage with the art and artists. It welcomes art historians, curators, and artists to participate in their internships and artists’ residencies. I believe it is through this fusion that the Rubell Museum succeeds.
The museum’s diverse and generous selection of artists from different countries and ethnic backgrounds was one of the most impressive things to behold. Given the grandeur of the 36 galleries within the museum, it’s not a surprise that the collection houses grand installations and hundred-foot paintings. Never shying from a controversial topic, the museum holds many shocking pieces that would not be viewed elsewhere if it were not for the private acquisition.
Since our lives became consumed by the pandemic, I had not visited a museum, and, as a regular museum-goer, this was an emotional trip. As cliché, as it sounds art, has always been an encouraging force throughout my life, and in these months of isolation, I had forgotten just how much life art grants me. Walking through the carefully curated walls is magical to me; it transports me to another universe. At that moment, the museum becomes the gatekeeper to different worlds, where numerous stories are allowed space for others to see, and that, to me, is the power of art.
Deering Hike as Text
On Wednesday morning, I woke up with many worries on my mind and found it hard to breathe. Crumbling anxiety from the United States Presidential Election and the coronavirus pandemic’s months-long concerns invaded my mind restlessly. Once I was able to catch my breath I realized it was finally the day I would venture through the Deering Estate’s magical ecosystems.
We often forget that the ground we walk on has been touched by thousands, if not millions of people, from the Paleo-Indians to the Afro-Bahamians to the tourist escaping the north’s cold weather. It is rare that within a metropolis as young as Miami, we find spaces that can transport us to a time 10,000 years back. We traveled through mangroves, pine rocklands, meadows, and hardwood hammocks as our geographical ancestors once did to find various ecosystems working together to survive.
As we trekked on through the wilderness, the fact that we were still in Miami and that we hadn’t crossed an invisible portal to another world was unfathomable. It was hard not to be consumed by the beauty of nature in its most natural state. I was mesmerized by the beautiful patterns created by the light escaping through the interconnected web of tree branches and firmly rooted mangroves.
As we continued to explore, I forced myself to imagine what life was like for the people before me thousands of years ago. I could imagine them walking side by side, finding the tools they would need to hunt, drill, and dig. I could visualize them gathering plants and the food necessary for their survival. And I could envision them bathing and drinking from the pools of freshwater and using the variety of trees to build their homes, canoes, and tools. I couldn’t help but ask myself what would’ve become such a complex society had it not been from their annihilation.
Once we reached the Tequesta Burial Mound, the energy shifted. Combatant feelings of joy and sadness made their way into my mind. This place was only a reminder of the massacre our most ancient ancestors suffered upon the arrival of greedy men looking to colonize and exterminate anyone who stood in their way. As I reached the closest I could be to the burial site, I realized that sitting on top of this mound, of 18 Tequesta burials, is an enormous oak tree that I choose to believe carries, in its roots and branches, the very souls of the Tequesta live on. And I could breathe with ease again.
Everglades as Text
After a tumultuous year riddled with a global pandemic, political dilemmas, ecological disasters, and social upheaval, a trip to the Everglades seemed like a wonderful opportunity to start a new year right. Away from the Miamian metropolis’ bustling streets lies thousands of acres of land dedicated to preserving the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States.
As we immersed ourselves into the wilderness, becoming one with nature, slogging through the towering cypress trees made everyday worries seem ridiculous and foolish. So much time of our lives is wasted in reminiscing the past and anxiously planning our future that we forget there’s nothing like living in the present. There’s nothing that makes one more present than smelling the fresh air, feeling the wind on your face, and hearing the birds sing. It serves almost as a reminder to take a breath, to look up at the sky, and rejoice in the fact that there’s life at its purest when you’re surrounded by water and earth. The crystal water was a testament that even the muddiest of environments hold balance and beauty.
Perhaps my favorite part of this unforgettable day was when our guide and park ranger Dylann Turffs, made us quietly stand still where no cars could be heard to fully appreciate the space we were exploring. She then read us a poem by Anne McCrary Sullivan that validated the feelings I had when standing still in the middle of the cypress.
“[…] I am inconsequential here
I am inconsequential everywhere
but here I have no illusions
whatever dies dies
whatever gets devoured gets devoured
waters rise and fall clouds move,
the buzzing profusion continues […]”
In a land so close to our homes is an oasis of raw nature. A dynamic variety of ecosystems makes the Everglades one of nature’s most impressive mosaics. There is something otherworldly about the artworks one finds in nature. No man, despite ability and drive, can replicate the complexity of patterns, colors, lines, and forms magically given to us through the environment’s imagination. There’s no limit to what this complex ecological system can provide us, and it is why it’s so important we make an effort to care for this world’s life source.