Andrea Sofia R. Matos: Miami as Text 2020-2021

Photograph taken by Gabriela Del Monte/CC by 4.0

Andrea Sofia R. 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

“To Belong,” by Andrea S. Rodriguez Matos of FIU at Deering Estate on September 9, 2020.

All photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

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.

All photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

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.

All photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

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

“The Glamour Facade”, by Andrea S. Rodriguez Matos of FIU at South Beach Walking Tour on September 23, 2020. 

All photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

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. 

All photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

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 Parallels of Art and Science” by Andrea S. Rodriguez Matos of FIU at Bakehouse Art Complex on October 7, 2020.

All photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

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.

All photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

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. 

All photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

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

“Museum Magic,” by Andrea S. Rodriguez Matos of FIU at Rubell Museum on October 21, 2020.

All photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

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.

All photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

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.

All photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

Deering Hike as Text

“A Breath of the Wild,” by Andrea S. Rodríguez Matos of FIU at Deering Estate on November 3, 2020.

All photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

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.

All photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

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.

All photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

Everglades as Text

“Nature’s Mosaic,” by Andrea S. Rodríguez Matos of FIU at Everglades National Park on January 13, 2021.

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.

All photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

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.

All photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

“[…] 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.

Wynwood as Text

“New Perspectives,” by Andrea S. Rodríguez Matos of FIU at The Margulies Collection and Locust Projects on January 27, 2021.

Our first stop of the day was the Margulies Collection in Wynwood, and I was excited as ever to finally visit one of the most talked-about private collections in Miami. This excellent warehouse houses an exciting range of contemporary art worldwide, but perhaps their most impressive feature is the massive photographic collection at their disposal. The photographs take a unique space within the warehouse and are displayed salon-style along a long hallway, and it was this impressive display of the photographs that consumed me, I was in awe.

All photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

During our time in the Locust Projects to view their newest exhibition/installation titled “Made by Dusk”, we met Mette Tommerup, the artist. This exhibition is the third installment of an exhibition trilogy where she transforms the space and calls for a state of ethereal stillness and reflection. The spiritual informs the installation as Tommerup draws inspiration from Freya, the Nordic Goddess of love, war, and transformation.

Top left photograph taken by Skyler Hayman. The remaining photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

As a person who has been acquainted with art and its history since high school, every time I venture into a new museum, exhibition, or collection, I find myself looking for technical and artistic clues that indicate the piece’s intention. I pay attention to the artwork’s context regarding the time it was produced and the visual composition, and the elements and materials that merge into the work before me.  I am not an expert at observing art, but I am passionate about what I am looking at. However, when one studies art history, it is easier to be consumed by the technicalities and academic aspects of viewing art rather than entering an exhibition and letting my mind wander. During our time in Margulies Collection and Locust Projects, my classmates reminded me of the importance of the raw and emotional connection with art. Their instinctive reactions, whether it was love, hate, or disregard for the pieces within these collections, made my understanding of them all the better. A few of my classmates showed powerful feelings about the value of an artwork, the artist’s intention and application, and the final product itself that made the conversations more exciting and thought provoking. I appreciated and questioned the works around me from a new perspective through them.  More often than not, the reaction of someone not as educated in the arts is more impressive than those who have spent their whole lives immersed in it.

Bill Baggs as Text

“New Lessons,” by Andrea S. Rodríguez Matos of FIU at Bill Baggs State Park on February 10, 2021.

All photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

Our experience at Bill Baggs State Park did not disappoint. Ranger Shane Zigler was a great addition to our time there as he provided interesting insights about the history of Key Biscayne and the Lighthouse. Professor Bailly helped us put things in a global perspective and gain context on Key Biscayne’s importance from its first settlers, the Tequesta, to the Spaniards who settled and the modernization efforts that began after Florida became part of the United States of America. As we walked the path that lay in front of us, I always wondered how this piece of land could have looked like when the Tequesta were here. It is their stories I long to hear and record in my mind forever. Yet when many people think of the Tequesta about Key Biscayne, they only focus on the famous incident known as the attack on July 23, 1836, during the Seminole Wars, in which they (Tequesta) took the lighthouse. However, it is essential to remember that this event did not happen without cause.  The Tequesta decided to take this course of action because they were being massacred all over the South and kept being pushed down further and further every time. It then became clear they could either fight or be exterminated. To say that the Tequesta were treated poorly is to oversimplify this situation’s gravity. This is the reason I sympathized when they attacked the lighthouse; they were sending a message of resilience and defiance. It’s a victory nobody will ever be able to take away from them.

All photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

Since I first moved to South Florida three years ago from Puerto Rico, I have to admit that I underwent tremendous struggle to adapt to life here. I was quick to judge a big city because of the culture shock I experienced and the bubble of my everyday life. The months turned into years of me judging a place I knew absolutely nothing about; then, I took this class that explores the real Miami, and I am left utterly speechless. Through these immersive lectures, I reflect on how wrong I was about South Florida. I let my ignorance and lack of experience taint the beauty of a land so rich in history and culture.

River of Grass as Text

“No Man’s Land,” by Andrea S. Rodríguez Matos of FIU at Everglades National Park on February 24, 2021.

All photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

 For a second time this semester, we went to explore the Everglades National Park. Having only ventured through a small portion of this ecosystem, we uncovered new spaces of this wonderful wilderness. This time around, we focused on the Everglades’ human history, from the man-made disasters to the preservation efforts that others have started to reverse the damage done. The whole day I was going back and forth in history, trying to wrap my head around the hardships the land I was happily exploring had gone through. 

As we have learned throughout the semester, humans have lived in the Florida Everglades as far back as 15,000 years ago. The two major tribes that were living as hunter-gatherers were the Calusa and the Tequesta. The Everglades had remained untouched 300 years after the first Spaniard arrived in Florida until the State decided they could begin selling their “worthless swampland” for profit. Among the industrialist responsible for the quick deterioration of the Everglades was Hamilton Disston, Henry Flagler, and Richard J. Bolles. All of which have been praised in one way or another for Florida’s development, yet little is said about the natural and human impact of their so-called “vision”. The same vision that led them to declare a war against nature and Florida’s native inhabitants, all to begin converting the northern Everglades into suburbs, and sugar plantations. Through it all it has been mostly women, like Marjory Stoneman Douglas and others who led the most radical groups of preservation and restoration of the land in South Florida. These women were the ones who knew the true ecological value of the Everglades and decided to make awareness of the damage done.

All photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

It is overwhelming to learn how ambitious man’s greed is to get to the point of such an ecological disaster. And to make matters worse on the very land that had been cared for hundreds of years before by the Native Americans. These tribes whose members were brutally murdered by the first Spanish and English conquistadors and by the Americans years later were the ones who held the true vision and the answers to natural harmony. By eradicating them and erasing any contribution, or role played in Florida’s history was how these developers could implement their business models and how they got awarded with the titles of “pioneers.” This disconnection from nature, separating humans from the natural world, has lasted to this very day and comes from the obliteration of the Native Americans that have survived from the political and socioeconomic institutions.

When researching erasure and ownership, I came across several accounts of different Native American tribes that understood and continue to affirm that nature provides all that we need to survive. Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Wolf Clan of the Seneca Nation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy explains that the earth is our mother, and the plants and animals are our relatives. When asked about ownership he recalls when the first colonizers arrived, how the chiefs of the time laughed when asked about the ownership of the land saying, “How can you buy land?” For its their belief that land cannot be owned, dominated or possessed, simply put the earth was only under their care and protection. I long to see what Florida would have looked like had we treated the inhabitants of this land with humanity. What would our mindset and our life be like had we just sat down and listened to their divine instructions to respect life, above everything else.

Frost Art Museum as Text

“Decolonizing our Museum,” by Andrea S. Rodríguez Matos of FIU at The Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum on March 12, 2021.

Our society is filled with racist and misogynistic institutions that have never felt the pressure to change because white supremacy has made consistent efforts to keep minority groups from climbing up the ranks to the change-making positions that could begin to change this narrative. Museums as cultural institutions have always been seen as holy temples and societal change leaders where artists could present their controversial and modern ideas. However, throughout history, the artists allowed in those rooms and allowed to voice those opinions were white men and never women, people of colors, or any who didn’t fit in the Anglo-Saxon and heteronormative norm. The administration of these institutions isn’t the only thing that is being done wrong in museums; there is still a huge representation problem. The modern museum is unquestionably intertwined with the history of colonization, specifically since these collections were started by wealthy collectors who traveled extensively and brought back artifacts from third-world countries and displayed them in their homes.

All photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

An interesting conversation that popped up during our visit to the Frost Art Museum was in Pepe Mar’s “Tesoro”, an exhibition that in its core seeks to recontextualize artworks and artifacts from the museum’s permanent collection, was the placement and intention behind a group of artifacts and masks. In one of its sections, an installation features many masks from different cultures, all for them to be dumped in an explosive and colorful wallpaper, which begs the question if these masks are thrown to be just that, decorative wallpaper which perpetuates a larger colonial mindset. In many cases, museums tend to lose the human connection these works may have had at one beginning. On this wall, masks of various indigenous cultures are displayed side by side. Even though Pepe Mar intends to “come together” and surpass our differences, I think his curatorial choice of placing the masks leaves a wide door open to the wrong type of interpretation. Of not giving these artifacts the dignity they deserve. Like how in oceanic cultures, masks are used at different times of the year to honor their spirits and ancestors.

With an increasing consciousness of the oppressive, racist, and misogynistic tendencies being practiced in these institutions, more leadership roles within cultural and artistic organizations have been given to women and people of color. In recent years, museum workers and museum-goers have an abundance of initiatives to “decolonize” the museum. Decolonizing the museum is a new movement that forces these institutions to take drastic measures to change the way they present artwork, curate and diversify their collections and exhibitions. This new movement seeks to ask these museums to listen to the underrepresented communities and move their colonial mindset of privilege and authority to provide a platform for horizontal and equitable conversations.

Overall, the Frost has always been an institution that engages in controversial conversations and champions underrepresented artists and regions such as the Caribbean and Latin American, and the Latinx diasporic community.

Coral Gables as Text

“The Racist Fairyland,” by Andrea S. Rodríguez Matos of FIU at the City Coral Gables on March 24, 2021.

As a person who comes from very humble beginnings, when I walk or drive through Coral Gables, I always feel out of place. The wealthy neighborhoods with big houses, ample roads, and freshly cut grass are just a few of the undeniable opulence indicators compared to its bordering cities. And although the idea of “The Gables” came from a man of modest upbringing, the city itself was always meant to be what it is today, very rich, prosperous, and extremely out of touch with the rest of its southern Floridian reality. As can be expected of a city built entirely on a dream, a utopia of sorts, where he could convert all the fantastical things he read into his reality. When planning what he sought to accomplish, George Merrick once wrote:

All photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

“I dream of the home of the Fairies and Fays,
on the isles of the calm southern sky,
Of the fanciful turrets and towers ablaze
In the flood of the rays from on high…”

During the Florida land boom of the 1920s, Merrick began the project that had resided in the depths of his imagination since he was a boy, making one of the first planned communities that we know now as Coral Gables. He sought collaborators to help him develop the city’s signature architecture style called Mediterranean Revival to resemble Southern Spain built by the Moors. Like much of South Florida, pioneers and visionaries are always credited for creating a city, but little is said about the people who literally built it. The development and building of Coral Gables are owed to the labor of Bahamian immigrants to South Florida. These workers were incredibly proficient in making coral rock into a malleable material and converting the rocky country into rich farmland. Merrick was right, but shouldn’t be praised, to credit their expertise. He once explained, “In the Bahamas, there is the same coral rock; and the Bahamians knew how to plant on it, and how to use it, and they knew too that all kinds of tropical trees would grow and thrive on this rock. They, too, had a vital influence upon our civilization in bringing in their own commonly used trees, vegetables, and fruits.”

All photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

However lovely the sentiment to credit them as they are not acknowledged further than a few lines on a piece of paper. To this day, Coral Gables has never been a neighborhood that openly welcomes non-whites, with a population of 91.85% White/White Hispanic, as reported on the 2020 US Census. “The Gables” and its founder never meant to welcome a non-white population. Merrick is explicitly known to have made racist segregationist beliefs and advocated for racist policies throughout his career as a developer and his role as head of the Miami-Dade Planning Board. He went as far as saying before a Miami Board of Realtors meeting that the “removal of Black residents [is] fundamental in achieving the goals for the rest of Miami.” What is most shocking about all of this is how it is an issue that persists today, visible for all to see the moment anyone passes the city lines into Coral Gables.

Vizcaya as Text

“Our last visit: Vizcaya,” by Andrea S. Rodríguez Matos of FIU at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens on April 7th, 2021.

Involving nearly a tenth of Miami’s population in its construction, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens is one of the most significant projects and legacies of one James Deering. Known for his role as the treasurer and then vice-president of the Deering Harvester Company was a man whose love for European culture and antiquities characterized his vision for his landmark Vizcaya. In 1912 Deering acquired the land from Mary Brickell as a somewhat retired bachelor and set out to build his dream home in South Florida’s jungle hammock. With the help of Paul Chalfin, Burrall Hoffman, and Diego Suarez and thousands of Bahamian stonemasons and workers, a lavish Italian-Mediterranean revival waterfront villa with spacious Renaissance revival gardens and a detail-oriented architectural interior full of European, Asian, and American furnishing, art, and antiquities that go back thousands of years. He was part of the out-of-touch elite who romanticized the colonization of the Americas and Europeans’ expeditions.

All photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

Utilizing his incredible wealth, he had access to travel extensively through Europe. He collected the highest forms of art he desired, and, in a way, it provided him the ability to borrow culture without question. The furnishings and decors themselves are priceless items such as a rug that belonged to King Ferdinand of Spain’s grandfather and the base of a table from Pompeii’s ruins. Besides these wonders from old European culture, he included modern features such as elevators, a modern phone system, fire control, and central heating. With this combination of the old and the new, he added illusion and mystery to his story, creating a façade of sorts, all within the norms of his extravagant and lavish lifestyle present in the statement that was Vizcaya. Just like in his interior, Deering wanted in his garden the presence of both Europe and Miami. This is why even in his garden, he made sure to infuse classical Italian and French design mixed into the subtropical flora. His use of stone and his interest in the light’s modulation also showcase his need to create an environment that welcomed his passion for Europe and his love of Miami.

All photographs taken and edited by Andrea Sofia R. Matos/CC BY 4.0

An interesting quote that I found when researching Vizcaya and Deering further was Kathryn Chapman Harwood, writer of “The Lives of Vizcaya: Annals of a Great House,” who says that “Although Vizcaya speaks of the 16th, the 17th, and the 18th centuries, of the Renaissance, baroque, rococo, neoclassic, there still hangs in the air, in the manner of living the house illustrates so well, the most fascinating memory of all. There is the still intact vision of a whole social class just moments before its familiar world shattered.” Her book focuses on the recently found priceless documents and records that were evidence of the lost stories of the people who worked there and an agonizing tale of its complex conception for the short five years; Deering was able to enjoy it. I will say, I have a love and hate relationship with Mr. James Deering but will always acknowledge him as being one of the people who truly set-in stone (literally) and somehow predicted what Miami would become a hundred years later.

Author: andreasofiarm

Art History Student

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