These are troubling times. Our country has experienced a rash of violence, often triggered by prejudice and hatred, from San Bernardino to Orlando, from Minnesota to Dallas.
So the summer exhibit at MOCA North Miami has particular resonance. “Intersectionality” addresses issues relating to gender identity, racism, homophobia, social inequity and other aspects of those traditionally marginalized in society. This is powerful and provocative stuff, some of which can feel a little heavy-handed, but much of which is eye-opening.
It’s interesting to note that following a bitter breakup with former board members, MOCA has itself become somewhat marginalized. Currently without a director, it has fallen off the beaten path for some of Miami’s art patrons.
But at the June opening of “Intersectionality,” MOCA’s galleries were jam-packed with people less concerned with an art hierarchy and more interested in the variety of work being shown.
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Some of this work comes from names that are familiar in Miami. Other artists are rarely shown in South Florida, which gives the exhibit a breath of fresh air. Visitors may leave without remembering names, too, as there are 50 artists and 70 artworks — a bit of a chaotic display. But that seems part of the point. Curator Richard Haden did not randomly pick out these artists, he knew precisely what he wanted, and he wanted as many disenfranchised voices as possible. He intends it to be a critique of those who hold power.
Some of the works are paired; others speak to each other across the rooms. In the main gallery, Juana Valdes’ two huge white sails hang from the ceiling, dominating the space with images of slave ships and text from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” emblazoned on them. Her Afro-Cuban origins are tied to this barbaric transatlantic trade. Like some others in the show, that horrid history is part of her identity. But only part.
The sails suggest that people’s characters are formed through diverse journeys, and are fluid.
Surrounding this centerpiece are other explorations of identities, both culturally imposed and discovered from within, sometimes with traumatic associations.
Two paintings dealing with the shades of black women’s skin come from Kenyatta Hinkle; historically, the lighter being preferred. One reads “Why did you marry the yellow girl?”
Other paintings and sculpture deal with black women’s hair, which has always been fraught with symbolism; afros and kinky hair were alternately despised and seen as signatures of empowerment, while sleek straight hair was often associated with beauty and also conformity. Beyoncé’s recent hyper-viral song lyric referencing her husband straying with “Becky with the good [i.e. straight] hair” is a case in point.
Two installations leave a searing impression. One is a large photograph of a fallow field; in front of it are shoes — some of them lovely dress shoes — filled with dirt. Artist Anja Marais, an immigrant from South Africa, created the work in reference to the plight of Syrian refugees, who have fled with the shoes they wore on whatever day they ran, tripping through muddy fields in high heels. Adjacent is a sculpture of tattered furniture bundled together, left behind as the journey became more treacherous. Migrants are in a perpetual process of losing and reforming identities.
The neighboring installation is built from bricks, each one with the name of a black man killed by the police. As of this month, several new ones will have to be added by artist Rosa Naday Garmendia. They, of course, were more than just names.
These narratives are fairly easy to comprehend. Other artworks in the show address internal struggles and searches for self in all its complicated form — many of these come from the transgender community.
The TransCuba Series from Mariette Pathay Allen, for instance, includes photographs of transgender people hanging out in Havana. Haden describes how Cuba is looking for a new identity in many ways, opening up not only to the U.S. but to its own anti-gay past, and coming to terms with complex sexuality. Those in the photos “no longer have to hide.”
Two pieces in the back of the museum, one by Heather Cassils and another by Zanele Muholi, deserve especially close attention.
Cassils is a “gender non-conforming” artist who has documented her transitioning to a more masculine form in a set of photographs and a sound installation. The L.A. performance artist started studying martial arts, and in several photos she showcases practice sessions in which she kicks and punches a huge ball of soft clay as she physically creates a piece of art. In an entirely blackened room behind, the visitor can only hear her grunts while assaulting this clay with her body. It’s a disturbing experience, as the visitor doesn’t really know the origin of those guttural outbursts unless told. Titled “Becoming and Image,” it was originally a live performance piece and became Cassils’ first solo show at New York’s Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in 2016.
In the exhibit’s final room, 80 slides by Muholi, a South African fresh off a solo exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, get space all their own. Unlike Cuba, Africa remains largely closed to conversation about sexual identification, and Muholi’s transcontinental trek photographing transgender and gay subjects has been both arduous and dangerous. These are scarred people, at times literally, who have been beaten and abused.
These incredibly moving images are often difficult to see, especially when you realize that the people starring blankly at us in black-and-white photos are living in villages and cities where any day they could be murdered, or completely shunned. They are shown only after 3 p.m., deemed too controversial for children who visit earlier in the day.
As inartful and overly academic as the term “intersectionality” is, it does make some sense here. Described by Haden, it relates to the multiple influences on ever-fluid identities and their relationship to power structures. It’s a dense concept. But looking around this sprawling show, you see all kinds of intersections, political and personal, that impact not just those on the margins, but everyone.
IF YOU GO
Where: MOCA North Miami, 770 N.E. 125th St., North Miami
When: Through Aug. 14