Community Voices

Black in Time: Miami’s black women art curators educate and inspire

Rosie Gordon-Wallace, owner and curator of Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator.
Rosie Gordon-Wallace, owner and curator of Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

In 1996, an invitation to visit an art gallery in Miami created by a black woman, Rosie Gordon-Wallace, came as a welcome surprise. As an exchange student decades earlier, in the 1960s, I was introduced to art galleries and museums in college at Spelman in Atlanta and Smith in Northampton, Massachusetts.

During the Jim Crow era, black people did not have access to Miami’s galleries and museums. Our schools were not invited to visit. Times have changed. Miami’s galleries and museums are open to all, and there are black women curators and gallery owners.

Reflecting on 20 years as a gallery creator, owner, executive director, and art curator of the Diaspora Vibe Gallery (DVG), Gordon-Wallace said the field has increased. “There are several black women curators in Miami-Dade including Karla Ferguson, owner of Yeelen Gallery, whose specialty is the African diaspora; Marie Vickles, curator-in-residence at the Little Haiti Cultural Center and Knight associate director at the Perez Art Museum; and Charo Oquet, who curates in Miami and Santo Domingo. It is quite a different from when we began in 1996,” said Gordon-Wallace.

Ferguson created an art space in 2008. Dedicated to the development, promotion and expression of Contemporary Urban Culture, she named her gallery Yeelen, a term from the Bambara language of Mali in West Africa, meaning “brightness” or “light.”

An expansive 13,000+ square-foot converted industrial complex located in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, Yeelen contains four exhibition spaces with a focus on figuration realism and social practice.

At Florida International University, Ferguson earned a degree in political science and international relations while taking art and art history classes as electives. Later, she earned a law school scholarship and attained a Juris doctorate degree at Tulane University. She began working with artists after completing law school and has continued with an emphasis on exploring identity and social justice.

Motivated to create the Yeelen Gallery, Ferguson offers art space that tells stories of the African diaspora. In the beginning she said there were doubters who did not believe that the African diaspora depicted in art would have the impact it has. Thinking about the community’s response to their Art Basel 2015 programming she said, “We had over 4,000 RSVPs and just as many in attendance for our Saturday night event called ‘Back to Black.’ People stood in line around the block (waiting to get in). I would say that we made a statement that the work we show and the conversations we initiate matter.”

The Yeelen Gallery is completely self-funded at this time, relies on the support of patrons to purchase art and welcomes like minded partners, according to Ferguson. Shows are launched that speak to the experiences of the local community seeing themselves. The intent is to offer humanity and to have the audience recognize that although we may look different we all have more in common than we realize.

The date of the current exhibit honoring black women during Women’s History Month has been extended. Titled what’s INSIDE HER never dies … a Black Woman’s Legacy, it closes April 4. The Summer Collective will highlight the work of the artists represented at Yeelen. Visit the website for dates and upcoming exhibitions: www.yeelenart.com.

Celebrating 20 years since she established the Diaspora Vibe Gallery (DVG) Gordon-Wallace continues to create international cultural experiences for Miami artists, adding value to our cultural aesthetic and economy. Her organization has supported over 500 artists and continues to provide asset management services to them.

It was not always like this. DVG was originally housed in a then-unfamiliar neighborhood now known as the Design District. Located in a storefront on the second floor with no elevator, climbing the steep stairs was a chore.

It was worth the effort when the door opened. From floor to ceiling, enormous rooms were filled with colorful Caribbean art, paintings on canvases of all sizes. The Diaspora Vibe Gallery (DVG) evolved into the Diaspora Vibe Cultural Incubator (DVCAI) and continued providing safe space for emerging artists, to create and exhibit artwork and promoting Caribbean art to Miami-Dade communities.

The vision is to promote Caribbean art while legitimizing the work of young emerging artists faced with limited opportunities; to exhibit their work; and give opportunities to U.S. Caribbean, U.S. Latin America and female artists; to help correct the gender imbalance in the art world.

Admittedly creating the Diaspora Vibe helped satisfy Gordon-Wallace’s lifelong interest in art. She began as a licensed medical microbiologist and pharmaceutical consultant. In 1999, she decided to devote herself full time to the gallery and incubator she developed. After school art programs include artists talks and portfolio reviews. Pop-up exhibitions are conducted in Miami-Dade County and Miami Beach.

With the establishment of technology DVCAI moved out of the storefront and is now virtual. Day-to-day operations are conducted on the website, www.dvcai,org. The virtual gallery supports the development of new work by resident artists offering exhibition opportunities, artist talks, workshops and other skill- building activities in Miami and the Caribbean.

For 18 years, DVCAI has participated in international cultural exchanges to 10 Caribbean countries. The most immediate goals include securing long-term paid residency relations for artists and engaging critical writers to review the artists work. The DVCAI archives is housed in the University of Miami’s Special Collections.

Twenty artists will be highlighted for the anniversary show. Board members, supporters and collaborators are helping plan the weekend of Oct. 21. For details, visit www.dvcai.org

For Women’s History Month, each year the president of the United States issues a proclamation recognizing women who never give up on the promise of America. In the 2016 proclamation, President Barack Obama remembers the trailblazers and honors their legacies by carrying forward the valuable lessons learned from the powerful examples they set. Rosie Gordon-Wallace and Karla Ferguson should be included, as new books are written and documentaries made.

Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to djf@bellsouth.net.

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