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Written by Elisa Turner, BT Contributor   
January 2020

Little Haiti Cultural Complex gets a program boost

CArtFeature_1all it the text that launched $10,000.

Marie Vickles sighs with relief about that day in late November when Tom Virgin sent her a text. “Call me right away,” it read. “Nothing’s wrong but it’s important.”

This was shortly before the Knight Foundation announced winners of its 2019 Knight Arts Challenge. Virgin -- artist, director of Extra Virgin Press, and veteran Miami-Dade County Public Schools art teacher -- had just learned he was one of 21 local arts leaders whom Knight was naming an Arts Champion; these leaders choose a local artist or organization to receive $10,000 from the foundation. Virgin chose Vickles, the curator-in-residence since 2010 at Little Haiti Cultural Complex, where she works when she’s not busy with her day job as education director at Pérez Art Museum Miami or finding time to create her own art as a printmaker. The grant will support programs she creates for LHCC.

“I knew that if anybody needed money and was going to put it to use for long-reaching effect, she’d be the one,” Virgin says. “She works very hard across the board at LHCC. She’s doing it for the kids, she’s doing it for the community, for the artists.”

“Oh my goodness!” Vickles exclaims on a recent Saturday afternoon at Little Haiti Cultural Complex, remembering when she heard Virgin’s news about the Knight grant. “Such a blessing. So grateful.”

ArtFeature_2She recalls thinking before his text jangled on her cell that “I don’t know how 2020 is going to happen. I’m going to have to figure something out!” Now she’s figuring out how to spend $10,000. The grant will support a range of programming at the cultural complex, including artist honorariums and publications that can finally be printed. “This isn’t a big operation,” she says. “This is a ‘roll up your sleeves and get it done’ kind of operation, so this will help us keep doing what we are doing. We will program in 2020.”

A slim woman with a ready smile and infectious enthusiasm, Vickles is a familiar figure at LHCC, waving and often stopping to chat with kids, teens, and adults on the campus that day. It would be logical to assume she has Haitian roots, but even Vickles isn’t sure. She was born to a Greek mother and black father in Colorado, where she lived until she was 18.

“As far as I know, I am not of Haitian descent,” she says. “My father’s background is a little mysterious to me, so I don’t know that part of my heritage, unfortunately.” Pondering her own background, as well as black people throughout the Americas, she sees profound ties to the past.

“A lot of us lost our history, our lineage, through forced migration, a.k.a slavery,” she says. “My friends like to joke that I am an adopted Haitian or Haitian by association. Most people assume I am Haitian, so maybe I am.”

ArtFeature_3Working with LHCC and Haitian Cultural Alliance, Vickles and prominent Haitian-born artist Edouard Duval-Carrié organized a trifecta of events that began during Miami Art Week in December 2019, marking the ninth annual Global/Borderless Caribbean Exhibition and Program Series.

There’s “The Kingdom of This World, Reimagined,” at LHCC Satellite Gallery, in tribute to Alejo Carpentier’s historical novel The Kingdom of This World, inspired by the Haitian Revolution. It includes an etching in glorious oceanic blue by Duval-Carrié. The longest running is “The Visual Life of Social Affliction” at the LHCC Art Gallery, through February 28, prepared by a curatorial team from Small Axe, a scholarly journal highlighting Caribbean writers, artists, and intellectuals. Fittingly, this journal takes its name from Bob Marley’s 1970s song urging Jamaican people to rebel, like a “small axe” against the “big tree” of government oppression.

“I was so happy we could bring this exhibit to the center,” Vickles says. It reveals Caribbean artists responding to historic exclusion and exploitation with arresting visual strategies. There’s “Food for Thought” by Patricia Kaersenhout, featuring portraits of Caribbean women. Imagery and materials coalesce, mixing agrarian scenes and materials like textiles, a commodity linked to colonial trade.

“I love the layers of fabric -- some are African, some are South Asian -- with nods to cultures across the globe,” says Vickles. “But the subject matter is really important. She is centering black women that have been forgotten throughout historical moments. She is taking old photographs, adding color and texture back into them.” Florine Demosthene’s work, showing a human form emerging from an ethereal mist, is “visually gorgeous.”

When Vickles left Colorado, she headed to New York, attending the Fashion Institute of Technology. After graduating, she worked as a designer, arts educator, and curator. Eventually Florida’s warmer weather lured her to the state, where she earned degrees in visual arts and public administration from Florida State University. For close to 15 years, she’s been living in Miami, active as an educator and independent curator, working on more than 30 exhibits. Since 2013 she’s held various roles in the education department of PAMM, becoming department director in March 2019.

ArtFeature_4When talking about balancing the roles of educator and curator, she speaks first as an artist passionate about working with other artists. “I think making art is an aspect of humanity,” she says. “It’s a right. The ability to be creative and make art is a human right.”

A curator, she adds, thinks about how to present works in either a historical or contemporary context, so that an exhibit gives people a sense of what factors move artists to create works in their chosen genre. For her, she says, “curation and education are the same thing.” Whether painting, video, or sculpture, presenting art is about “creating an educational experience. I think it will be much richer for the audience if they can connect to that.” Guiding audiences to make connections to art and find relevance to art in their daily lives and community is her personal mission.

An increasingly visible arts advocate at age 39, Vickles recently spoke in Martinique for a Museums Association of the Caribbean conference. In March 2020, for the South by Southwest Education Conference and Festival in Austin, she’ll present a session on how diversity and social justice can play an expanded role in art education. During Miami Art Week, for the exhibit “Who Owns Black Art?” she took part in a roundtable on gentrification, “Death to Artwashing: Building a Black Metropolis for Cultural Equity.”

Remembering its tough conversations, she says, “In this era when black art is hot, who benefits? Is it helping black artists, black communities? We need to purchase property plain and simple, whether collectively or individually. We need to own a stake in our own neighborhoods, or they’re not going to be our neighborhoods.”

 

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