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Written by Elisa Turner, BT Contributor   
May 2020

Diaspora Vibe struggles to help its artists and stay afloat

LArtFeature_1ast fall brought a crowning moment to one of Miami’s veteran arts organizations, Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator. Now in its 24th year, Diaspora Vibe nurtures and supports artists of Caribbean descent. It has long punched above its weight, facilitating international artist residencies and hosting workshops and exhibits.

On November 14, 2019, “Inter|Sectionality: Diaspora Art from the Creole City” opened in Washington, D.C., at the Corcoran Gallery of the Arts and Design at George Washington University, organized with the leadership of Diaspora Vibe founder Rosie Gordon-Wallace. Principal sponsor for the exhibit was the Knight Foundation, with additional funding from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the Ford Foundation.

A multidisciplinary grouping of works by 27 artists from 17 countries, most with ties to Miami via Diaspora Vibe, “Inter|Sectionality” explores the intersection of Caribbean and African culture in contemporary art. It emphasizes the work of immigrant artists whose expression is fueled by the experience of displacement. Embedded in their art are allusions to past and persistent remnants of colonialism.

ArtFeature_2“Inter|Sectionality” joins other exhibits for artists of Caribbean descent in recent years, including those at Pérez Art Museum Miami; the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California; and El Museo del Barrio in collaboration with the Queens Museum of Art and the Studio Museum of Harlem.

“For me to live to see that major institutions are mounting major shows with Caribbean artists is such a delight,” says Gordon-Wallace. “I really can’t even put it into words. I just can’t.”

Now, with COVID-19 wreaking unprecedented havoc on national and local economies, and on arts groups everywhere, Gordon-Wallace has overnight moved from navigating Diaspora Vibe’s most ambitious accomplishment to marshalling resources for survival.

“This is a real reset. I serve on a few boards. Everybody’s scrambling to find answers,” she says. “Those of us in a nonprofit world work on a very small margin. I stay hopeful and willing to share whatever experience and wisdom I have.”

At the same time, she says, she’s a little bit frightened about how Diaspora Vibe will move forward during this crisis, adding, “If the organizers are not financially sound, we won’t be able to stay in the trenches and organize.”

ArtFeature_3Her focus now is checking on Diaspora Vibe artists to see how they’re weathering this crisis, and preparing grant applications for the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs and the State of Florida.

“National Performance Network will fund our artist-in-residence programs as usual,” she says, but as of press time, her search for major funding has come up short.

On May 2, “Inter|Sectionality” was to open at Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture in Charlotte, North Carolina. Gordon-Wallace was able to get the art moved from the Corcoran to the Gantt Center right before the pandemic hit. Plans are for the exhibit to open in September and run through February 2021. Negotiations for the exhibit to travel to other cities, and possibly to the Caribbean, are on hold.

In the context of other Caribbean-focused exhibits, “Inter|Sectionality” makes a special contribution by featuring artists with far-flung links to Miami’s identity as a “creole city.” This notion of a creole city encompasses locations culturally connected to Miami, from Havana and Port-au-Prince to Kingston and Pointe-à-Pitre. Says Gordon-Wallace of this exhibit: “I could not have done it without the many years of working with these artists. I know these artists intimately.”

The exhibit includes two guest artists not previously part of Diaspora Vibe’s roster. Her goal was to focus, she adds, on “how the artists are dealing with displacement, race, and the sociopolitical climate in which they work. These are messy and complex issues. This is not a typical survey exhibition. That was not the purpose.”

ArtFeature_4It encompasses sculpture, painting, drawing, prints, performance, photography, video, and installations. Rosa Naday Garmendia, Devora Perez, and Asser Saint-Val are among the artists included working in Miami. A series of engraved bricks, Garmendia’s Rituals of Commemoration, acknowledges histories of police violence and slavery. Michael Elliot wryly evokes British imperialism.

“Inter|Sectionality” is co-curated by Gordon-Wallace and Sanjit Sethi, president of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and former director of the Corcoran School of Arts and Design. When he was with the Corcoran, Sethi’s initiative made it possible for the exhibit to open there. Before they had even conceived of working together, the two met in Washington, D.C., several years ago at a conference, where Sethi’s talk on racial and cultural bias in the art world resonated with Gordon-Wallace. They became friends. Later, when Sethi traveled to Miami in 2018, she gave him a tour of what she calls “my Miami.”

As one might expect, her tour veered far from glamazons strutting on South Beach. It covered points in the city connecting both her personal life and Diaspora Vibe. First she took Sethi to the historically black neighborhoods in Coconut Grove and then drove over the Rickenbacker Causeway for a view of Miami’s sparkling skyline. Next, they drove through Overtown, Liberty City, Little Haiti, and past hotels near Biscayne Boulevard. She noted how these hotels welcomed black families when Miami Beach hotels were off limits.

ArtFeature_5In her essay for the exhibit catalogue, Gordon-Wallace recalled their conversations in the car that day, how they shared personal experiences with the civil rights movement.

“We shared what it really means as immigrants to live in the U.S.,” she wrote. “We tossed around issues of cultural biases that influence our thoughts and actions. We quoted Edouard Glissant, Derek Walcott, and Marcus Garvey. …I shared the wisdom I gained from my mother’s proverbs and old Jamaican sayings.”

Driving through her neighborhood of Morningside and Miami Shores, she spoke about how black and brown families had historically lived west of Florida’s East Coast Railroad. Then the two sampled conch fritters at Chef Creole and lunched at the Jamaican Clive’s Café in Little Haiti, before stopping for a cafecito in Little Havana. On that day, Gordon-Wallace recalls, “he invited me to mount an exhibition with him at the Corcoran.”

Sethi remembers that day well. “To see Miami through her eyes and her critical acumen was so moving. Rosie is a consummate cultural leader,” he says.

Particularly impressive for him were their studio visits with artists and a tour of Little Haiti Cultural Complex. In his statement for “Inter|Sectionality,” Sethi wrote that this exhibit’s art “can sometime make us uncomfortable, but it provides searing commentary on the way the world works.” With the pandemic exposing deep racial and social inequities, his statement is uncannily prescient.

Now, he says, “It’s a chance to think about a more equitable cultural landscape. There’s never been a more important time to celebrate the work of these artists and talk about their relevance than right now.”

 

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