Wandering the halls of History Fort Lauderdale’s museum, it’s clear that the history of our city is a winding one.
There are exhibits of the Seminole people, who came to the peninsula in the 1700s. Another wing chronicles the building of the Florida East Coast Railway by Henry Flagler — hundreds of African American men were sent to work the tracks in conditions that don’t look too different from slavery. But it’s not just history at this museum; it’s also a tapestry of the past, present and future of our community. That includes the art of the Seminoles and African-Americans who call Florida home.
This month, a large satellite exhibit of Miami Art Week showcasing historical and modern art by the Seminole people will be on display at History Fort Lauderdale. It’s part of an increasing push by Broward artists and art institutions to steer the Art Week and Art Basel spotlights north while also shining it on artists who deserve more attention than they get.
Coinciding with Native American History Month, the exhibit “Patchwork Mosaic: An Indigenous Gathering of Seminole Masterworks” opens during Miami Art Week and Art Basel. It’s an annual event, and one of the museum’s most popular, History Fort Lauderdale executive director Patricia Zeiler says, but this year will be the second that the exhibit is an official satellite fair that’s included in the Miami Art Week catalogue.
“Native American artists and visual arts are not as well represented in their portfolio as perhaps they should be,” Zeiler says. “For us, that becomes a teaching tool for all the school tours, the special group tours, for them to have an experience of that Seminole culture which is really much older than ours.”
The museum first partnered with famed Seminole artist Elgin Jumper, and visitors could see his series of portraits of notable chiefs.
“Our mission is to tell the stories of the communities that built South Florida,” Zeiler says.
Art on Artists’ Terms
Children growing up in Fort Lauderdale are taught the history of their city: Frank Stranahan moved to the area in 1893, married his wife Ivy in 1900, and the two became the de facto first couple. But the Seminole people had called South Florida home for centuries at this point, and their culture is deeply woven into the DNA of the Venice of America. But looking around, you wouldn’t always know it.
“When you look at the history of South Florida, we like to think European history, which is only a very short time,” Zeiler says. “The Native American is the real history of the region. So anything we can do to interpret and bring those stories to life is very important to us.”
Durante Blais-Billie, who was crowned Miss Seminole Florida this summer, was brought on to help curate “Patchwork Mosaic.”
“We’re trying to break free from the barriers that classical art historical narratives have been putting us in,” she says. “Our cultures are thriving and adapting.”
The tribe’s art isn’t typically grouped in the world of oil paintings and watercolor masterpieces. Rather, it’s heavily influenced by textiles, using fabrics, glass beads and organic materials. Unfortunately, through the lens of the western art world, it’s demoted to the ranks of what Blais-Billie calls “primitive, belated” souvenirs and tchotchkes.
“The evaluation of art is not in our own terms, as the visual art of Native Americans doesn’t line up with the established connotation…it becomes very political for us,” she says. “Since our visual culture isn’t designed to be evaluated by mainstream narratives, it’s pushed aside and undervalued.”
Besides the very presence of indigenous art, another milestone has been the next crop of artists, a younger generation, being a part of the conversation. As a culture where respect for elders runs deep, Blais-Billie explains that many young people want to participate, but feel that they must be invited by their elders.
Happily, in this exhibit, the elders included them, and artists from three generations are involved. It is also an opportunity to show the community that indigenous art is not just a collection of historical relics, but also embedded in modern art. Blais-Billie’s sister, Tia, is a Seminole artist whose digital collages, puppets, glass beading, and sculptures will be a part of the exhibit. One digital series, Seminole Village, looks at a village in a world where the tribe is untouched by assimilation or American society.
“Something like that begs the question of how much has our identity been influenced by participating in a wider society, or by being isolationists,” Blaise-Billie says. “As an ethnic minority, your art is always characterized as a sub-category, a periphery.”
In September and October, giant inflatables dotted Broward County. A new form of art to get people talking, different artists created oversized animals, make-believe creatures and everyday items as part of the “Searching for Giants” interactive exhibit. At the Riptide Music Festival at the end of this month, the “giants” will return to the beach as an art installation.
One of the most important parts of this, according to the county, was selecting artists from diverse backgrounds and showcasing their work all across the county.
“Broward County is made up of 31 cities, and Fort Lauderdale is only one of them,” says Meredith Clements, marketing manager for the Broward County Cultural Division. “We’re talking about providing programming and services to 1.9 million residents in the county, versus the 180,000 in the city of Fort Lauderdale.”
This meant not just hitting the beach, but also places like Tamarac, Sunrise, West Lake Park, Miramar and Pompano Beach. And in the Fort Lauderdale location, the county chose Delevoe Park, right next to the African American Research Library. Not only is it providing art to communities that are typically overlooked, but also generating conversations about what art is to them.
Also, the division provides grants, workshops and calls for artists in an effort to provide underserved communities with the tools they need to share their work. This includes programming like Destination Sistrunk.
“I think in order for our region to not just survive but also to thrive, it’s critical that we provide access to the county as a whole,” Clements says.
Another major arts institution in the county is NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale. Coming in the middle of November, in time for the Miami Art Week crowd, is the exhibit “I Paint My Reality: Surrealism in Latin America,” which will include paintings from artists in every country in Latin America.
“Fort Lauderdale and South Florida as a whole is just such a huge melting pot,” says Edison Lozada, the museum’s donor relations and annual fund manager. “We have people from all over the world, and a big population of that are people coming from Latin America or coming from the Caribbean. It’s important for us to represent all of those people.”
Finding Hubs, Creating Spaces
Once the spotlights of Miami Art Week and Art Basel are gone, local artists will still be working to carve out places – including physical spaces that can nurture communities. There is no hub for black artists here in Broward, says filmmaker and curator Emmanuel George. No local answer to New York’s Harlem, or Detroit’s Paradise Valley and Blackbottom, or even Liberty City’s Broadway Art District.
“In Broward, we have so many talented artists, but we do not have one centralized place, and that’s my goal: to establish a hub space for black creatives,” George says. “There’s so many black artists, but it’s so fragmented. It’s all over the place.”
The founder of C.R.E.A.T.E. (Cultural Renaissance Establishes A Tactical Evolution), he wants to bring the county’s black artists together to collaborate and grow — poets, painters, muralists, filmmakers. In January 2019, he co-founded the inaugural Sistrunk-A-Fair, a five-day celebration of black art and history. The event will return in January 2020, where George will host “An Ode to South Broward” at the Old Dillard Museum, an exhibit paying homage to the area’s black history through art, film and archival photos. Come February, works by black artists will also be on display at History Fort Lauderdale, coinciding with African American History Month.
George also hopes for a black history museum in South Broward, like Pompano’s Blanche Ely House, honoring to what he calls the Four Pillars: the neighborhoods of Liberia and Carver Ranches, and the cities of Dania Beach and Hallandale Beach.
And history continues to be written. Dillard High School’s art club is famous for producing talented artists. The African American Research Library opened to acclaim in 2003, and local artists like Nacho Robinson, Afropicasso, KASPVR and Richard Untamedink Dubose are making their marks.
“We’re soaking in the creativity and caring for the creativity that we so often lose in our communities,” George says. “You’re passing the baton; that’s the whole goal.”
Art at Street Level
For one of the people behind some of Fort Lauderdale’s ambitious art projects, those projects represent a chance to build and understand community.
Exciting things have been happening in Fort Lauderdale and Broward County. A long-established art community has been blossoming.
Over the past few years, local arts institutions, cities, county and state have renewed their support for local artists.
Local artist and curator Tara A. Chadwick knows about this. At History Fort Lauderdale, where she works, they’ve created a new changing exhibit space to highlight a dialogue between the community and diverse local artists. In the Sistrunk community, artists, tour operators and local arts agencies have been working together to create “Destination Sistrunk,” an international cultural heritage experience.
As part of both of these initiatives, Chadwick works to keep on “engaging in the values-based art and curatorial practices of community collaboration that bring grandparents’ lifeways into the present so that they can be passed on to the future.”
She created Proyecto Papalotl, a series of public workshops demonstrating the performance, musical, oratory and visual art of Mesoamerican Danza, to keep accountable and continuing to learn, teach and practice these traditional and contemporary art forms of her maternal homeland of Central America. “Part of the work of learning to be a full human being within my own cultural knowledge is to understand how to be respectful of the people who share our geography,” she says. “Building a relationship with the land on which we stand begins with acknowledging the success of the original inhabitants who preserved this space so that we have the opportunity to exist here today. We owe it to the future to ensure this land is still intact for the generations yet to come.”
Therefore, she says, creating spaces where people from throughout the state and even the world can come together and feel willing to be present, witness and perhaps engage is an important aspect of a longterm approach to building unity through art.
“Patchwork Mosaic” is a prime example. This collaborative exhibition of major works from 12 Seminole artists spanning four generations is on view at History Fort Lauderdale from November 15 through January 12. A tour curated specifically for the international cadre of Art Basel VIP cardholders is being organized for the morning of December 7th.
Creating spaces for people to come together and experience different forms of art helps people learn how to respectfully communicate, she says. “Public art is our multigenerational playground, a place where we explore the things that matter to us, like the parts of our heritage and history where we find threads of stories that can be woven together to create a common understanding,” she says. “From there, we can create a pathway to the future where life expectancy, health outcomes, education and wealth are not predetermined by the zip codes we live in. At least, I hope that is the future we are all working toward.”