Art is…a wonderful thing, especially in times like these. Most recently, Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) opened Polyphonic: Celebrating PAMM’s Fund for African American Art. The exhibition itself is a celebration of what PAMM has accomplished with the Fund for African American Art, but it is also a celebration of the ways in which seemingly unrelated works of art can come together in harmony and champion for a larger cause. A solidarity of sorts. Polyphonic was chosen as a title in celebration as well—these artworks, displayed together, form a unity within the gallery that prevailed as a strong and impactful way to deliver a message to our visitors.
The exhibition itself celebrates what is oftentimes overlooked. It is so common, so unnecessarily prevalent, to pigeonhole artists into certain means of creation. At the heart of this exhibition is a rejection of the premise that there is anything like a single, unified African American artistic style or tendency. In contrast to historical efforts to dictate that African American artists should conform to one mold or another, Polyphonic revels in the rich differences that are clearly and proudly on display.
The process was interesting, as most exhibition planning tends to be. The initial challenge was finding the specific ways in which the works could dialogue with one another. This could then help Réne Morales and myself (co-curators of the exhibition) determine the ways in which the works could be hung within the space. Thematically, we knew there were strong and deep connections we could work with. Visually, we were unsure of the right way to approach the space. After moving the artworks around—multiple times and in multiple ways—we came to the right formula. We knew that the exhibition was ready for our audience and we were excited for the reveal.
The way we envisioned the viewer walking through the space varied. One could experience it by walking straight into the space and across the gallery, stumbling upon Vaughn Spann’s Marked Man (Mitchell) (2019). One could turn their head left and have a contemplative moment in front of Faith Ringgold’s Black Light Series #1: Big Black (1967). However, one thing was absolutely clear, the exhibition would come to a joyous end once the visitor arrived at Lorraine O’Grady’s Art Is… (1983/2009).
This work consists of 40 chromogenic prints all placed closely together to form a perfect grid. The only vertical image hangs on its own on the right, seemingly a conclusion to the narrative created by the other neatly organized photographs. O’Grady has worked across mediums to create conceptual projects that interrogate issues of identity, class, gender, and social structure. Art Is… was inspired by a remark one of O’Grady’s acquaintances once made, that avant-garde art doesn’t have anything to do with black people. Struck by this statement of profound exclusion, O’Grady responded by creating an avant-garde work at one of the largest gatherings of the black community in New York—the African American Day Parade that takes place each year in Harlem.
For the 1983 parade, O’Grady created a float topped with a massive gilt frame that captured everything as it passed by—turning the everyday into art. O’Grady and 15 collaborators dressed in white engaged the crowd with smaller frames, allowing parade-goers to stand in the frames and in this way become avant-garde art themselves. The documentary images taken by bystanders at the performances, collected by O’Grady and on view at PAMM, capture the joyful, spontaneous tone of this participatory work, while suggesting the sociopolitical importance of art and inclusion.
The piece serves as a reminder that community is indeed irreplaceable. The work not only gives us a glimpse into the community’s participation but the work itself would also not be possible without their participation. The work comes alive only when others then engage with it—engage with the community who helped create it. There is a lapse in time that is filled and reconnected when the work is on display. Right now, many of us are cooped up in our homes trying to find ways in which to entertain ourselves, reinvent ourselves, bring joy to ourselves. It is no exaggeration when I proudly exclaim that without art, none of us would survive a time like this. The images of rejoice and celebration seen in Art Is… is what we imagine we will experience when the streets are ready for our return. There will be a firm and uncomplicated sense of community that feels overwhelmingly natural, or at least, I’d like to believe so. This series of photographs reminds us that it has been done before and it will be felt again.
Polyphonic is proof that avant-garde art does indeed have everything to do with black people, with brown people, with women, with communities of all colors and creeds. Art is very much the lifeblood of humanity. It is what brings us joy and brings us together. All artworks are interactive—they require a viewer, they require you.
This blog post was authored by exhibition co-curator Maritza Lacayo.
Maritza Lacayo is Curatorial Assistant and Publications Coordinator at Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) since March 2017. She has managed various publications and exhibition catalogues for PAMM including Dara Friedman: Perfect Stranger (2017); On the Horizon: Contemporary Cuban Art from the Jorge M. Pérez Collection (2017); william cordova: now’s the time: narratives of southern alchemy (2018); Ebony G. Patterson…while the dew is still on the roses… (2018); The Other Side of Now: Foresight in Contemporary Caribbean Art (2019); and Beatriz González: A Retrospective (2019). At PAMM she has organized George Segal: Abraham’s Farewell to Ishmael (2019), Polyphonic: Celebrating PAMM’s Fund for African American Art (2020, co-organized with René Morales), and has numerous curatorial projects forthcoming including The Artist as Poet: Selections from the PAMM Collection and Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation (co-organized with Franklin Sirmans). Lacayo has also assisted in the coordination and production of dozens of exhibitions at PAMM. Lacayo curated the Exhibition of Works by 2019 YoungArts Winners (Regional) and the National Winners exhibition in 2020. She holds a BA in Art History from the American University of Paris and a Master of Letters (MLitt) in Modern and Contemporary Art and Art World Practice from the University of Glasgow, Scotland (Christie’s Education Program).