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MIAMI — Now in its fourth year, the Prizm Art Fair is the only Art Basel Miami Beach satellite fair dedicated to showcasing artists from the African Diaspora — whether underrepresented or already well-established. Founded and directed by Mikhaile Solomon, Prizm allows for cultural exchange and the representation of forgotten histories. The art world isn’t the only public sphere that tiptoes around its racism, but during periods of civil unrest and cosmic disturbance, moneyed, white-washed events can feel diametrically opposed to reality. In the face of the struggle at Standing Rock, our president-elect’s racist and misogynistic rhetoric, and the peeling back of America’s already-flimsy veil of “post-race” posturing, Miami Art Week — with its hellish traffic and private jet- and megayacht-riding collectors — can become an obstructive distraction, no matter art’s healing power. But Prizm feels like an antidote.
This year, the fair moved from its former South Beach location to a warehouse in Little Haiti, a neighborhood now fraught with the threat of total gentrification. Prizm, though, features work by Haitian artists and stays put for a full week after the official end of Art Basel. It’s divided into three components — its main sector and two separate exhibitions, Indivisible: Spirits in the Material World, curated by William Cordova, and Kirsten Magwood’s Callipygous Complex. There’s an overarching theme throughout: the unearthing and rebirth of untold narratives.
Visitors are greeted by Musa Hixson’s “Law of Growth” — giant shelved pods that serve as temporary vessels to hold your dreams and wishes. “Write down what you would like to grow,” Hixson told me at the fair’s opening, “and place it inside.” There’s a pencil and a stack of small papers alongside the sculpture, and you place your hope directly inside, sheathed and protected by straw. At the end of the fair, Hixson will bury all the notes, as if they were seeds.
Cordova’s exhibition intends to showcase artists who function mostly independently of the mainstream art world, and many of the works are small — you’ve got to lean in close. A diptych of Andrea Chung’s collages reveals, upon inspection, tears and rips in beautiful, tourist-friendly images of Caribbean landscapes, exposing the locals who do the work and the dark skin that gets fetishized. Born to parents of Trinidadian and Jamaican/Chinese descent, Chung often upends the fantastical notion of the Caribbean’s tropical “paradise” by examining it in the context of labor and postcolonial regimes.
Nigerian-born, New York City-based Onyedika Chuke’s “The Forever Museum Archive” is a reflection on globalization, international politics, and modern-day protests. An untitled piece from the series—conch-adorned sandals placed on a grid-like pattern on the floor—specifically references the Syrian refugee crisis, the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, and immigration legislation. (The piece is also currently on view at the Socrates Sculpture Park.)
The pieces are bigger in Magwood’s exhibition, where the derrières literally looms large. “Callipygous” (per Dictionary.com) is Latinized from the Greek “kallipygos,” and describes having (or referencing) beautiful buttocks. “The butt is an Africanism,” Magwood told me. “It’s shunned in a way that’s different than breasts are, because it’s seen as something owned by people of color. At the same time, you have beauty queens getting butt and lip enhancements. Distinctly African features are demonized and then co-opted.” Photographer Renee Cox uses her own body to portray the Hottentot Venus, also known as Saartjie Baartman, who was one of two Khoikhoi women used as 19th-century freak show attractions (the attraction: their butts). Wearing plastic breasts and underwear, Cox exaggerates her curves and yet owns them; they are wholly, solely hers, and we are the freaks for staring.
Across the room, Kwesi Abbensetts’s cinematic photograph “Sunbathers” reminded me of midcentury surf bum photos, all blonde hair and sunburned skin. It’s hard to look at those images when you remember that beaches were, like everywhere else, racially segregated. In his photo, the women are laughing, lounging, and totally oblivious to the viewer — the seaside is for them, too.
In the main fair, Wole Lagunju’s “Perspectives on Colonialism V” and “Perspectives on Colonialism VI” are bright, Africa-shaped flags, placed in the center of colorful circles. That he has manipulated the British and Portuguese flags into the shape of the African continent refers quite obviously to the influence of African culture on the rest of the world, that its own history is woven into the literal fabric of its colonizers.
Nyugen Smith’s Spirit Carrier pieces are enchanting, hanging in an unexpectedly lavender space like jewels or spirits themselves. They look like hanging mobiles, constructed of found objects like plastic coils, beads, driftwood, lace, and shells that have either been painted or left raw. As Smith described, they are vessels “to carry the spirit wherever it needs to go, at the moment of death when the body separates from the spirit. … The architecture is heavily inspired by the crowns that the chiefs in Yoruba culture would wear.” Along the walls are collages, old maps of the crusades to which, Smith says, he added “the African presence. In looking at these vessels as spiritual elements that occupy the sky, maps are talking about what’s happening on the ground, the earth.”
It’s a testament to Prizm that visitors don’t simply forget the neighborhood they’re in after entering the fair — there are references to Little Haiti’s past and present throughout. Haitian artist Morel Doucet — whose studio is around the corner from the space — painted a wall in bright colors and adorned it with his equally colorful and painstakingly detailed, highly imaginative ceramic depictions of marine life. “I’ve seen his process,” Solomon said, “and it’s one of the most interesting things about his work. It’s long and arduous.”
The most telling pieces in the show, and my favorites, are three photographs by James A. Rush, especially “BLHV Woman in Protest,” taken in 1982. Dressed in all white and flanked by a white policeman, a protesting woman walks down the street with a sign that reads: “BLACK LIFE HAS VALUE.” “Particularly for people in Miami, these images should really drive it home,” Solomon said. “They were taken during a time when a lot of Haitian refugees were coming to Miami and the city was not really willing to compromise on allowing them to be here. That photograph was taken 34 years ago, but that sign is still held up today — it’s just being said differently.”
The Prizm Art Fair continues through December 11 at 7230 NW Miami Court in Little Haiti, Miami, Florida.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated Onyedika Chuke’s artwork was a symbol of the Haitian Revolution. This is incorrect and has been amended.