MIAMI — I’m unsure of the exact percentage of women artists at Art Basel Miami Beach and its satellite fairs, and if I’m being honest, I wasn’t thinking about it this Art Week. I know women are underrepresented and underpaid in every field; I know that as long as this statement is true, it is even more true for women of color. I also know that art fairs are sometimes emblematic of larger trends, and that this is a watershed moment for women — precisely because men, it seems, are awful.
But even without this historical revelation, the women in my life — artists, mothers, farmers, plumbers — are my favorite people; if there were two women or two thousand women artists at the fairs, I would look for them. That’s what I did this Art Week, and I felt lucky that I didn’t have to look hard.
Fair., curated by Zoe Lukov and Anthony Spinello, was an all-women art fair where nothing was for sale, occupying, ironically, the Brickell City Centre (as mammoth a mall as they come). I loved all of it, from Juana Valdes’s ceramic skin-colored “Colored China Rags II” (2012) which references labor and the women who conduct it, to Cheryl Pope’s “A Silent I” (2016) — large banners sharing truths like, “I APOLOGIZE TOO MUCH” and “I SHOULDN’T FEEL GUILTY.”
At Satellite Art Fair at the old Ocean Terrace Hotel, Maya Martinez also showed revealing, personal work. Martinez was part of The Smile That Launched 1,000 Ships, a show curated by Dylan Redford, Lauren Monzon, and Borscht Corp, and she filled a bathroom with a sensually icky and wonderful installation: words like “Baby” stuck to tile plaques and written in seemingly wet hair; a striking, pencil-drawn version of a mirror selfie placed at the bottom of a tub. Women are so associated with bathrooms: hours presumed to be spent in there, preening or crying; heading to public restrooms in hordes; smoking in stalls in between classes. We’re watched everywhere; in a bathroom, we can watch ourselves.
Women ruled at Pulse Art Fair, too. Larger installations were powerful: Fischer Cherry’s “Ferility,” at the fair’s VIP lounge, placed needles, pills — all the trappings of medical conception — on a shelf; Phoenix Lindsey-Hall’s display of 49 disco balls, “Never Stop Dancing,” paid homage to the 49 victims of Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub shooting. Tony Gum’s solo exhibition, Ode to She at Christopher Moller Gallery, won the Pulse Prize — Gum uses self-portraits to reflect on being a Xhosa woman, carrying her ancestral narratives within her body, even as she holds up her phone for a selfie. Painted self-portraits by Hiba Schahbaz (Project for Empty Space) were equally beautiful; the soft but confrontational “Self Portrait with Roses (After Picasso)” throws a wrench in the spokes of dude-dominated art-historical narratives.
In terms of women turning the camera on each other, I liked Carrie Schneider’s (Monique Meloche Gallery) tender photographic series, Reading Women — at Untitled Art Miami Beach — which captures women reading in their personal spaces. It’s no secret most women maintain at least two selves — the one who’s watched, mostly by men, and the one who’s perfectly, comfortably alone. Schneider’s subjects, despite the presence of a camera, seem to embody the latter. Less intimate but equally powerful were photos and clips from the Fardaous Funjab series by Meriem Bennani (Signal Gallery) — a fictional documentary about a hijab designer not unlike Real Housewives. The project challenges stereotypes about Islamic culture by upending them with a kind of absurdity, and Bennani’s humor embodies a sense of generosity. Even if we can’t all relate to the joke, we’re briefly in on it.
Heba Y. Amin (Zilberman Gallery) was one of the artists who snuck “Homeland Is Racist” graffiti into an episode of Homeland. I didn’t know this when her work struck me, first for its visual power — in a fair filled with pastels and neon, her stark black-and-white photos and iron sculptures stopped me in my tracks — and then for its depth. Amin’s project, The Earth is an Imperfect Ellipsoid, employs cartographic research to examine landscape surveillance, its inherently predatory nature, and its ability to make women’s bodies part of the geography. On view are photos and videos taken through a scope, implying sniper’s rifles or hidden cameras. The project goes further: Amin spent five months following the route described in Al-Bakri’s 11th-century Arabic text, Kitab al-Masalik wal-Mamalik (The Book of Roads and Kingdoms), secretly recording her conversations with border-patrol officers to reveal their sexual leering and displays of power.
Other work that examined the contentious, political nature of landscapes: At Pinta Art Fair, in Karina Chechik’s mixed media work, “Hacia la Tierra del Fuego” (included in “Neither Barbarism nor Civilization: Cultures in Dialogue,” a project by the General Consulate and Center for the Promotion of the Argentinian Republic in Miami and curated by the Aluna Curatorial Collective) she re-traces maps of her native Argentina to highlight the spaces named and usurped by colonizers. At Art Basel Miami Beach, there was Candice Breitz’s video, Profile (at Kaufmann Repetto), which features South African artists of varying races reading her biography as if it were their own. Post-apartheid racial representation in South Africa is the video’s real subject.
Deborah Jack’s short film “Untitled (working state of emergency),” isn’t quite in the same vein, but still speaks to the epic mythology of the environment and its dangers. In the film — it was part of Prizm Art Fair’s Universal Belonging exhibition, curated by Mikhaile Solomon — we watch a moving diptych: the swirling bands of a hurricane radar image, the gentle but looming crash of waves on a shoreline, a young girl amongst delicate flowers. At Art Miami, I liked the anatomically correct bear and rabbit sculptures by Deborah Simon (showing with Bernice Steinbaum Gallery), which feature their organs on the outside of their still-fuzzy bodies. The anxiety between human and animal, between that which is contained and unconfined, is all housed in their small bodies — which I also like, purely visually, just as objects.
Outside of the fairs, this theme — the politics of nature — continued at a house on Miami Beach, occupied by artist-run space Bas Fisher Invitational (BFI). Blue Ruin: Nobody Owns the Beach, curated by artists Agnes Bolt and Anna Frost, referenced the paradisiacal but sad qualities of Miami, whose image is still bred for consumption while it remains vulnerable to sea-level rise and the politicians who don’t care. I especially liked Andrea Longacre-White’s piece, “Full Stop” (2017), a cluster of red rope that reminded me of both pool buoys and bondage gear, evoking the control of bodies and the division of water.
At NADA Miami, BFI also featured work by Loni Johnson —“Homegoing,” an installation and accompanying performance that enacted the sacred ritual and work performed by women of color. She burned sage, poured water, and danced through the venue’s courtyard, moving mostly within a self-drawn circle, recalling Yoruban rites and magic. Labor is thrust upon women, especially those from the African diaspora; still, there’s space to call upon one’s ancestors.
Nancy Davidson’s solo exhibition, p e r Sway at local nonprofit Locust Projects (on view through January 20), also employs the ritualistic circle, she told me. It’s gorgeous and tactile, a show as much about the sensuous softness of having a body as it is about the eerie discomfort of the same thing. When I spoke to Davidson, she described “changing the gender of the space”: the entrance portico consisting of roughly leg-shaped columns; the room glowing red, filled with giant inflatable structures and big DNA strands as curvy as one’s outer body, all placed in a circle. The light, Davidson explained, resembles twilight hour, that melancholy threshold; a big inflatable eye recalls both feeling watched and watching the world’s horrifying saga unfold, unsafe in your body.
I felt literally unsafe at Antonia Wright’s performance/sculpture piece, “Control,” at Spinello Projects (on view through December 20). If I’m being truthful, it was not a pleasant experience. Before the scheduled performance, the audience filled out liability waivers, then entered an already-dim room that only got darker. It was pitch-black. We stood in front of a massive barricade — all steel bars, like a cage — and though it was sturdy, it was hard to know if you were safe. From several feet behind it, Wright, invisible to us, was loading up an air cannon with crowd-control barricades. A red or white light would occasionally flash; then we’d hear the sound of the smaller barricades slamming against the bars, projected at us at who-knows-how-many-miles per hour. My eyes teared when I heard the cannon release its projectiles, and I couldn’t exhale until after they’d come crashing toward me. I felt scared and vulnerable.
But these feelings come with putting one’s body on the frontlines, and that’s exactly what Wright is exploring: protesting and resisting in a climate conducive to violence and retaliation. The end result, for me, was empathy; after processing my own fear, I imagined the countless people who feel or felt this impending disaster and danger daily: people in war-torn spaces, people in marginalized communities, my ancestors.
Empathy was the heart of Tania El Khoury’s immersive theater piece/interactive installation, “Gardens Speak,” which has traveled the festival circuit and made an appearance in Miami via MDC Live Arts. Participants entered a quiet space and were given a card with a name written on it in Arabic; upon encountering a miniature cemetery, we matched the name to a tombstone. We dug in the soil to find soft plaques emblazoned with information about the person, who was symbolically buried there — then we lay in the dirt, ears to the ground, to hear a first-person narrative about their life and death.
The ten audio pieces were constructed from the stories of Syrian dissidents of President Assad’s regime. Funerals in public spaces leave families vulnerable to targeting by the regime, and so their loved ones are buried in gardens, underneath flowers and trees and family. Though participants were given hooded ponchos so as not to get dirty, we were barefoot, and my quiet weeping made the soil stick to my face. With my heart struck — I was paired with Ayat, who was so young when she died — I felt relieved when we were instructed to write a note to the deceased dissident (if we wished) to bury back in the soil. These notes will potentially be shared with their loved ones. I wrote to Ayat, wishing, deeply, that she were alive.
To soothe myself, I went to Emerson-Dorsch’s Sunrise, Sunset (on view through January 19), which was mostly silent. I was already biased — the show’s theme revolves around a story by Edwidge Danticat, who I love. That the story speaks to intergenerational relationships made a collaborative piece between Frances Trombly and Lynne Golob Gelfman, “Unravel 4” (2017), all the more special. Trombly, who primarily works with textiles, unraveled the threads of a canvas painting by Golob Gelfman, then re-wove them back in, creating a gently textured work. It’s an aesthetically pleasing testament to some of the tasks associated with women: handcrafts and weaving, but also mutual understanding. The people who support women best are other women.