We should begin with the obvious question, you’re a Cuban American artist addressing an African American concern. Why did you decide to begin this project?
Rosa Naday Garmendia
Well, identity, who one identifies with, is very important to me. I do not identify myself as a Cuban-American artist. I am a Cuban artist who happens to live and work in Miami. As a young person I was uprooted by my parents at the age of 8. All of my life I have struggled with this and as an adult I have made a conscious decision about what group of people I feel I belong with. For me identity, is part of a person’s self-conception, self-perception and it is tied to nationality, ethnicity, language, music, food and class, I do not live on the island, I live in Miami for its proximity.
The second part of your question, “Why did I decide to begin this project?” I am an artist who is an immigrant, a woman, and a worker. I do not think discrimination based on skin complexion is a concern solely of Afro-descendants, who of course, cannot escape the legacy of slavery on a daily basis. I do think systematic discrimination based on race, (skin complexion) should be the concern of the entire human race and that includes me. The motivation for my practice as an artist is the human condition. Recurrent themes and imagery in my work include visual expressions of identity, migration, alienation, history, war, and beliefs. My art making process is fed by my personal experiences which have shaped my ideas about injustice and this has been the focus of my work for some time.
You began “Rituals of Commemoration” two years ago. How has you perception on the project shifted before the project began until now?
My view and intent concerning this project has shifted along the way. The public’s response to it has also shifted in the last 2 years reflecting what has been happening. At first this issue was not as topical as it is now. In addition, every time I present the work in the public realm it’s an opportunity to think, reconsider and fine tune my craft.
This began as an initial reaction to Michael Brown’s brutal death. I felt anger, outrage, and disbelief. Through my practice I explore personal political opinions and beliefs on diverse issues. So when this happened I asked myself what can I do as an artist. With this installation, I am interested in making art that addresses current social and political events relevant to the conversations taking place nationwide regarding the role of the police, acts of racism, poverty, and militarization. This installation fuses the lines of object making and painful visceral experiences.
The original idea surfaced as a commemoration coin. You may recall the months leading up to August of 2014 there was a lot happening with US military involvement in the Middle East, Iraq, and, Afghanistan. (The work I was doing previous to this was based on a critical view of surveillance and the United States’ use of drones abroad.)
Pictures above show the laminated coins at ArtCenter/SouthFlorida
The commemoration coin project is titled, “Two Sides of the Same Coin”. I digitally design the coins, adding images and text inspired by the original designs of the (US) half-dollar coin currency. Measuring 3” in diameter, each coin symbolically mirrors the energy and usage of the half-dollar coin. The front of each coin bears the image of the black and unarmed men and women killed or brutally beaten by the police and/or security guards, along with text. The reverse of each coin shows the image and text of the country or world region where the United States has intervened military during the same period of time.
Initially I designed, printed, laminated, and gave the coins away. I was a resident artist at ArtCenter/SouthFlorida at the time, a very busy center and open to the public ALL the time. When I placed the coins outside my studio on a shelf for passerby to take I found them on the floor on two different occasions.
As I made these, folks asked me why I did not make them into 3-D coins. The cost of each coin is $500 plus and very expensive for me. Faced with a lack of funding, I thought of the commemoration wall. The bricks are affordable, initially 60 cents each, now I found larger more durable ones for 41 cents each. I stencil the names and dates of each black victim. Its labor intensive and it involves a lot of research but it is something I can do.
As I began building the commemorative wall in my studio the reactions were mixed, some people totally ignored the work. Friends and fellow artists who admired and purchased my work stopped their support. The installations sparked conversations with some in the general public who wanted to express their opinions and I had many conversations on a broad array of social issues. The most receptive during this time were black youth that happen to walk by my studio.
The driving impulse is my desire to honor the individuals that have died with the goal of ensuring that they are not forgotten. At the same time, I believe this work has the power to unite large numbers of diverse people.
The viewing of the installation can serve as a tool for mourning, making meaningful connections and building understanding that will assist the community, the country, to move forward while maintaining a sense of connection with those whom we have lost. I’m a believer in the power of art and how a work of art can influence people and society.
This is what the wall looked like initially in my studio.
During this period I was also working on another socially inspired project titled “Traveling to Cuba, send me a postcard”. It was before Cuba became popular after president Obama’s December 17th, 2014 announcement. These two projects consumed my time, in addition to my job as a Teaching Artist at the Perez Art Museum Miami. In March of 2015, I took one brick (Michael Brown) and some photographs of the initial wall to Guadeloupe, in the Caribbean, as part of a cultural exchange program organized by Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator. It was the first time I shared the work outside of my studio. It was at Le’Artocarpe and I was able to present the project to 10 artists and the public that attended the exhibition in that Caribbean Region.
View of presentation at L’ Artocarpe Art Contemporain
During 2014 and most of 2015 the response and the interest was not like it is now. I have been an activist for over 20 years; my first protest against police brutality was in St. Paul, Minnesota, in knee high snow more than 10 years ago. This type of injustice is not new and I have always felt how I feel now – one death at the hands of the police is one too many.
In August of 2015, we had a kind of rehearsal of the commemoration wall installation at my new studio on NW 49 Street, where I invited folks to help me build the wall. The response to this was good, a broad array of people came, folks from different walks of life, friends, creatives, fellow artists, folks from the Dominican Republic, Cubans, North American whites, African-Americans, folks who are concerned with this issue.
The building of the wall itself did not go as I expected because of logistics, originally intended to be outside, but because of possible rain we did it in the gallery and folks placed the bricks in random snake like order instead of building it upward. Some folks brought me names of individuals they knew were brutalized by the police here in Miami. One of the homeless folks I invited writes poems. We had been talking about this issue in class, at Camillus House, where I facilitated an art class; Brian __ came and recited a poem about his experience with the police titled, “Atypical”. You can see pictures and videos on my website.
When the “Traveling to Cuba” project came to an end, after several local and international exhibitions, I was able to focus solely on the commemoration project. Week after week, I research the names and the stories. There are several data bases nationally that are gathering the information on line. I compare dates, times, look for pictures, and videos. When the families have demanded further investigations one finds more information, family organized protests and family pictures.
In most cases the police have not been convicted of wrong doing. There are now a lot more videos of the killings as they have happened, so that everyone who wants to can see for themselves.
I balance the research with the process of painting the actual bricks, centering the names, aligning each letter, taping the beveled edge of the bricks and spray painting them. It takes several coats of spray paint and 24 hour drying time followed by removing the letters and tape, the final step is a coat of satin glaze to keep it from fading and scratching. The process is ritualistic in a way, repetitive, numbing, it helps me cope with the overwhelming number of stories. I have selected the colors Reddish Brown, Burnt Umber, Chocolate, Indian Red, Carmine, and Black.
I chose to begin with the year 1979 and the story of Arthur Lee McDuffie, he was brutally beaten to death by 4 police officers, who were acquitted by an all white jury. A grave injustice, and as a result the African American community in Miami reacted in mass, what some call the Miami riots of 1980. I was very young when that happened and lived in an area of the city where the population was mostly Cuban.
Around December of 2015, Susan Caraballo approached me about exhibiting the commemoration wall at an exhibition she was going to curate in February 2016 at 924 Project Space, titled, “The Future isn’t what it used to be”. I liked the idea of sharing this project with a segment of the population that might not be thinking about this issue. As that show was about to come down I was invited by fellow artist, curator, and friend Robert McKnight to exhibit it at a show he was going to curate at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center on 62 streets, titled, “A Mile in my Shoes”. Robert had participated in the rehearsal event at my studio in August.
How was it received there compared to the Art Center?
At the ArtCenter the overall response was one of two extremes, folks either ignored the work all together or thought it was an important project and a few local curators, and arts administrators who I know had favorable comments. The response at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center was very supportive, in the sense that the center is located in the heart of a community who is all too familiar with this topic. It is interesting that no one at this venue asked me why I was doing this, not being African American myself.
As that exhibition came down I received an email from Richard Haden about a summer an exhibition at MOCA titled, “Intersectionality”. He was interested in the commemoration coin project but I proposed the wall installation instead. Around this time I traveled to Suriname, part of a cultural exchange organized by Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator. I have been to Suriname three times since 2012, part of my focus on the Caribbean since I feel it is part of my identity as a CUBAN. I was in Suriname for a week, came back a Saturday night, got on a plane to Cuba on Sunday morning and was back in Miami four days later. While in Suriname I visited the Moiwana monument, designed by Marcel Pinas, commemorating the death of 49 innocent people who were killed during the civil war there. Talking to him and seeing the monument made me think of the commemoration wall in a different way. He had made sketches years before not knowing that one day in the future conditions would be ripe and his original idea, design, and hard work would become a reality.
Detail view at Moca, Museum of Contemporary Art, Intersectionality exhibition
View at Moca, Museum of Contemporary Art, Intersectionality exhibition.
Rehearsal at 4901 artist studios