Myth Universe

Painted entirely black and dimly lighted, the South Florida Art Center's art1035 gallery has been done up to look like a cross between a religious temple and a low-rent love shack. Entering the darkness from the bright Miami Beach sunshine, there's a deliberately spooky feel to the space. As in a haunted house on Halloween, visitors can touch and play with objects on display. Spray bottles filled with pungent cheap perfume beckon from several pedestals around the room; fat silver envelopes sit invitingly on a dresser. Garbled voices and snatches of music drift down from the gallery's second floor.

This is Can't Trust a Big Butt and a Smile: Rethinking the Legend of Mami Wota, an installation that explores sexual roles, popular beliefs, and media stereotypes in black American culture. Philadelphia multimedia artist Homer Jackson and four collaborators have approached their politically correct subject matter in a lighthearted way, creating an entertaining, campy show that combines artifacts of popular religious rituals with song lyrics and images from movies and TV.

A text that begins "I shall pluck the men like flowers" is scrawled menacingly in chalk on the wall inside the door. The message is signed "Mami Wota," the mythical African spirit whose legend the artists use as a point of departure for their installation. Commonly represented in African art as a mermaidlike figure, Mami Wota is said to walk the Earth at night in search of lovers, whom she showers with gifts before abandoning them to die of mad desire. Here a household altar erected on a silver-painted bureau holds "testimonial" notes from the spirit's victims ("She left me for dead, bleeding in my underwear") stuffed inside bottles and jars. Other containers hold foil-wrapped Hershey's Kisses for Wota's sweet tooth, or cowrie shells used to contact spirits. Several open jars of water stand as offerings to dead souls.

Typewritten lyrics from songs made popular by Marvin Gaye, James Brown, and Smokey Robinson, in which love and lust are commonly spoken of as supernatural forces, are framed on the wall, recalling Mexican retablos and other testimonial religious folk art. Also included are lines from old blues songs -- Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Black Snake Moan," for instance -- that metaphorically allude to sexual urges and promiscuous behavior: the same behavior the age-old story of Mami Wota was invented to explain.

A shelf that holds a collection of photographs of black men with bars covering their eyes could refer both to the mythical deaths of Wota's victims and to the demise of young black men from AIDS, drugs, or violence. This last impression is underscored by a quotation from a hit by the recently slain rapper Notorious B.I.G., painted on the wall above the shelf: "I love it when you call me big poppa."

In the gallery's upstairs loft a red waterbed sits on the floor with four video monitors at the corners, a setup that evokes a boxing ring. Loosely filled with water, the bed rocks suggestively when visitors sit on it to watch the screens.

Jackson and fellow artists Lloyd Lawrence, Charlene Gilbert, Yosephina Baez, and Betty Leacraft have considerable film and video experience among them, and it shows in the deftly edited video, which expands on the Mami Wota theme to examine how black women and men are presented in film and on television in America: a montage of women in bikinis and tight pants; men and women kissing and fighting; a naked couple running in slow motion down the beach. On the soundtrack a mesmerized man gushes, "She was beautiful and the beauty was dripping off of her like rain," over and over again. In a scene from the 1954 all-black musical Carmen Jones (Otto Preminger's modern-day take on Bizet's Carmen), the haughty protagonist, played by Dorothy Dandridge, laughs in a hopeful suitor's face and sings, "Love ain't nobody's angel child, and he won't pay any mind to you."

There are revisionist voices, too. Announces one plainspoken woman: "The perfect black male fantasy: a woman who'll fuck you to death, then see you get rich and drop dead because you loved her so much. This is not my story."

The video could easily stand on its own. As part of this exhibit, it ties the Mami Wota myth to more familiar plot lines. And in juxtaposing the African legend with blaxploitation movies and the blues, et cetera, the artists shrewdly reveal how popular culture in all societies reflects certain attitudes and behaviors -- in this case men's vexation with the fact of female eroticism and power.

Brothers Rafael and Al Galvez have set up the Space Cadette studio off Bird Road as a cooperative for local talent, where bands can sign up for low-cost rehearsal space or recording time. They've also created a sorely needed alternative exhibition space. Openings of Space Cadette's art installations are part of a monthly multimedia event called "The Two Dollar Project," whose two-buck admission supports the space and pays the bands who play continuously throughout the evening in the back rehearsal space. (The next "Two Dollar Project" is scheduled for April 11.)

The small room at the studio's entrance usually showcases work by young artists who have not had a lot of exposure, but this month well-known multimedia sculptor and University of Miami professor Robert Chambers is featured.

For his March 14 opening, Chambers flooded the gallery with banana-scented soap bubbles that spread over the gallery floor and erupted onto the pavement outside, to the delight of the kids in attendance; they covered themselves in the stuff. The foam party feeling was enhanced by other works that vaguely suggested such fashionable trends -- on the floor false eyelashes and a muffin-shape wig of Chambers's own design floated in a puddle of Dippity-Do. Miniature marshmallows in the pastel colors of spring collections filled colored rubber bowls. Something smelled like peppermint.

At the entrance to the room was a huge nineteenth-century bellows, a gorgeous found object of worn wood and cracked leather that could be pressed to blow air into a silk balloon attached to its end (this didn't work too well; the fabric was all wet from the bubbles). With the foam, the slippery floor, the bellows, and various whirring sounds, the sensorial installation had the feel of a science museum display -- a common characteristic of Chambers's participatory works. The most vehemently interactive of these was a special effects cannon, one of Chambers's favorite devices, mounted out of sight on the roof of the studio. Set to a timer, it periodically emitted an ear-buzzing explosion that sounded like a close-range gunshot.

"It's like a herald," says Chambers. "Something to punctuate your thoughts, to clear your mind before you go inside the building."

It worked.

Can't Trust a Big Butt and a Smile.
Through April 26. art1035, 1035 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 534-3339.

Robert Chambers.
Through April 5. Space Cadette, 7339 SW 45th St; 261-7585.

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