Magical Mystery Lure

Wendy Wischer sparks the imagination while Pepe Orbein stirs the spirit

In her beautiful new show, Wendy Wischer has harnessed light to conjure an enchanting atmosphere where visitors might feel as if they're floating within the canopy of the night sky.

Her luminous mirrored sculptures become the scaffolding for the constant interplay between light, spectators, and space in a darkened room. The intensity of her works' glow shifts from angle to angle, engulfing the imagination, the floor, ceiling, and walls.

"In Search of Magic," her solo exhibit at Miami Dade College's Centre Gallery, features just a few well-placed pieces, but they harmonically converge to deliver a spellbinding whammy.

Angels & Ancestors: Wischer's eclectic light parade
Angels & Ancestors: Wischer's eclectic light parade

Details

Through November 28. Miami Dade College Centre Gallery, 300 NE 2nd Ave, Bldg 1, 3rd Fl, Miami; 305-237-7186, www.mdc.edu.Through November 30. Contemporánea Fine Art, 1555 SW 8th St, Miami; 305-642-3080.

Situated in the middle of the gallery, Angels & Ancestors (Part III) is a human-scale baobab tree sculpture the artist has covered with 25,000 half-inch cut mirror tiles. She has strategically aimed spotlights at it, creating a disco ball effect. As the viewer orbits the stunning piece, the glint of lights refracting from its serpentine boughs pop like camera bulb flashes at a concert. The spray of lights bathes spectators with stardust while their shadows seem to drift ethereally along nearby walls.

Walk around Wischer's tree, explore its hollows and twists, and become amazed by its power to charm.

Nestled against an opposing wall is The Magic of Melancholy, a phallus-shape piece that ripples light off of its mirrored surface not unlike a cascading waterfall. Standing under its radiant mist, the viewer sees what seem like shimmering soap bubbles of light rising toward the ceiling, while incandescent salmonlike specks appear to be swimming across the gallery's polished black floor.

A trio of boulder-size works called Gemstones, near the gallery's entrance, casts a brilliant shower where spotlights appear to have frozen billions of droplets of water in midair.

Under the artist's deft hand and dazzling play with light, the constellation-splashed gallery exudes shooting stars.

In the project room, Wischer takes us in another direction with her curtain call, "Intermission," an intriguing series of five digital prints depicting barren Miami theaters in which the spectator lands the solitary actor role.

The artist focused her lens on the empty interiors of the Colony Theater, the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, the Lincoln Theatre of the New World Symphony, and the Tower Theater, among others, capturing them from the bare stage.

Some photos reveal row upon row of empty theater seats, while other images take us backstage.

In one of the shots, the curtains have been pulled back to reveal the pulleys and ropes used to move scenery around. At the upper right corner is a winding staircase that allows stage workers a quick escape. It's a nice bow to the unseen drama that takes place behind the scenes during a show.

These photos are imbued with a sense of solitude and mystery, leaving viewers wondering who — a playwright, a director, a janitor — is looking through the lens.

The images capture the sense of loss that might come for some actors when a favorite production ends, or the anticipation an audience feels when the lights go down before a new show. They also seem to hint at the quaky gulf separating entertainment from art.

Wischer's call to join her dreamy, star-filled idyll is an invitation worth accepting.

At Little Havana's Contemporánea Fine Art, Pepe Orbein delves into mysteries of a more potent nature.

His solo show, "Abakuá Lluanza Mgomo Abasi Bome," features more than a dozen paintings and mixed-media works that seek to peel the veil off misconceptions about Cuba's Abakuá society, Orbein explains.

The secretive Afro-Cuban religion and brotherhood, with origins in the Calabar region of Nigeria, was founded on the island in the 1830s by groups of runaway slaves.

Based in Havana and Matanzas, and with deep roots in Cuban culture, the all-male Abakuá society has been plagued by unfounded rumors of child sacrifice and bloodletting initiation rites.

During a visit to the gallery, Orbein spoke openly about the Abakuá, as did Angel Guerrero, an initiate, who held forth with an erudite dissertation about the society's history and checkered reputation.

Orbein, who is not a member but says he conducts himself after the Abakuá creed, covers his paintings with Brikama phrases that serve as the title of the works.

His painting's surfaces are dripped over with bituminous earth tones and are often freighted with images of daggers and African throwing knives called kipinga, as well as complex magical sigils, or gandos, the Abakuá use. The works venerate Abakuá ancestry and also echo the aging, crackled tenement walls of the deteriorating Havana hood where Orbein was raised.

It was helpful to walk through the show with Orbein and Guerrero to fathom some of the esoteric information buried in these works.

But before the grand tour, Guerrero, who has lectured on the Abakuá at Harvard, DePaul, and Northwestern universities and was in town to speak about the secret society for Orbein's show, made a point of clearing the air.

"To join the organization, you have to be a good man, son, father, brother, friend; be loyal, honest, and have no vices; and fill out an application that undergoes intense scrutiny," he said. "We won't just let anyone in."

As for the negative stories associated with the society, he added that the Abakuá have been persecuted by almost every government in Cuba's history even though it has grown in strength to nearly 20,000 members belonging to 150 lodges in Matanzas and Havana today.

"As the Abakuá grew in membership, these governments tried to check our influence with disinformation campaigns. Those stories are false and many stem from drunken brawls during Abakuá parties during which brothers, many of whom were dockworkers or from the lower class, would get out of hand," Guerrero said.

Ekobio Mukarara — "white brother" — is a large round painting in which the ghostly outline of a man bleeds through a tarry black background scribbled over with the ritual symbols and identifying seals of the different Abakuá groups on the island.

It is Orbein's tribute to Andrés Petit, who convinced others in the secret society to allow white men into the brotherhood in 1863, becoming the first organization in Cuba to allow membership regardless of race.

Although membership comprised slaves early on, Guerrero said that when slave owners entered the brotherhood, their dues were used to help buy freedom for slave members later on.

"You have to understand that for plantation owners, a horse was worth more than a slave," Guerrero explained. "As the Abakuá rebelled against these conditions, we became a powerful force for change."

Orbein agreed, mentioning that Chano Pozo, a Cuban singer and conga drummer who played with Dizzy Gillespie; and Martin Dihigo, a ball player who is in Cuba's baseball hall of fame, were Abakuá initiates and that society members have influenced Cuba's music, art, dance, and history.

"What bothers me is that even though the Abakuá helped hide revolutionary Gen. Antonio Maceo from the Spanish during Cuba's War of Independence, you can't read about it in our history books, and that's what we have to address," Orbein said.

Despite its sometimes impenetrable nature, his exhibit still conveys with engaging forcefulness the enigmatic nature of this secretive brotherhood.

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