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Dirt. God created man from it. We grow our food in it. And it's where most of us go to rest in the end.
For South Florida artist, curator, and writer Onajide Shabaka, the primordial substance is also the inspiration for "DIRT Yuta Suelo Udongo Tè," a new exhibit opening in the Design District during this weekend's Second Saturday Art Walk.
"I visited Ely, Minnesota, in 1999 to spend Memorial Day weekend with a friend who's a computer geek there and stay in a cabin," Shabaka recalls. "I would take long walks to explore the area and just discovered this really beautiful red-oxide earth near an abandoned iron ore open-pit mine. I began collecting it to use as part of my art practice."
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At the time, Shabaka — who is also founder of the Miami Art Exchange blog — had been exploring deities common in the Yoruba religion in West Africa and filtering their symbolism into his artwork.
Shabaka returned to Ely for several other visits to continue his "botanical research." He began shipping his trove of found objects back home.
After an inspiring conversation with Miami artist William Cordova "about dirt and its relevance to diverse cultures," Shabaka decided to organize and curate an exhibit around the concept. Research brought back memories of Shabaka's childhood. "My folks are from Tennessee and South Carolina," he says, "and I remember that growing up, I would hear stories my mother and others told about women eating dirt while pregnant because of its nutritional value... Some people think of the substance as dirty, but we need it to live."
The "Dirt" exhibit includes works from a dozen artists. It explores our obsession with cleanliness, cycles of destruction and creation, and more. It includes sculpture, photography, paintings, drawings, mixed-media works, and even a delicate piece of Raku pottery.
One of the most interesting is Jovan Karlo Villalba's The Wake, a sculpture-like painting rising from the floor and surrounded by a mound of dirt at the pedestal.
West Palm Beach's Veronica Scharf Garcia also catches the eye with a delicate ceramic piece titled Soiled on Blue. It's a salver, a tray typically used by a servant to present a letter or business card. She created the tiny piece of Raku pottery by removing it from a hot kiln and later firing it in a metal trash can filled with burning newspaper.
"The technique gives the ceramic an unpredictable crackled surface," the 53-year-old artist explains. "[It] deals with notions of unbalanced nature."
Shabaka himself contributed a micro-installation employing the red dirt from Minnesota's Vermilion Iron Range. Next up, he says, "I am also interested in personal pollution and will be exhibiting garments of a deceased friend who was an iron worker named Richard."