Archival Maneuvers

The Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C., contains more than 13 million letters, diaries, sketchbooks, photographs, press clippings, and other materials that document the lives and work of U.S. artists since the Eighteenth Century. Founded to preserve artists' personal effects and make them available for research, the archive has been in existence since 1954, and has been a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution since 1970. But the organization's effort in Miami began only nine months ago, when the first South Florida coordinator, Kaira Cabanas, was assigned to track down the ephemera of our local art history.

"It's a lot like visiting the dead," the 22-year-old Cabanas, a recent graduate of Duke University, says of the project. "It can be very emotional when people start looking through things they haven't seen in ten or fifteen years."

Cabanas has approached almost 200 institutions, collectors, artists, and families of deceased artists in the Miami area. "There are some people who are very proprietary with their materials, and they'd rather not give them to an archive," she reports. "Others say, 'I've had this box of stuff sitting around in the closet forever. Please, take it.'"

The latter was the case with the daughter of 96-year-old Cuban modernist painter Enrique Riveron, who donated a substantial collection of her father's old scrapbooks, letters, photos, and exhibition catalogues. The documents detail Riveron's career as a member of the Cuban avant-garde in the Thirties, his involvement with the Mexican muralists, and his later experiences as a cartoonist for Walt Disney in Hollywood and as a member of the Group of Latin American Artists (GALA) in Miami in the Seventies. Some of the older documents, exposed over the years to Miami's humidity, had already begun to decompose. They will be restored at the archive's headquarters in Washington.

Cabanas also turned up more recent material that attests to a considerable amount of artistic activity in Miami -- some of which has already been largely forgotten. She obtained transcripts of more than 70 interviews conducted by former Miami Herald art critic Helen Kohen, including sessions with artists who have since died and owners of Lincoln Road galleries that are now defunct. She collected records that document ten years' worth of exhibitions at Miami-Dade Community College's Wolfson Galleries, the personal papers of the late sculptor and Dania resident Duane Hanson, and Sixties and Seventies scrapbooks from the Bacardi Building's extinct art gallery, which now houses a permanent exhibit illustrating the history of Bacardi rum.

"Looking through all this material, you see a real continuity develop," says Cabanas. "There's no written history of art in Miami, and Miami is in need of history. The archive will ensure that these materials -- and their history -- are preserved."

Despite the historical importance, efforts to gather more documents in South Florida will be curtailed as of this month, when Cabanas's assignment ends. The archive is funded in part by the Smithsonian, but a federal grant for projects in Hispanic communities had to be secured to fund the local effort, and that money has run out. For now Miami donations will be handled from Washington by Liza Kirwin, the archive's southeast regional collector.

Once the documents reach Washington, they are restored if necessary, then photographed and put on microfilm. A catalogue of materials in the archive can be accessed on the Internet, and microfilm copies of documents can be requested through the Metro-Dade Public Library.

"The purpose of bringing this material [from South Florida] into the collection is to see it within a broad context of American art," explains Kirwin. "For example, by using our database, you can see Riveron in terms of other artists who worked for Walt Disney, and get more complete information about artists who he corresponded with. It gives a fuller picture of his life and work."

To peruse the Archives of American Art catalogue, contact the inventory Website ( Questions regarding specific materials and instructions for accessing them can be e-mailed to the archive's cataloguing department (aaaemref

Unlike most real estate offices, where art is usually limited to a few prints or forgettable abstract canvases, Century 21Allstate Realty & Investments' ninth-floor location on Biscayne Boulevard in North Dade doubles as a public exhibition space for serious contemporary work. The company regularly plays host to thematic shows mounted by the Center for Emerging Art, a local nonprofit group that organizes exhibitions and community art workshops. The work is hung in hallways, meeting rooms, and staffers' offices, and the affable employees are happy to open their doors to visitors who come to look at art, not talk property. The receptionist hands out press releases and price lists.

Coinciding with Black History Month (and titled with a nod to the exhibition sponsor), "African World Art into the 21st Century" features work by eight Miami-based artists. Although the office is crowded and its bare white walls limited, the works are well spaced, and their imposing presence surpasses mere decoration. Among the more notable pieces, a row of fantastical ceramic masks by Rubbie Laughlin lines a conference room. The small totems incorporate feathers, shells, and beads, and wear funny or fierce expressions: Some look realistically human; others, contorted into collapsed geometric shapes, become abstract sculpture. The hallway houses realist paintings by Charles Humes: A young tough in a Superman T-shirt standing on an apartment balcony while his neighbors mind each others' business from their own balconies in the background; a group of homeless men in an empty lot, an evocation of apathy, misery, desire, pain. Paintings, prints and wall constructions by Alberta Johnson, Dinizulu Gene Tinnie, Earl D. Etienne, and Alan Smith also hang in the hall; in another conference room, Olukunle Oyeneye's small works depict life in an African village.

But the most provocative contribution to this show belongs to Onajide Shabaka, who has hung what is essentially a solo exhibition in a small corner office unoccupied by employees. The centerpiece of his installation, placed in the middle of the room, is a rusty wheelbarrow containing the silhouetted figure of a road construction worker cut from rubber roofing material. The flat rubber piece drapes lifelessly over the wheelbarrow, half of it hanging off onto the floor. More such silhouettes are glued to the wall. The motif is continued in works in other media: the image of a street worker painted on a found sign, etched in pastel on a canvas coated with soot, depicted in negative-image in several large gelatin silver prints.

The figures in the photos possess an angelic glow, and their facial features are obscured. There is something reverential in this mode of representation, but at the same time Shabaka underscores in these faceless photos the road crews' collective anonymity: To the people who pass by in their cars, they're merely inconvenient street furniture. And sometimes, frustrated and exhausted, they no longer recognize themselves.

Titled "Cotton and Iron," Shabaka's installation is autobiographical on several levels. The artist, who grew up in Ohio and studied fashion design in California, has often done road work and other kinds of construction for a living. His ancestors were Southern slaves, and his interest in black work crews finds its broader context in history -- specifically, in the journey from the rural fields to the urban streets. Shabaka's combinations of common materials -- rust and rubber, soot and cardboard -- embody a gritty attractiveness and evocative familiarity, a pleasing physicality that contrasts with their rather grim social message.

"African World Art into the 21st Century" is on exhibit through April 30 at Century 21--Allstate Realty & Investments, 10800 Biscayne Blvd, ste 900; 538-2803.


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