Sitting at a work table, Nereida Garcia Ferraz hands out recipes for boniatillo con queso to a throng of strangers cramping her installation at Little Havana's 801 Projects.
For the Cuban-American artist, the traditional sweet potato dish was the type of comfort food that made the frosty Midwestern winters bearable during her youth.
"Nitza Villapol's cookbook was one of the few things my 76-year-old mother, Juana, was able to bring with us from Cuba when we came to Chicago in the '60s," Garcia Ferraz laughs. "For me, those recipes and dishes were as nourishing as a kid growing up in those brutal Chicago winters as were the theories of Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault when I studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago later on."
Imperfect Archives art exhibit
"Imperfect Archives": Through October 30. 801 Projects, 801 SW Third Ave., Miami; 305-266-6155. Weekdays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. or by appointment. Exhibit closes with a book sale October 30.
Her work is on display in "Imperfect Archives," an all-woman group show that also includes work by Amalia Caputo, Consuelo Castañeda, Liz Cerejido, Ana Albertina Delgado, Odalis Valdivieso, Eugenia Vargas Pereira, and Angela Valella.
Garcia Ferraz, Castañeda, and Valella organized and curated the show. Another bond the participants share is that some of them recently lost their mothers, while others are coping with moms living with debilitating illnesses.
The exhibit examines the use of archives through books. For these artists, the book remains a powerful catalyst that inspires fantasy, nostalgia, and considerations of earthly and political concerns. The conceptual mishmash features installations, works on paper, photography, paintings, and video and sound pieces created during the past year.
Perhaps most remarkable is that the overarching subtext of the show reads like a fragmented codex strongly binding the women to their mothers.
The artists also stubbornly refuse to concede that books will soon go the way of the dodo or eight-track tapes.
"Books will last forever," Garcia Ferraz intones. "They are the first things we carry with us when we end relationships or when we experience different aspects of our lives. Most anyone can remember the titles of their favorite volumes that have been lost, stolen, or even chewed by their dogs."
She goes on to compare people to dog-eared tomes. "If you think of it, each of us is like a book in different clothes," she says, skidding on the banana peel of cliché. "But while each of us in the exhibit has very different lives, we are still joined by the same passions and have parallel visions at the same time."
In addition to handing out her mother's favorite recipes, Garcia Ferraz created an installation in a room she painted in a dark, tarry tone. She covered the walls with striking black-and-white photographs of the show's participants in grandiose poses as if they were literary figures from the past.
At the room's center, she sits at a table, erasing text from a book about 16th-century Italian paintings. Occasionally she pauses to add her own drawings to the volume's illustrations. Her space looks somewhat like an East German interrogation chamber and exudes a musty whiff of Cold War-era disinformation and censorship.
"I wanted to convey a sense of the lessons we learn and the lessons we lose," she says. "Miami is like the Tower of Babel. People from all over the world live here, but sometimes we lose our literature, our identity, and even a sense of place."
Garcia Ferraz, whose elderly mother suffers from advanced stages of Alzheimer's, says the exhibit is an homage to her mom.
"My mother loved to read," she sighs. "One of the things Mami still conserves is a photo book with scenes of Cuba we keep next to her bed. Although she never got to return to her homeland, she still loves those pictures. For me, what each of us has done for this show has deep roots and lots of branches touching upon many things."
At the entrance of the capacious three-story building, housing several artists' studios, Angela Valella created a sprawling collage installation out of torn book pages, photographs, postcards, and even notes and thoughts jotted on scraps of paper by her mother, Aracely Dominguez Daniel, who passed away this spring at the age of 83.
"Right before dying, she asked for a piece of paper and wrote her final note with a trembling hand," Valella says with a faltering voice. When she looked at the spidery scrawl, it read, "I'm sorry to tell you all that I've always been different than all of you."
Says the artist: "Mami was considered the weird one in her family. I didn't realize till recently how this project has been a discovery of who she was for me."
Valella says her mother was a writer who had an operatic singing voice she often used to entertain friends. "She lived in a building in Miami Beach where some of her neighbors played the piano, and they would get together and perform. When she died, she left this trove of books in her apartment that included early signed editions by Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Benedetti, and many other important writers that left me amazed."
She also left behind reams of her own writings, which have inspired Valella's installation.
For her piece, Valella tore page 47 from some of her mother's books to cover a wall. Nineteen forty-seven was the year her mother married and her lucky number, the artist explains.
She also had one of her mother's neighbors climb a boom crane and shoot bird's-eye-view pictures of her mother's home, which she has integrated into her collage. "I also underlined random passages from the book pages and was surprised to discover a narrative emerging as the piece evolved," Valella notes.
Throughout the rabbit warren of small project rooms and halls in the building, old-fangled overhead projectors beam theoretical mumbo jumbo by French philosophers onto walls. It's an intellectual nod to the deconstruction of text. But it all seems overplayed.
More interesting, though, are photographs by Eugenia Vargas Pereira, who lost her 100-year-old mother earlier this year while rushing home to Chile to be at her side. In images saturated with gorgeous crimson and azure hues, Vargas Pereira swims in a back-yard pool while holding a rare gilded edition of Dante's Inferno. The book came from the collection of Valella's mom.
Equally compelling is an untitled work by Liz Cerejido, who for many years has documented her 77-year-old mother Helida's descent into the ravages of Alzheimer's. For her take on the imperfect archive, Cerejido covered a wall in slate gray and painted phrases in chalk over it, adding a sound element with a recording of her mother's voice.
"I had my mother read words to me from flash cards I gave her before she stopped speaking two years ago. Mom is now in the final stages of her disease," Cerejido informs. "The phrases on the wall are random words I used to describe the experiences of an imaginary Cuban exile family that had very different lives than we did, but sadly that wasn't the case," the artist explains. "Instead, the words you hear in the sound element of the installation refer to how my mother lived more an existence like Penelope waiting faithfully for the return of Ulysses, or in our case, my father, who never made it here from Cuba to join us in the United States."
Although some of the works convey a deep sense of sorrow or nostalgia, none veers to the maudlin or morbid, which enhances the rhythm of the show.
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Odalis Valdivieso adds some welcome humor with her sound piece, The Black Bean Audio Archive. The 30-something Venezuelan artist has worked on it for the past 11 years, collecting oral recipes of Miami's favorite legume from people across town.
"So far, I have 126 different recipes from people like my grandmother, maids, workmates, and other folks I have encountered through the years," the youngest participant boasts.
"To me, black beans are a signature dish that links Hispanics, Afro-Americans, and almost every culture in our city," she says. "Just this last week, I ate a totally new version that included malanga with the beans. They were pretty hearty and tasty."
And not unlike the contrasting recipes for frijoles negros, this exhibit, with its many disparate approaches, more than lives up to its name.