It's impossible to imagine a better city than ours as a host for the mojo-manic exhibit currently on view at the Miami Art Museum. After all, who hasn't run across a decapitated chicken offered to the Yoruban gods? Or perhaps stepped into a pile of ground-up blanched bones and cemetery earth at the county courthouse spilled outside a judge's chamber by someone desperate to avoid sentencing?
Co-organized by the Menil Collection and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center and curated by Franklin Sirmans, "NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith" packs a potent wallop and is freighted with many of the religious beliefs of those who have migrated here from distant shores.
The sprawling show corrals 50 works by 33 artists in an arresting variety of media ranging from sculpture to photography, assemblage, video, and performance. The exhibition was inspired by the African-American writer Ishmael Reed's Neo-HooDoo Manifesto, which explores the role of spirituality outside organized religion. The artists here address ritual in the artistic process and the broader implications of spirituality in contemporary art.
"NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith": Through May 24. Miami Art Museum, 101 W Flagler St., Miami; 305-375-3000, miamiartmuseum.org. Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday noon to 5 p.m.
"The artists whose work is on view in 'NeoHooDoo' are drawn from throughout the Americas, which makes it an ideal exhibition for Miami Art Museum," director Terence Riley observes. "It complements the museum's role as a bridge between continents and cultures."
Many of the artists whose work is on display have strong Miami ties. Local artist Jose Bedia, an initiate of Palo Monte — an African-derived religion practiced in Cuba — literally raises the hair with his powerfully charged installation The Things that Drag Me.
Bedia has painted a double-headed, spectral figure on a wall and placed a toy bridge to span the distance between its skulls to imply that opposing minds think as one. Bedia is also a student of Native American beliefs. On the chest of the looming figure, which symbolizes Bedia himself, the artist has collaged four archival images of Lakota Indians or Kongo priests engaged in ritual ceremonies.
The photos are placed on the upper torso in spots where cuts for ritualistic blood offerings are made during the Plains Indian Sun Dance ceremony and Palo initiation rites. Chains are anchored to these metaphorical wounds and stretch across the gallery space; they are attached to a pair of wooden boats powered by unseen forces that drag the figure to the unknown.
The boats brim with a mysterious arsenal of ceremonial objects such as a bison's skull and bundles of sage or jagged wooden sticks and bottles of aguardiente. One of the boats relates to Afro-Cuban tradition, the other to the Native American. Both are loaded with items pregnant with religious and cultural meaning. They seem to suggest that we carry our beliefs as a blessing or burden wherever we go.
Nearby is Radcliffe Bailey's equally impressive Storm at Sea, in which waves of dismembered piano keys snake across the gallery floor in a tangled jumble. A black model of a Spanish caravel appears storm-tossed. In the corner, watching the tempest, is a wooden sculpture of Shango, the Yoruban god of thunder and lightning. Bailey's searing commentary on the Middle Passage clearly evokes the horrors of the slave trade while hinting at the influence of jazz and the indomitable African-American spirit on the New World.
Around the bend, Cuban artist Kcho is represented by two works in which the Florida Straits become an allegory for exile and displacement. One of them is composed of stacked and rusty metal boat propellers and references Brancusi's Endless Column. The other is a missile-shaped wooden kayak pierced with dozens of prickly pointed marlin spears. The pierced form refers to the African wood fetishes known as nkisi nkondi, in which nails and other metal objects have been pounded in hope for justice in settling disputes, wall text informs.
Both of the artist's pieces evoke the rickety vessels that Cubans, Haitians, and others have risked their lives upon fleeing turmoil at home in search for freedom or fortune. On an adjacent wall, Rebecca Belmore seeks to convey notions of how revisionist history covers up violence toward women. In her stunning lightbox photo titled Fringe, a woman is seen reclining on her side with her back to the spectator. A thick diagonal scar snakes down the length of her back; it's not unlike the ropey sutures one sees on a cadaver in the morgue. From the unsightly wound, crimson strands of beads drip like blood, blurring the distinction between wound and decoration.
Another artist who literally exposes herself to violence to convey political injustice with the fervor of a zealot is Regina Jose Galindo, who places her body in danger to underscore the harsh realities confronting our world today. She appears in a series of three short videos titled 150,000 Volts, Social Cleansing, and Confession. In the first she is seen walking on a crowed street until a stranger comes up to her and zaps her repeatedly with a Taser, knocking her to the asphalt. The second one shows her naked and helpless against a massive stone wall as a man uses a pressure cleaning hose on her body until she drops on the ground and coils into a ball for protection. In the third clip, Galindo appears in a basement where a hulking brute repeatedly dunks her head in an oil drum full of water. At one point, after a frightful long period of submersion, Galindo despairingly taps on the container until the man pulls her out and slams her onto the concrete.
The harrowing acts she willingly endures bring to mind waterboarding and political torture. Galindo's works are not for the faint-hearted. Her discomfiting scenes laser-imprint themselves onto your brain pan and replay endlessly long after you leave the museum.
Doris Salcedo also makes visceral impact with Atrabiliarios, enshrining those who have disappeared amid political violence in her native Colombia. She has used actual shoes worn by victims and inserted them into small niches carved into the gallery walls and covered by opaque stitched animal skins. These little caskets become provocative monuments to the deceased and a chilling reminder of the silenced.
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One of the most unusual videos on display is Michael Joo's Salt Transfer Cycle in which the nude artist appears swimming in a ton of MSG, then emerging salt encrusted to ritually express the complex transactions between living things and inanimate elements.
He reappears in a forest clearing where he sits deathly still until a herd of elk approaches and laps at his body as a salt lick. Adding some wit and humor to the mix is Brian Jungen, who has stacked golf bags floor to ceiling to create two colossal columns reminiscent of totem poles. He does so as a critique of the commodification of native imagery.
In his Beer Cooler, Jungen — who is of mixed European and Native American ancestry — carved the sides of a plastic cooler with skulls, flame, an eagle, and a dreamcatcher. By placing beer cans in the cooler and the cooler in a museum, Jungen has stated that he is "giving alcohol back to the Europeans."
At MAM, "NeoHooDoo" includes a mind-jarring range of depictions of spirituality that will bring you back again and again to plumb its enigmatic depths.