In 2012, Sharif Salem began taking photos of sofas he saw in Little Havana on his way to work and posting them on Instagram. Five years later, Salem's series Sofas of Little Havana has become an artistic icon and remains a moving commentary on the transient nature of Miami. Last weekend, his exhibition, "Sofa Show," opened at Swampspace in midtown.
Salem is originally from London. He moved to Miami 19 years ago to join relatives who lived here. "I was at a turning point in my life, and I got stuck. It's a hard place to leave," he says of the Magic City.
By day, Salem sells lighting fixtures. The rest of the time, he keeps his eyes peeled for stray sofas. He took up photography as a serious hobby about six years ago when a friend introduced him, but he never thought his work would blow up as a cultural statement.
"There was something about [the sofas] being dumped in the street that reminded me so much of growing up and seeing that kind of stuff," he says. He mentions that the most common free-item listings on Craigslist are for sofas and cites the centrality of the sofa as a symbol in American culture — the centerpiece of landmark TV shows such as The Simpsons.
"For me, I think it works on a lot of levels," he says. "On an aesthetic level, the juxtaposition of indoor furniture in the streets — like sofas in the wild — challenges the notions of comfort and family life." Salem first noticed a sofa surplus a couple of years after the recession, which hit communities such as Little Havana especially hard. On a sociopolitical level, the sofas represent consumerism and "elevate the disposable."
In the wreckage after Hurricane Irma, Salem found a wealth of new material to capture for his series. "It became clear after the initial placement of water-damaged furniture in the street that people were using the piles of debris as an excuse to exact revenge on unwanted odds and ends, including sofas," he reflects. At last weekend's Swampspace opening, Salem proudly sold a print of an armchair discarded after the storm flooded the owner's apartment.
The streetside sofa has became a canvas for Miamians' frustrations as they rebuild.
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You can catch Salem's "Sofa Show" at Swampspace until November 11, when the gallery will host a closing event. All of the pieces are for sale at affordable prices starting at $25 and averaging $100.
Salem's post-Irma work marks a new social avenue for the artist to explore as Miami grows into itself again, as it always does after disaster strikes.
Sharif Salem: "The Sofa Show." Through Saturday, November 11, at Swampspace, 3940 N. Miami Ave., Miami; 305-710-8631; facebook.com/swampspace. Admission is free. Closing event Saturday, November 11, time TBD.