Update, May 31: Co-curators Octavia Yearwood and Jared McGriff have released a statement saying the artwork was removed "under duress." Yearwood adds that she was told the entire exhibition would be taken down if she did not remove the memorial to Raymond Herisse. See the curators' full statement posted below.
Ahead of this year's Memorial Day weekend, Miami Beach took a new approach: The city's tourism department recruited local artists of color to put together a series of exhibits specifically for black visitors. The theme was "ReFrame," which the city described as an attempt to reframe the Memorial Day narrative in Miami Beach. Octavia Yearwood, an artist who curated the event, told New Times she wanted to highlight people of color's contributions to Miami Beach and the city's history of segregation.
In the days leading up to Memorial Day weekend — sometimes referred to as Urban Beach Week — the city promoted the art installations on its website, through email, and on social media. But while the exhibits were on display over the weekend, City Manager Jimmy Morales personally requested the removal of a piece by artist R. Jackson memorializing Raymond Herisse, a young black man who was fatally shot by Miami Beach Police over Memorial Day weekend in 2011.
"The purpose of the ReFrame cultural programming this past weekend was to create an opportunity for inclusiveness and mutual exchange. The City Manager felt that the panel in the one particular art installation regarding the incidents of Memorial Day weekend in 2011 did not achieve this objective," Melissa Berthier, a city spokeswoman, said in an email. "After a discussion with the curators, the piece was removed." (RE: Miami Beach first reported the news yesterday.)
The artists of ReFrame originally posted a sign saying the piece had been removed at the request of Miami Beach Police. But in an Instagram post Monday, the person behind the @reframemiamibeach account said Deputy Chief Rick Clements denied police had asked for the artwork to be taken down. Jackson and Yearwood did not respond to calls and emails from New Times on Tuesday.
The tribute to Herisse was part of an exhibit called I See You Too at a gallery on Lincoln Road. The installation, which featured art by Jackson and Loni Johnson, was meant to "explore the effects of propaganda and misinformation on the public's perception of minorities." By Tuesday, the event page was no longer active on Miami Beach's website, although a cached version is still available.
Although police apparently had nothing to do with the removal of Jackson's artwork, the piece was critical of past actions of the Miami Beach Police Department. A description beside the work explained that a Miami Herald investigation found the police's narrative of the 2011 shooting was "inconsistent, contradictory, and missing key information."
"This memorial is to honor Herisse, to affirm #blacklivesmatter and call into question the excessive force, racial discrimination, violence, and aggression often present in interactions between police and unarmed Black civilians," the placard stated.
Shannon Ligon, an attorney for Herisse's family, criticized the city for removing the artwork. "I'm really appalled by that," she said. "If anything, I think it's important that you memorialize situations like [Herisse's death] just so they don't happen again."
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The act of censorship could have a chilling effect on the city's future collaborations with black artists. At least one artist, photographer Johanne Rahaman, has already criticized Miami Beach for its approach. Rahaman, whose name was originally listed in promotional materials and then removed, told the Miami Times she believed the art show was an attempt to "culture wash" Urban Beach Week. (Rahaman says she has never been affiliated with ReFrame.)
"Urban Beach is hip-hop," she told the paper. "If you erase that, then you are really getting rid of the event."
Statement from Octavia Yearwood and Jared McGriff, ReFrame Miami Beach Production Team:
The ReFrame Miami Beach production team was engaged by The City of Miami Beach’s Tourism and Culture Department to present a program during Memorial Beach Weekend, we together approached this project with a question, “How can art and culture step in as a mediator to tell stories from different points of view?” Given the fraught relationship between The City of Miami Beach and local and visiting communities of color, we agreed on programming that would spark crucial conversations about inclusion, Blackness, trust and surveillance. Curated by Octavia Yearwood and Naiomy Guerrero, with artists Loni Johnson and Rodney Jackson, the exhibition "I See You, Too” opened on Friday, May 25 as one of several activations about how propaganda and misinformation have compromised us.
On Saturday, May 26, The City of Miami Beach told Yearwood that we needed to remove the memorial of Raymond Herisse at the behest of the Miami Beach Police, due their being offended by the memorial, or the entire exhibition “I See You, Too” would be shut down. We requested a conversation with the offended parties.
Our request for a conversation was not accepted and another demand for removal was articulated. The installation was removed under threat of consequences that would have further limited our expression.
We stand by our artists and their first amendment rights. When The City underwrote the exhibition, they approved of the curatorial direction and did not ask for curatorial review. This incident was an act of art censorship, and while we as curators removed the artwork, it was removed under duress.
We are currently speaking with our creative team, reaching out the family of Mr. Herisse, and advisors to determine the best next steps. We thank the many artists and leaders who have reached out with their support and who stand against art censorship.
This story has been updated to clarify that photographer Johanne Rahaman is not affiliated with the ReFrame art project.