Babacar M'Bow rises from a plush burgundy sectional couch in a cavernous warehouse on the fringes of Little Haiti. He stoops and pours a shot of rum on the floor. For his missing comrades, he says.
Clad in a denim shirt and blue jeans, the handsome 57-year-old African scholar with a clean-shaven pate pauses as the fat cigar he's puffing engulfs his face in a halo of pungent smoke. Then he levels his one good eye over stylish, black-rimmed spectacles. "I lost most of the sight in my other one after taking some mortar shrapnel in the face while fighting in Guinea-Bissau as a teenager," he says.
On June 15, M'Bow will launch Multitudes Contemporary Art Gallery, a groundbreaking venue near Soyka restaurant in Little Haiti. It will focus on Caribbean art and the African diaspora.
M'Bow, who was born in Dakar, Senegal, explains, "I want my gallery to remain a free space for artists. This past December, I hosted an art exhibit during [Art] Basel for the Cherokee Nation. My solidarity with Cuban artists was built in the trenches of the African Liberation Movement and at the end of a barrel of an AK-47, and not from contacts made here locally."
In 1974, at age 17, he dropped out of high school to fight with Amílcar Cabral's forces across the border in Guinea-Bissau. He later received a master's degree from Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar and went on to earn a doctorate at the Sorbonne, where he specialized in the sociology of the image.
His father, Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow, was the first black African to serve as director general of UNESCO (1974-1987) and was responsible for having both Everglades National Park and Old Havana and its fortifications recognized as World Heritage Sites by the United Nations.
"I see Miami as being more of a Caribbean city than a Latin American one," M'Bow observes. "I believe the city is poised to move beyond being a consumer of art to become a producer of art that's acknowledged at a global level."
M'Bow is frustrated that curators at local museums typically go to Haiti's Edouard Duval-Carrié or Cuba's José Bedia when they want to showcase a Miami artist from the Caribbean region. His space, he says, will seek to provide the community "with meaning by exploring who we are as Miamians, where we come from, what we have accomplished, and most important, what we must yet accomplish."
Both M'Bow and his wife, Dr. Carole Boyce Davies, seem qualified to navigate the Babel of voices unique to Miami. For nearly a decade, she was director of Florida International University's African-New World Studies, where she steered the program to international attention before joining the African Studies and Research Center at Cornell University. She is also the editor of the three-tome Encyclopedia of African Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture. He moved to South Florida 17 years ago and most recently served as the international programs and exhibit coordinator for the Broward County Libraries Division.
M'Bow's upcoming exhibit, "Caribbeana: Alternative Contemporaneities in Miami Art," will expand the roster and explore talent beyond the mainstream, he says. The group show opening marks the official launch of the space. As M'Bow recently oversaw the installation of a state-of-the-art lighting system, Neil Hall, founder and director of Art Basel's Art Africa satellite fair, arrived to inspect the gallery's transformation.
"This space is poised to become a vital component of South Florida's cultural community," Hall predicted. "Babacar is a respected voice in his field who we have worked with in the past."
Among the dozen local talents slated for M'Bow's regional showcase are Cuba's Alejandro Mendoza, Cuban-American Sergio Garcia, and the Dominican Republic's Máximo Caminero.
M'Bow says the public can expect to discover a broad range of styles and conceptual approaches. Works will range from painting to photography, sculpture, and installation, with the overarching theme being a link to the African diaspora's influence on their aesthetics.
"Babacar has an expert eye and a handle on how Africa forms the roots of contemporary art," says Garcia, who mentions that M'Bow's warrior spirit also appeals to his nature. "His rebellious attitude toward intellectual confrontation in terms of exploring art concepts has been eye-opening for me. His space is not going to be a 'black gallery' but rather a place that challenges and provokes thoughtful dialogue."
M'Bow leans forward on his perch and sips a glass of rum. A large photograph of an anonymous warrior, whose features are masked by a red bandanna, hovers over him. He scoffs at notions he won't be able to draw the art-going public to his outpost in Little Haiti, far from Wynwood and the Design District, where most galleries are located.
"We are closer to midtown, which has always been a place that has attracted those interested in the alternative," he says. "Believe me — people will come here to see work outside the mainstream. They are tired of seeing the same type of work over and over again in Wynwood's glut of commercial spaces."
In any case, this isn't the gallery owner's only job. He's about to catch a flight to Washington, D.C., where he'll give a lecture at the Smithsonian Institution about African redevelopment as a consultant for USAID. In 2011, he says, he led the move for Haiti to join the Organization of African States.
But Miami is a particular political thicket, even for someone so savvy in politics. As he speaks, an email from a local publicist arrives informing him that a party scheduled at Multitudes to honor the 17th annual American Black Film Festival has been relocated to the Vagabond at the behest of Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones.
His nostrils flare. "Michelle Spence-Jones is motivating me more each day to curate a show and call it 'Kill Them Before They're Born,'" he cracks, using the title of a Bob Marley song. "I just can't believe she would prefer hosting a black film festival event at a white-owned business."
He adds of Spence-Jones, who is African-American: "She suffers from what I like to call the 'bat syndrome.' [Her] views are upside down. That's the main problem with some of those meddling in the art scene here, man! I want to try to help change that."