MIAMI (AP) - To the late songstress and civil rights activist Nina Simone, the role of an artist was quite clear:
“An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times,” she once told an interviewer.
Although filmed decades ago, Simone’s words feel especially prescient in 2020 as the country grapples with its history of racism. Videos of police brutality against Black people hit the internet almost weekly. White teenagers are allowed to walk right past police officers with assault rifles. Black people are being killed for counterfeit bills, jogging and sometimes in their own homes.
It is under these circumstances that Johanne Rahaman, a Miami-based photographer of Trinidadian descent, felt moved to pull her exhibit on the historical contributions of Florida’s Black workers from the HistoryMiami Museum before it was unveiled. She publicly severed ties with the museum in late July.
“These images need to be respected and honored in spaces that are reflective of the communities I photograph,” Rahaman said.
Rahaman’s stance is representative of a movement permeating cultural institutions worldwide as they reevaluate the ways in which they’ve upheld values of white supremacy. By calling out HistoryMiami through a series of Instagram posts, the photographer has forced the museum’s leadership to do the same.
“We’re committed to making those changes,” said Jorge Zamanillo, the executive director of HistoryMiami. “We want (change) to be meaningful and we want it to be long lasting.”
Rahaman’s exhibit, “Embracing the Lens: the Black Florida Project,” was meant to breath new life into a forgotten part of the Sunshine State’s history. Known as the father of Miami, Henry Flagler built an industrial empire on the backs of Black labor, essentially enslaving thousands to construct his Florida East Coast Railway between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Neighborhoods originally comprised of Black workers dotted the railroad which extended from Jacksonville to Key West.
In 2014, Rahaman began capturing Black life along those tracks. She photographed a classically-trained pianist in Pompano, an ex-president of the NAACP Monroe County chapter in Key West and former members of local gangs who defended protesters against the Klu Klux Klan in Jacksonville. The images form a striking showcase generally not afforded to working-class communities, especially those of African descent.
“My project is about challenging stereotypes. It’s about celebrating who we are in spite of where we are and in spite of where people think we are,” Rahaman said.
Rahaman also was fueled by nostalgia for her native Trinidad, where working-class communities are often overlooked despite their rich culture. The project consumed her weekends, vacation days and nearly every moment away from her day job as an office administrator.
“Low-income, working class communities are always shunned and treated as less than and I’ve been using my work to challenge that narrative,” she said.
Originally self-funded, the project received backing from the Knight Foundation in late 2017. A stipulation of that grant required her to display the work in a public space, which led to the partnership with HistoryMiami the very next year. Zamanillo remembered being excited about the exhibit.
“She has a very talented photography eye and she was doing work in the communities: being with people, seeing their experiences, their situations,” Zamanillo recalled of the work. “There was no covering anything up. It was pure, documentary photography.”
HistoryMiami set a target opening date of March 2020. But according to Rahaman, the relationship soon went awry.
“It felt like we had to fight for everything and I had to constantly battle them for every aspect of this show,” Rahaman said.
One of the early challenges Rahaman encountered was in with her decision to use an outside curator, a choice she made to prevent the exhibit from being arranged through the lens of white ethnocentrism, she said. Rahaman’s selection of Dr. Jeffreen Hayes, an art historian and curator whose “AFRICOBRA: Nation Time” exhibit appeared in the 2019 Venice Biennale, was met with questions concerning her credentials.
Hayes remarked she’d “never been asked” about her experiences in her more than decade-long tenure in curating. “I understood it to be the way white institutions work when they don’t know you,” she added.
Zamanillo acknowledged how the questions might have been perceived negatively but said It is the museum’s standard vetting process.
“I didn’t know (Hayes) so we questioned who is she,” he added. “She sent us her resume and by the next day, we said ‘Please hire her she’s great.’”
‘THE TIPPING POINT’
After COVID-19 delayed the opening, Rahaman began to rethink her relationship with the museum. Then she saw an image of the Minneapolis police officer driving his knee into the back of George Floyd’s neck.
“It was the tipping point,” Rahaman said holding back tears.
Other US and British museums have come under fire for lukewarm responses to the protests, taking an “All Lives Matter” approach without specifically acknowledging the historical racism against Black people. Rahaman viewed the HistoryMiami reaction as tepid and decided to demand change.
In late June, she and Hayes began creating a list of non-negotiable changes they’d like to see before their work was unveiled. These suggestions diversifying the board which currently contains one person of African descent, renaming the museum’s signature Henry Flagler Award after early 20th century Black millionaire D.A. Dorsey and boosting job recruiting efforts at historically Black colleges and universities.
What Rahaman and Hayes encountered was nothing new. The reactions are indicative of a larger problem rooted in the history of museums, according to art historian Dr. Cheryl Finley. Citing historical figures such as 17th century Dutch philosopher Ole Worm, who created one of the first modern museum displays, and 18th century American museum founder Charles Willson Peale, Finley explained how the first museums reinforced warped notions of racial superiority.
“There’s a certain hierarchy, a certain way to categorize not just these objects of the natural world but objects of our world as it relates to human beings,” Finley said, referring to the historic colonial practice of removing artifacts from original cultures and displaying them elsewhere. Case in point, she notes: the rather prescient museum heist scene in “Black Panther.”
That dated mindset shows why museums are currently tasked with reimagining their societal roles. European museums have been called to repatriate stolen African artifacts. Minnesota museums - the contemporary Walker Art Center and the encyclopedic Minneapolis Institute of Art - cut their contracts with the city’s police department. New York’s Whitney Museum of Art canceled a scheduled exhibition of artworks created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement over the way the works were acquired, often without compensation to the artists.
Locally, both the Musuem of Contemporary Art - North Miami and the Perez Art Museum of Miami have sought to widen their reach over the past several years. MOCA NOMI’s former director Babacar M’Bow, whose tenure was marred by allegations of sexual harassment, made showcasing Black artists a priority, a move that current director Chana Budgazad Sheldon championed and then elevated with the museum’s internationally lauded “AFRICOBRA: Messages to the People” exhibit which Hayes curated in 2019. Similarly, PAMM director Franklin Sirmans, the first African American to serve in that capacity, has worked tirelessly to ensure that all communities feel welcomed and see themselves in the works that adorn the institution’s walls.
Sirmans’ efforts with PAMM provides a blueprint for Finley, who teaches as part of the distinguished visiting director of the Atlanta University Center Art History and Curatorial Studies Collective.
“They can go and sort of reimagine, reinvent, break down, tear down and rebuild the idea of a museum in their vision by being able to critique these histories of racism and exclusion that we know are prominent and prevalent at most major museums in the United States if not even globally,” Finley said, a process she calls “decolonizing museums.”
Dr. Joanne Hyppolite, a Black women, spent a decade at HistoryMiami between 2004-2014 before landing her current role at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Though microaggressions did happen, she said they were no more as frequent as other spaces that lack Black people in positions of power. She spoke glowingly of her time on the HistoryMiami staff yet noted diversity still was an issue.
“I had a place at the table and a voice at the table,” said Hyppolite, who briefly served as HistoryMiami’s executive curator before her departure. “Should they have been doing more work to think about how to diversify the rest of the staff? Yes, and so should all of Miami’s institutions.”
Although she hopes HistoryMiami’s commitment to diversity can spur change, Hyppolite also implored the Black community to hold the museum accountable.
“It really does have to start at the top with (Zamanillo), so our job as the Black community is to monitor that and make sure that it’s actually happening,” Hyppolite added.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
As Rahaman sat in the foyer of the Haitian Cultural Arts Center in late August, she looked uncomfortable. The events of the past month clearly weighed on her. More comfortable behind the scenes, Rahaman was not used to the attention that has come after announcing she severed her partnership with HistoryMiami on July 25.
“This thing that happened brought me into the spotlight, which is not a place I like being,” she said. “At all.”
The publicity, however, has pushed HistoryMiami to improve its relationship with Black and brown communities. A letter posted on its website detailed some of these changes, which include stripping Flagler’s name from the award, mandatory staff anti-racist training and creating spaces to engage with the Black community. On the issue of diversity, the museum administration has pledged to increase the number of African Americans on both its staff and board of trustees.
“In regards to the issues of social justice, racial equity, organizational diversity - museums around the world, specifically ours, can do a better job representing the communities we serve,” Zamanillo said.
Rahaman’s guard finally fell during her final interview with the Miami Herald. Tears streamed down her face as she reflected on the events since her public pronouncement.
The Black Florida Project will eventually be shown publicly; deails are still being finalized. Still, Rahaman’s decision forgo her original showcase adds a level of nuance to Simone’s vision for artists; sometimes it’s their actions that must reflect the times.
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