Partial view of George Sánchez-Calderón, Pax Americana, 2012–2013
Courtesy George Sánchez-Calderón

In the second of two articles, Rafael DiazCasas extends his survey of public art by artists of a Cuban background in South Florida, including vanished but memorable works by Ana Mendieta, Fernando García, and George Sánchez-Calderón.

Building commitment, embracing community life, and raising ideas and issues through a dialogue within the public realm are some of the goals of public art. Carlos Alfonso (1950-1991) is one of the South Florida artists who took this approach in his public art projects. His two murals in Dade County speak directly to the people living and working around the works.

Installation view of Carlos Alfonzo, Ceremony of the Tropics, 1986, in the Santa Clara Metrorail Station
Courtesy cesartrasobares.com

Ceremony of the Tropics is a 35-by-15-foot ceramic mural installed at the Santa Clara Metrorail stop in the city’s wholesale fruit district. “This mural celebrates the relationship of nature and man and how this interaction manifests itself, including the moment in which the fruit is trapped by the hand and given as offering at the table in intimate domestic ritual,” Alfonzo declared. “It is a ‘ceremony of the tropics’ and its symbols, in vibrant colors, in full public view.”

Installation view of Carlos Alfonso, Brainstorm, 1990, on the campus of Florida International University in Miami
Courtesy Rafael DiazCasas

Alfonso’s other significant public project is also a ceramic mural: Brainstorm (1990), a double-sided work created for the Engineering and Computer Science Building on the main campus of Florida International University in Miami. It depicts the search for light as fire, knowledge, and wisdom. Treating both murals as part of the urban landscape, Alfonzo’s aim was to bring into focus the role of man in society in relation to his environment and spiritual aspirations, expressed in his own iconographic language.

Stretching boundaries of aesthetic and ontological values, some artists explore and revisit art as private and public expression, opening avenues for exploration and research—among them, Ana Mendieta (1948-1985) and Fernando García (1945-1989).

View of Ana Mendieta, Ceilba Fetish, Little Havana, 1981
Courtesy Estate of Ana Mendieta and Galerie Lelong, New York

After returning from Cuba, where she had done a series of earth sculptures in Jaruco, a town outside Havana, in 1981 Mendieta created Ceiba Fetish, an intervention at the Cuban Memorial Park in Miami’s Little Havana. At the foot of a sacred tree she “drew” with human hair a stylized silhouette of a man—one of the few male silhouettes she did in her career. Traces of the temporary work survive today.

Close-up view of Ana Mendieta, Ceilba Fetish, Little Havana, 1981
Courtesy Estate of Ana Mendieta and Galerie Lelong, New York

Since that time the image has been activated and claimed by Santeria practitioners, who see the tree as a sacred place of worship, and for years, devotional objects have accumulated there. In 1996, a joint memorial service for the Pedro Pan children and for Mendieta, who was one of them, was held at the location. Mendieta’s other significant public work in South Florida was Arbol de la Vida (1982) at the Lowe Art Museum. The work was done for temporary exhibition and remained in place longer than intended, as, per her wishes, it was eroded by time and nature—in that way pushing the boundaries of the established aesthetic ideal for public art.

Installation view of Fernando García, Making Purple, 1986, at the Ockeechobee Metrorail Station in Miami
Courtesy cesartrasobares.com

Intending to physically engage the public in a direct way and incorporate innovative technical approaches, the conceptual artist Fernando García created Making Purple (1986), an installation at the Ockeechobee Metrorail Station in Miami (no longer on view). Drawing on the fundamental laws of color, García combined 108 pieces of blue and red neon that alternately faded and brightened every 30 seconds, merging to become purple, and in this waycreating a color-ambient mood at the station. César Trasobares, former program director (1985-1990) of the Miami-Dade County Art in Public Places Trust, which sponsored the project, considers it one of the most successful of the Metrorail projects, transforming a utilitarian site and engaging commuters in the artistic process.

One of the most prominent Cuban-American voices in the realm of public art is Miami-based multi-platform artist George Sánchez-Calderón (b. 1967). Known for his large-scale projects, he has developed a significant body of work and become a steady public presence.

George Sánchez-Calderón, La Benedición, 2001–2003
Courtesy George Sánchez-Calderón

A major work in Sánchez-Calderón’s career is La Bendición (The Blessing) (2001-2003), an 80 percent-scaled reproduction of Le Corbusier’s classic modern house, Villa Savove. Sánchez-Calderón’s version stood, fully lit, for several years under the I-395 highway in downtown Miami, in an area at the center of drug and prostitution traffic. The sculpture called into question the relationship between modern development and historic preservation: waves of construction in the city have badly damaged historic districts, caused by an insensitive approach to urban planning. The construction of I-395 cut through the community of Overtown, the oldest African American district in the city, home to rhythm & blues and jazz musicians. As of this writing, the site of Sánchez-Calderón’s studio, next to the sculpture’s original location, has been bought to be demolished for the highway expansion.

Sánchez-Calderón’s latest works, Pax Americana and An American Falla (2012-2013), are perhaps two of his most remarkable, in the way that they link the artist’s personal history, as a son of an immigrant family (Spain-Cuba-U.S.), with local history.

Partial view of George Sánchez-Calderón, Pax Americana, 2012–2013
Courtesy George Sánchez-Calderón

Pax Americana was an artist intervention that became permanent. Commissioned by a high-end international tourist destination, the Village of Bal Harbour in Miami, it combined two elements. The first was a six-foot-tall, stainless steel, Hollywood-style sign of the word “Americana,” recalling the Americana Hotel of Bal Harbour, built and designed by well-known Miami architect Morris Lapidus in 1956. The second element was a digitally printed, tridimensional, scaled-down reproduction of a Levittown-style house, of the type that became known as the quintessential suburban house. This style of house was reproduced en masse in postwar communities on Long Island, outside New York City, where Sánchez-Calderón was born. The two parallel types of dwellings refer to two kinds of urban development and lifestyles, amplifying the history of Bal Harbour and its symbolism in reflecting the aspirations of the immigrant Cuban community, some of whom went from living in luxury to a very basic existence after moving to Miami.

Evoking a sense of historical remembrance, the Americana sign was placed in front of the new residential luxury complex that replaced the former hotel. It remained there until recently, when the developers slashed their ties with Sánchez-Calderón over his architectural and historical preservationist activism.

George Sánchez-Calderón, American Falla, 2012–2013
Photo: Kerry Maney, courtesy George Sánchez-Calderón

The Levittown house was set on fire as part of An American FallaFalla is a 16th-century Spanish carpenters’ tradition, a sort of spring cleaning to burn the remnants of their workshops. The tradition is alive today, having evolved to represent satirical political situations. In a reflection of Sánchez-Calderón’s family roots, the Levittown house-burning took place on October 19, 2013, across from one of newest, largest, and most luxurious residential developments in Miami, which had generated considerable public debate and political negotiation during its construction.

In South Florida, the realm of public art bears a significant imprint of artists of Cuban background. For generations, they have been leaving the marks of their poetry and creativity on the urban landscape. In their diversity of concept, media, themes, and styles, the works themselves are a testament to the wide-ranging and heterogeneous community of Cuban artists in South Florida.

Rafael DíazCasas is an art historian and independent curator based in New York. Interested in modern and contemporary art, with a focus on Latin American art. He writes about art and culture for several publications, and is co-author of Hard Light: The Work of Emilio Sanchez. (Prestel London – New York, 2011). He is currently working on a monograph and a documentary about the history of abstraction in Cuba in the second half of the 20th century.