Visual Art

In ‘Spirit in the Land’ at PAMM, Art is the Key to Climate Crisis

Written By Douglas Markowitz
April 4, 2024 at 7:49 PM

Marie Watt drew on indigenous poetry and knowledge to create her piece “Companion Species: Assembly (Guardian Tree),” part of the Pérez Art Museum Miami’s exhibition “Spirit of the Land” on view through Sunday, Sept. 8. (Photo courtesy of Douglas Markowitz)

Few museums in the world are as emblematic of their city’s relationship to nature as the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM). The marine ecosystem of Biscayne Bay is just steps away from the PAMM’s waterfront complex. So are the skyscraper condos of downtown Miami and the roaring automobiles on the MacArthur Causeway. And just a few miles to the west, the vast wilderness of the Everglades unspools.

Installation view of “Spirit in the Land” at PAMM. Center: “House of the Historians” by Andrea Chung. (Photo courtesy of Douglas Markowitz)

It’s this stark contrast between nature and urban development that makes PAMM’s latest exhibition particularly apt. “Spirit in the Land,” which debuted on Wednesday, March 20 and is on view through Sunday, Sept. 8, examines humanity’s relationship with our planet through cultural practices. Exhibiting artwork in several mediums from a global crop of artists, including art world stars such as Terry Adkins, Hew Locke, Carrie Mae Weems, Firelei Báez, and Wangechi Mutu, the show attempts to illustrate how solutions to the human-made climate crisis may already exist in how different cultures relate to their environment.

Firelei Baez’s work in “Spirit in the Land.” (Photo courtesy of Douglas Markowitz)

“The way that the natural world – the lands, the water, flora, fauna – informs our sense of self and who we are,” says Trevor Schoonmaker, the show’s curator. “It shapes our identities, as individuals, as a community, as a culture, and in ways that sometimes we’re not even really conscious of. I mean, it just informs everything, our spiritual practices, our cuisine, our rituals, recreation. And so the goal, really, is to remind people that we are part of this larger ecosystem. It’s not separate from us, it’s not something out there. We’re not actually trying to save the Earth, the Earth is trying to save us.”

The show focuses particularly on artists and communities from the Americas and the Caribbean, examining how indigenous and formerly enslaved communities have existed within and alongside the lands they inhabit. South Carolina-born, Washington D.C.-based artist Sheldon Scott, for instance, excavates his own Gullah Geechee ancestry in his video piece “Portrait, number 1 man (day clean ta sun down).”

Two paintings by Hew Locke. The Guyanese-British artist drew upon imagery from his homeland to make these two paintings, “Tranquility Hall,” left, and “Mosquito Hall,” right. (Photo courtesy of Douglas Markowitz)

For over 12 hours, an entire workday for his enslaved ancestors, Scott filmed himself harvesting rice on the former Brookgreen Gardens plantation in South Carolina, painstakingly peeling each grain from its husk. A pile of the one-time cash crop, which was more valuable than cotton and much more labor-intensive to produce during the era of slavery, is neatly placed on a rectangular plinth under the screen, with each grain representing an “unknown, enslaved identity.”

The durational nature of the work, and Scott’s intense focus on the performance, led to some surprising moments, some of which didn’t become apparent until after filming had concluded. At certain points in the video, grasshoppers land on his shoulder, and a crane wanders through the background behind the artist.

“There were so many times where the human body just became a part of the natural landscape and was not disruptive,” says Scott, “and that was a very unique experience for me, being a human being walking into this space, and all of a sudden…”

Peter Williams draws on Afrofuturism in his painting “Birdland,” drawing the subject as an astronaut. Like the endangered birds surrounding him, he must also fly off in search of a better home. (Photo courtesy of Douglas Markowitz)

Some of the most affecting artworks in the show, rather than focusing on harmonious coexistence with nature, relate to the ways humanity has already irreparably damaged our home planet.

In North Carolina-based artist Mel Chin’s installation “Never Forever: The Cabinets of Conuropsis,” birdsong from the Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) emanates from two specially built speakers painted to resemble the parrot’s plumage. But aside from a wax model, there’s no bird, and there hasn’t been for over a century. The last Carolina Parakeet died in 1918 after the species was hunted to extinction for its feathers, and no recordings exist of its song. Chin synthesized the sounds using research conducted by biologists on what the bird might have sounded like.

In Mel Chin’s “Never Forever” project, the artist explores the human effects on ecosystems by reviving extinct birds, recreating their physical appearances with wax models and synthesizing their songs based on available research. (Photo courtesy of Douglas Markowitz)

Schoonmaker organized the original version of the show at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, where he serves as director; the Miami version was organized by PAMM’s Jennifer Inacio with assistance from the Nasher Museum. According to Schoonmaker, PAMM, and Miami more broadly, is “the perfect context” for the show given the city’s status as a frontline for climate change.

Annalee Davis’ drawing series “From a Garden of Hope” is based on geological surveys of her homeland Barbados and native plants used in women’s reproductive medicine. (Photo courtesy of Douglas Markowitz)

“I think the exhibition addresses critical issues of climate change, issues of the entire environmental crisis, but it does it through a lens of connection to the earth,” says Schoonmaker.

“. . . If people can see, through these cultural connections, the relationship to the land, their relationship to nature in general, they’ll realize that, okay, yes, this is something that I’m a part of, this is something that I love. And if they’ve realized it’s a part of their every day, they’ll do a little bit more to care for it.”

WHAT: “Spirit in the Land”

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 9 .p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday through Monday; closed Tuesday and Wednesday.

WHERE: Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

COST: $18 for adults; $14 for seniors (62 plus with ID), and students (with ID), and those 7 to 18 years old; free for children 6 and younger, museum members, active U.S. military and veterans (with ID), disabled visitors and caregivers, healthcare professionals and first responders (with ID), Florida educators (with ID).

 INFORMATION: 305-375-3000 and is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music, and more. Don’t miss a story at


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