Visual Art

Miami MoCAAD museum sees the future as it unveils virtual reality work

Written By Sergy Odiduro
March 18, 2024 at 6:41 PM

Miami MoCAAD will unveil a Knight New Work piece at the Black Archives Historic Lyric Theater in Overtown on Thursday, March 21 as part of an event that features the “Strange Fruit” series by French Caribbean artist Marielle Plaisir. (Photo courtesy of Marielle Plaisir Studios)

Overtown. Coral Gables.

Everyone knows that the two neighborhoods are two worlds apart. Or are they?

A new virtual reality exhibit at the Miami Museum of Contemporary Art of the African Diaspora (Miami MoCAAD) seeks to answer this question.

In a Knight New Work piece entitled “The Day I Heard the Sounds of the World: ARt Connecting Communities-Overtown and Coral Gables,” French Caribbean artist Marielle Plaisir explores this connection.

Her piece will be unveiled at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 21  at the Black Archives Historic Lyric Theater in Overtown as part of an event that includes eight pieces from her “Strange Fruits” exhibit.

The showing will also feature a documentary produced by five-time regional Emmy Award winner Michael Anderson, a fireside chat with Plaisir, and a performance by Emmy-nominated recording artist Alexander Star.

Following the premiere, Plaisir’s Knight New Work piece will join her ongoing exhibit on view at the Coral Gables Museum through Sunday, April 28.

Marilyn Holifield, Miami MoCAAD’s co-founder, said that the night will highlight an association between two locales that most wouldn’t think of.

“Until I started getting involved in this project, I did not connect the dots between Coral Gables and Overtown,” Holifield admits.
She is far from alone.

“I would have never thought of the two communities,” agrees Dr. Dorothy Fields, a local historian. “I mean, this was Marilyn’s genius.”

Since teaming up with Fields, a colorful view of Miami’s history has emerged, one that weaves two communities together in a patchwork quilt trimmed with an unscrutinized past. To sew these pieces together Holified knew Fields was the perfect person to ask.

“7 The doll” will be featured in Miami MoCAAD’s virtual reality exhibit. The event explores the overlooked relationship between Overtown and Coral Gables. (Photo Courtesy of Marielle Plaisir Studios)

“From the very beginning, I knew that Dr. Fields had to be a part of the project and I knew that she could be an anchor for contextualizing the theme of art connecting community: Overtown and Coral Gables. And even in the course of our informal conversations, it’s been such a learning experience to hear her talk about the development of these two communities and their interdependence.”

When approached to assist in the project, Fields jumped at the opportunity.

“I had a chance to learn a good bit about Coral Gables through my early work in 1974, to 1976 at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida now known as History Miami . . . so when this project came up, and I was asked to participate. I was very excited about it. And still am.”

Once they both took a closer look, the connections were clear.

“Black laborers were the primary workforce in Miami for the first 50 years of the city's existence. And of course, as a result of my research, we know that a third of the men who stood for the incorporation of the city of Miami were black,” says Fields.

“And so they went to work in the Gables during the week, five days a week. but in the evenings, and on weekends, they built their own community. And so at the same time that they were building these historic structures in the Gables they were building historic structures in Overtown.”

Longshoremen, in particular, were crucial to this process.

“In the early days, they did the dirtiest jobs, the hardest jobs, but they were very important jobs,” says Holifield. “They were essential jobs. And sometimes it is staring you right in the face but you don’t realize the contribution that Black people have made historically, not only in Miami, but in the entire United States.”

Commissioning a piece that would serve as an artistic mouthpiece for this discovery, bubbled up during a collaborative effort between Holifield and Elvis Fuentes, who serves as executive director at the Coral Gables Museum.

The duo worked hand in hand to petition the Knight Foundation but ultimately Holifield served as their lead.

“It was decided that Miami MoCAAD would formally submit the application because the new art was to incorporate technology and we’ve been working to inspire interest in art through technology,” says Holifield.

Once Miami MoCAAD won the award, they then tapped Miami-based Xennial Digital, an augmented and virtual reality tech firm, to provide the logistics for the exhibition.

Meanwhile, Plaisir focused on using virtual reality to bring their discoveries to life. “First of all, I am a painter,” says Plaisir. “So I see the world as a painting. Everything I create is a painting even if I’m using virtual reality. Modulating the painting in VR is absolutely the same. It’s just the medium that I am changing. But my intention has always been to make immersive work. But the virtual reality process allows me to touch more deeply this immersive process.”

The advantages of using it are clear. Art is not merely seen but it is transformed into an experience for the viewer.

“The Divine comedy II” by Marielle Plaisir. The French Caribbean painter utilizes virtual reality as a way to connect with the viewer through their senses. (Photo Courtesy of Marielle Plaisir Studios)

“Virtual reality allows me to have the psychological effect of the senses. That means you are seeing and feeling one thing while your brain is trying to override this and tell you something else. The process not only gives more emotion than a painting but you
can touch these emotions. You are inside. You are in the middle of the painting. You can touch everything. For example, there are some butterflies and you can almost touch them. In one of the virtual reality projects the palm trees are falling. You can feel the
disorder. You can feel the chaos. and that’s just amazing. That means that the message I’m going to send will be much more powerful because your body is going to feel everything.”

This is why Holifield views the medium as a hotbed of opportunity.

Since this will be the second time the museum is having a virtual reality exhibit, she envisions using it as a catalyst in forging strategic partnerships with technological firms, for potential revenue streams, developing apps for museum patrons and exposing youth to art-based technology.

“In my mind, if we can popularize art through virtual reality, then we’re on to something and we can perhaps inspire young people to be interested in science, technology, engineering and math through art, because we’re blending the technology with the art,” says Holifield. “ . . . We’re doing something that no one else is doing with Black art.”

WHAT: “The Day I Heard the Sounds of the World: ARt Connecting Communities-Overtown and Coral

WHERE: Black Archives Historic Lyric Theater, 819 Northwest 2nd Ave., Miami

WHEN: 7 p.m., Thursday, March 21. The Knight New Work piece will be on view after the premiere through Sunday, April 28 at the Coral Gables Museum.

COST: Free with RSVP. Attend virtually or in person.

INFORMATION: Miami MoCAAD 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. Dont miss a story at

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