Visual Art

MOCA Installation Informed By Black Enslavement and Miami Road To Freedom

Written By Karen-Janine Cohen
April 19, 2024 at 3:08 PM

Visitors connect with sounds and feelings enslaved people may have experienced in “Bound//Unbound,” an outdoor installation by local artist Alexandra Fields O’Neale at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami through June 2. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Bock)

(Photo courtesy of Daniel Bock)The great ocean that carried enslaved Africans to the Western hemisphere’s sugar and cotton plantations, also ferried some to freedom. In what was termed the Saltwater Underground Railroad, those in bondage boarded boats and sailed from Florida’s coast, headed east to the Bahamas and liberation.

That story captivated local artist Alexandra Fields O’Neale, and forms the background of her installation “Bound//Unbound” in the “Welcome to Paradise” series now in the courtyard space through Sunday, June 2 at Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami.

In the outdoor area, visitors walk through two contrasting open-air enclosures: one associated with slavery, the other, with the journey to freedom. Ocean soundscapes bathe the visitor, suggesting what long-ago travelers may have experienced. The room-like spaces, bounded by woven and hanging ropes and floored with sand – reference the beaches the sojourners may have encountered when reaching the Bahamas.

The two “rooms” reference the states of enslavement and freedom, while the soundscape of the ocean is a unifying element. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Bock)

O’Neale, born and raised in Miami, has a wide-ranging practice, which includes video and performance, along with fiber arts. She also investigates the sometimes fraught relationship that Black women experience with their hair; what is acceptable, what is not and how hair relates to identity. She likes exploring liminal spaces that evoke feelings and emotions perhaps not as easily accessible in traditional art forms.

Living in a world that is visually saturated – from magazines and billboards to the deluge of digital images from cell phones and computers – it could be asked whether appealing to senses other than the purely visual is a pathway to connection even more impactful than are paintings and photos.

O’Neale said that for this type of work, involving historical components, the use of sound is crucial, evoking what those enslaved and on their way to the colonies would have heard: the splash of bodies thrown overboard, perhaps the slap of the waves against the cargo hold of the boat, where most were held, and the sound of the surf whether coming or going from land. “Their spirits still live in the water, and I’m trying to honor that,” she says. The sound components came first, and shaped the other aspects of the installation, including the sand and ropes, with, eventually, the whole emerging as a narrative.

Alexandra Fields O’Neale. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

“Growing up in Miami, I wasn’t aware of this history,” says O’Neale, referring to the Saltwater Underground Railroad, adding that she came across it in the course of research. “I was shocked that Florida and Miami had such a big impact on freedom for a lot of enslaved people.”

Through the mid-1800s, and especially during the last 30 years before emancipation, about 6,000 enslaved people made it to the Bahamas by boat. Britain, which ruled the islands, outlawed slavery by the 1830s, making it an attractive destination for those fleeing bondage from not only Florida, but Georgia and other East Coast states. But unlike the journeys to northern states and Canada, the trips across the sea have garnered much less attention, though that is beginning to change.

It was, in part, this less-explored aspect of Florida’s Black history that drew MOCA Curator Adeze Wilford to the work of O’Neale, as well as to that of Germane Barnes, whose installation, “Shotgun House,” will be installed in June in the Paradise courtyard.

It is the second “Welcome to Paradise” iteration curated by Wilford, who commissioned both O’Neale and Barnes to create work specifically for the courtyard space. Wilford moved to Miami from New York to take the MOCA job. Since arriving about two years ago, she has been researching the South Florida art scene and visiting area artist studios. During those investigations she was struck by the area’s wealth of Black American history and determined to bring it to a wider audience.

Alexandra Fields O’Neale’s Paradise Courtyard Installation, “Bound//Unbound” evokes the story of enslaved people escaping captivity by sea. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Bock) 

“There are intriguing parts of Miami that go beyond the typical ideas people have of South Florida,” says Wilford. She said she knew about the Saltwater Railroad, but didn’t realize the depth and drama of the story. Likewise, the second installation, Barnes’ “Shotgun House,” which comes after O’Neale’s work, focuses on a less-known aspect of Black history in Miami. Barnes will install a created version of the iconic structure, which is intimately tied up with Black home ownership. Barnes is both artist and architect and is an assistant professor at the University of Miami School of Architecture.

“There is this history of Black American life, that is part of this city and area, and is sometimes overlooked,” says Wilford, adding that a lot of conversation in Miami centers around diaspora. “I was definitely interested in the stories of the Black American experience.” And while those stories are connected to diaspora, she says, they are also uniquely their own.

The room-like spaces are bound by woven and hanging ropes and floored with sand in Alexandra Fields O’Neale’s “Bound//Unbound.” (Photo courtesy of Daniel Bock)

Meanwhile, O’Neale hopes her work touches a cord in those who visit. “I think people shy away from subjects like this,” she explains, noting that the Saltwater Underground Railroad is a “reflection on the history of America, making it more accessible and tangible.”

WHAT: “Bound//Unbound””

WHEN: Through Sunday, June 2

WHERE: Paradise Courtyard, Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, 770 NE 125th St., North Miami

COST:  Free

 INFORMATION: 305-893-6211 or www.mocanomi.org

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