Friday July 15, 2011
Artist Charo Oquet and I go way back, and I am delighted that I can blog about her today. I have always admired her artistic perseverance and entrepreneurial creativity in this town, particularly for the way she has led Edge Zones Art Center, enhancing opportunities for artists to network with curators and artists outside of Miami. I think it is truly terrific that she is, I believe, the first Miami-based artist in recent memory to become a member of ArtTable because she has accomplished so much as an arts activist. She has so many talents and so much energy to bring to Miami!

So I’d like to encourage readers today to see the promising “Food, Home, Love” exhibit at Edge Zones Art Center, 47 NE 25th St., Miami, before it closes at the end of July. I understand that now the show is open by appointment. For more info, call 305-303-8852 or or check There are a number of terrific artists who have contributed art to this show, including Charo herself, which is why I am posting my Miami Herald profile of her on my blog today.

First Things First: More visual arts news in Miami Miami Dade Collegeand The Cintas Foundation announce the start of the annual competition for the 2011-2012 Cintas Foundation Fellowship in the visual arts, administered by the Cintas Fellowship Program at MDC. (Also see my 6/26/2011 blog post, “Miami Dade College Entrusted with Cintas Cuban Art Collection. Let’s hope that there will soon be positive action taken on behalf of artists concerned that their art in the collection is missing.) Thanks to this recently announced partnership, various events are planned to nurture creative endeavors in music composition and creative writing, in addition to the visual arts, for artists of Cuban descent living outside of Cuba. For info about applying for this competition, see There’s a special exhibit for finalists in the visual arts competition planned to open Oct. 27 at the Freedom Tower; the winner will receive $10,000 and the opportunity to pursue a creative project outlined in their application to the competition. For more info about this MDC program, see 7/11/2011 College News story at

Miami Dade College and Miami Art Museum are also combining resources to promote a more lively arts scene here, and I think that’s great. Note that a video installation by Rivane Neuenschwander, “Quarta-Feira de Cinzas/Epilogue” (Ash Wednesday/Epilogue) is on view through Aug. 7 at MDC InterAmerican Campus, 627 SW 27th Ave.; 305-237-6000 or This video installation coincides with “Rivane Neuenschwander: A Day Like Any Other” now at Miami Art Museum through Oct. 16. It’s a very cool, challenging show. When I went to the media preview, I was charmed by most of the work, and scribbled notes as if I were still writing for the newspaper. Can’t put them all in my blog! But after seeing her colorful, irridescent installation cascading with seemingly endless fabric ribbons printed with “found” wishes, I made a note about this ribbon; it seems especially poignant for Miami. This purple ribbon was printed with the affecting desire, “I wish to speak English the very best.” For more info about this exhibit, see

On my way to the Miami Art Museum, I stopped at the Main Library of Miami Dade Public Library System, just across the plaza from MAM. I wanted to see the exquisite Ed Ruscha mural in the rotunda, and then I discovered this fascinating show: “Enter Los Nineties,” up through Sept. 13, celebrating this library system’s 40th anniversary. Most of it is in the second-floor gallery, and it is really worth a look. This is a show that seems flush with DIY printed material created in Miami shortly before the Digital Revolution would consume our every waking and sleeping moment. There’s so much cleverness to see and discover, and I was quite impressed that so many of my very dear artcentric friends for years have contributed to this. I’m going to name just a few–Marilyn Gottlieb-Roberts, Cesar Trasobares, Barbara Young, and Kevin Arrow.

I want to give a major shout-out to my very dear artcentric friend Rosie Gordon-Wallace of Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator. She tells me about Diaspora Vibe’s new look: Diapora Vibe Virtual Gallery, and also that exceptionally talented artist Jean Chiang has won a Fulbright Scholarship. Congrats, Rosie and Jean!!

Other shows I hope to see before they close: “Absenteeism-Magnus Sigurdson,” up through Aug. 27, at Dimensions Variable, 171 NE 38th Street in Miami Design District. See and “Made in the U.S.A” at MANO Fine Art Project Space, 4225 SW 75 Avenue, which takes part in the Bird Road Art Walk on the third Saturday of each month. See I’m especially partial to this area because another artcentric friend, Ray Azcuy, has shown his intriguing art there.

This upcoming opening should be cool: “Marlene, Marlene, Same Name Two Different Artists,” with video by Marlene Lopez and photography byMarlene de Lazaro, at 6th Street Container, located at 1155 (rear) SW 6th Street, Little Havana. Opens July 22, 7-10 pm, up through Aug. 12; gallery hours are Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Info: call 786-587-5279 or email

Whew! A lot of information today!! If I got any info wrong, pls post a comment on this blog entry with the correct info. That reminds me–especially I want to thank Maureen for taking the time to post such detailed, interesting comments on my previous blog entry re Vik Muniz and Miami Art Museum. And I recently learned that MAM has posted that blog entry on its Facebook page. How cool is that??

Here is my Miami Herald story about Charo Oquet from September of 1999


It took a long time to get to the party that night in early September. The sky was stained an angry indigo, lashed with the rain of hurricane season in Miami. On the way, artist Charo Oquet had to pass through water-logged crossroads, and she had quite a few bundles to carry.

But when she finally arrived, dressed in pink and draped in beads, Oquet was ready to celebrate.

There were cakes to eat, music to make. It had, after all, taken her more than 10 years to get there, perhaps most of her lifetime.

Hers was a far-reaching pilgrimage, spanning the Pacific and Atlantic, stretching all the way from lush New Zealand forests moist with geothermal steam to sun-bright sugar cane fields in the Dominican Republic. It took Oquet on a roundabout trek from little girls’ fancy dress shops to Goodwill stores before the trip ended at the altars of Ambrosino Gallery in Miami.

It was a sojourn, she later reflected, that seemed destined to reach Miami. And the night it did, the night of Oquet’s opening at Ambrosino, a cavernous space in an alley of auto-body shops, the altars glistened. The gallery’s spotlights, which have shone on a variety of contemporary works from austere curls of intravenous tubing by Donald Lipski to sleek, oversize tools by Florencio Gelabert, now illuminated a dazzling crush of crepe-paper streamers and torrents of silk and satin heavy with fringe, sequins and dolls. Her syncretic art is stitched together the bright allure of birthday pinatas, Roman Catholic icons and Dominican vodou parades through sugar cane.

“I’ve been charged to know more about my own culture, so this has really been a journey,” Oquet, 47, said a few days after the opening night of her show, “Kingdoms of Our World.” Wearing a simple linen shirt and khaki skirt, her tousled auburn-tinged hair signifying a busy woman, she settled down on a sofa in a gallery corner to talk not only about her newest work, but about her evolution as an artist.

It’s a career set within the typically fluid landscape of modern Caribbean life. When she was 10, she and her upper-class family fled the Dominican Republic in the wake of dictator Rafael Trujillo’s assassination in 1961. Everyone including her father, a military officer who took part in the coup, confronted a more humble existence in Bayonne, N.J. “My mother didn’t even know how to cook anything,” Oquet remembers, “and she had to clean other people’s houses.”


Summer trips and a stint at art school back home kept Oquet close enough to her roots, but it was travel halfway around the world that pushed her face-to-face with her Afro-Caribbean heritage–usually glossed over in Oquet’s Roman Catholic upbringing. During the 1980s, before settling briefly in a Dominican neighborhood of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, she spent five years in New Zealand with her husband at the time, a filmmaker with whom she later had two children–Jack, now 8, and Gabrielle, 12. It was a productive period, good for painting, but something was missing.

“When I was in New Zealand, I was the only Dominican there that I knew of. . . .It’s very Anglo, kidney pie,” she says. “There was a total absence of black culture. Somehow, that part of me came out really needy. I would go to Santo Domingo, and I would bring back images, like the Mami Watta, a water spirit worshipped throughout central and west Africa.

It was an auspicious and telling choice. The Mami Watta turns out to have a passport even more heavily stamped than Oquet’s. Some images show a mermaid that recalls the figurehead on early European ships sailing to Africa. In others, she’s a powerful tamer of water snakes–an image traced to a 19th Century German circus poster, which also made its way to Africa via sailors, according to Henry Drewal, an African art history professor at the University of Wisconsin. And as traders traveled between Bombay and the west African country of Togo, the Mami Watta picked up multiple arms and a resemblance to Hindu spirits.

In the New World, her way with snakes became saintly. Dominicans call her Santa Marta la Dominadora (the dominating one) or Santa Marta Africana.

She brings wealth to her worshippers, but the price for such success is childlessness.

Though Oquet knew little about the Mami Watta then, she was enthralled by her strength. “She had this wild hair, and is just dominating that snake.”


She painted the snake-tamer many times, and her career blossomed. Later a friend pointed out that Oquet’s paintings recalled African carvings of the mermaid spirit, and to this day Oquet marvels at how during those years doctors repeatedly told her she was sterile. Her children arrived and put her art on hold, Oquet says, only after she put away those paintings and the little Mami Watta chromolithograph from a Dominican market.

Mami Watta resurfaces in “Kingdoms of the World,” in an altar that displays not only her chromolithograph, framed in sequins like a vodou flag, but in a chubby doll with a tiny mermaid stuck to her chest. The doll is swathed in plastic and silken green snakes, radiating multiple mismatched plastic arms.

Such free-wheeling adaptations of this globe-trotting water spirit have caught Drewal’s admiration. He notes that Mami Watta has inspired countless altars in Africa–beautiful and orderly profusions of flowers, perfume and color, which are also, he says, “artistic creations.” Oquet’s work will be part of a show he’s curating on the arts of Mami Watta.


In town when “Beads, Body and Soul: Art and Light in the Yoruba Universe,” which he co-curated, opened this summer at the Miami Art Museum, Drewal visited Oquet’s studio, filled with the nearly completed altars. He was struck by their extravagant presence.

“I felt like I was moving into a spiritual land, a kind of sacred forest of cloth, with streamers, dolls and photographs. The richness of the materials created a very intense, spiritual feeling. She is drawing on many kinds of sources, as she connects with Haitian Vodou and African beliefs and practices in the Dominican Republic and with her own background,” he says. “I think that’s the richness. . . . She’s kind of a diviner in her own way.”

In Oquet’s show, there are dolls everywhere–Barbie and Ken, black and white Cabbage Patch dolls, even Spiderman. One doll is attached to the black hose of scuba gear, in quirky homage to water spirits. While the artist brings a distinctive take to her materials, Drewal points out that dolls are ubiquitous sacred icons in the African diaspora, where they became veiled versions of African carvings, thus seen as nonthreatening by colonial masters.

Several altars rise upward in swirling layers of bright fabrics and ornaments–reminiscent of the Haitian Vodou “poto mitan,” a sacred pole said to link the worlds of spirits and mortals. Drewal compares another altar with long flaps of brilliantly beaded cloth to a Yoruba Egungun costume, with its lengths of cloth in rich patterns that whirl when worn in a ceremonial dance, evoking a powerful spiritual presence.

There are many lavish streams of fabric here, beginning with the dusky blue drapes that surround the clustered altars, requiring visitors to find a way inside. Once in, one finds a scene part carnival parade and part sacred space, with a pinata’s explosion of toys thrown in for good measure.

You’ll see divinely dressed altars sparkling with riotous detail, one circled with offerings of food and drink. There are jingle bells, frou-frou pink tutus, a fiery red Santeria robe, a recycled blue ball gown the color of medieval stained glass from House of Lanvin in Paris.


Many of the altars are dressed in clothing and toys scoured from Miami flea markets and Goodwill stores. These are the “places where everybody else finds stuff they send to Haiti and the Dominican Republic,” Oquet says.

They are often old gifts and rite-of-passage party dresses bound for new uses and places, giving her work a sense of gaudy celebration and magical transformation.

The whole place is spangled with a constellation of star-shaped paper bows, like the bows adorning musicians and marchers in Gaga processions, the Easter-time celebrations in the Dominican Republic that sprang from Haitian Vodou and African Kongo religious rites.

Oquet first learned about the Gaga groups when she met Robert Farris Thompson, Yale scholar and influential historian of African and African-American art, who has written a short essay about her new work. They met 10 years ago in a museum in the Dominican Republic, where he was with students watching a documentary about their vivid rituals and music performed deep within sugar cane fields.

She was fascinated and wanted to see them for herself.

“I had to find my way there,” she says. “Since I’m a Dominican bourgeoisie, going to the sugar cane fields by myself was not something I could do. I was frozen by the fear of how to get there. Maybe if I was a foreigner, I would have just taken a taxi.”

Almost seven years later, she found her way. Since then, she’s taken many photographs of the groups performing their whirling dances, wearing glittering hats and costumes streaming with bright scarves. She’s shown her photographs at Espanola Way Art Center in Miami Beach, sometimes accompanied by Dominican Vodou-styled flags she has helped students make at Allapattah Middle and Elementary Schools during the Dominican Youth Arts Festival.

Not everyone liked the photographs. She explains: “I got a phone message that said, ‘You’d better not be saying this about Dominicans. We don’t do Vodou. I’m going to break your windows.'”

It was a sentiment that did not surprise Oquet, but it is one she finds sadly out-of-synch with what has made Miami such a special destination for her.

“When I lived in the Dominican Republic, I never knew about Haitian culture, Cuban culture,” she reflects. “I never went to either country. But living in Miami makes you want to discover all those Caribbean and South American countries and get the bigger picture of your own culture. It’s all right here.”