While the U.S. census and the American Community Survey provide data on demographic changes in a city or region, they are not able to tell the stories of how these shifts occurred, or how citizens may feel about them. Relations among groups of people have fascinated artist Eddie Arroyo throughout his life, particularly in terms of the dynamics between “segregation” and “integration.” The son of a Colombian mother and a Peruvian father, Arroyo grew up bilingual, but felt pressure to assimilate in English-speaking culture, seeing the stigma ESOL classmates faced and encouraged by both parents to “speak proper English.” He recalls that as a child in Miami in the 1980s, Cold War political tensions around the Castro regime in Cuba colored life in his hometown even for Latino people of other backgrounds. Arroyo observed the derisive way the “Marielitos,” the approximately 125,000 Cuban refugees who arrived in the city in 1980 as part of the Mariel Boatlift, were often treated by longer-standing citizens, including some who were immigrants themselves. These influences carried over into his collegiate life. As an undergraduate at Florida International University, his interest in political history deepened alongside his painting practice and his senior thesis on globalization in China. An adult Miamian now, he finds himself very interested in depictions of the U.S. South and the extent to which the distinct cultures of South Florida are represented as belonging, or not, to the Deep South.
These concerns are distilled in the series of paintings for which Arroyo is best known thus far, which focus on cultural identity and gentrification. Since its 2002 Miami Beach debut, the prestigious annual Art Basel show has transformed the city’s arts scene. But as Arroyo covered local arts events as a freelance journalist, he felt growing discomfort with the way galleries and art spaces seemed to participate in the larger trend of new development displacing residents of working-class neighborhoods, especially communities of color. Up to that point, his primary artistic mode had been figural paintings, often of family members, exploring themes of social dynamics in private life. But as his sense of urgency toward gentrification grew, he found documenting the changing landscape of Little Haiti through the murals of Serge Toussaint, the neighborhood where he lives, to provide a lens for exploring interpersonal tensions on a larger scale. “Simultaneously painting and blogging, one practice informed the other, and the work became much more politically engaged,” he says. “Art journalism informed a site for a type of landscape painting that allowed me to realize gentrification is a genre.” During this time, he also joined FANM (Family Action Network Movement) and fellow Little Haiti residents in protesting development they view as harmful to the existing community.
Arroyo’s Little Haiti paintings brought him national attention—in 2019 his work was included in the Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial. While this recognition would be a milestone in any emerging artist’s career, it also provided an opportunity for Arroyo to connect with like-minded activists in New York City. When Arroyo learned of the group Decolonize This Place’s protests against Whitney Museum vice chairman Warren B. Kanders, who owns a company that manufactured tear-gas grenades used against migrants at the southern U.S. border, he and seven other artists featured in the Biennial publicly withdrew from the exhibition before it opened. Ultimately Kanders resigned before the Biennial opened, and Arroyo decided to keep his work in the show. These efforts also connected Arroyo with the Chinatown Arts Brigade, a group attempting to combat gentrification in that NYC area. He joined them in a “displacement tour” on the day the Whitney Biennial opened, afterward documenting the day’s events in several paintings. Though still living in Miami, he remains involved with New York’s FTP Coalition, a collective that has organized high-profile protests of the city’s expanded policing of the subway system, which includes a crackdown on fare evasion.
His ten paintings throughout this issue encompass different styles and modes, from the rather stately 2016 acrylic landscapes of Little Haiti to the recent impressionistic watercolors of a November 2019 FTP protest to a new work created for this issue commemorating the Writers for Migrant Justice fundraising events held in September 2019 (a striking painting reproduced on the inside back cover and on the included poster). But all reflect his deep commitment to engaged citizenship and admiration for the activists who advocate for their communities. “I’m becoming more and more conscious of what my role as a citizen is,” he says. “What is my responsibility to the body republic? What direction would I like it to go and are there other people I can speak to who have similar ideals and visions, and strategies to get there?”
I have had the opportunity to interview Eddie Arroyo by both email and phone. Some highlights of these conversations are included below.
C. J. Bartunek
C. J. Bartunek (CJB): What drew you to Little Haiti as a subject for your art?
Eddie Arroyo (EA): Haitians were not part of the Marielito Boatlift, and segregation kept me ignorant of their history. Cubans were not treated the same as Haitians in reference to the refugee experience. This is not solely a U.S. construct but also a Latinx one as well. The colorist caste system reinforced the unequal treatment of Haitians, presenting more barriers within the integration process. Community outreach with the residents began after my “How to Gentrify Little Haiti” article in 2014, when there were conversations regarding the art community’s migration from the Wynwood Arts District into adjacent neighborhoods. Consciousness of Haitian art introduced me to the 1804 revolution from bondage to the formation of the first nation liberated from slavery. Soup joumou, Toussaint Louverture, Alexandre Pétion, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Citadelle Laferrière rippled across the world with the Louisiana Purchase expansion, fall of Napoleon’s empire, and support for Simón Bolívar.
On May 26, 2016, I witnessed the official designation of Little Haiti in Miami City Hall. The activist organization Haitian Women of Miami (or FANM, Family Action Network Movement) was a present force that day, and I decided to go to their next community meeting. I’ve been volunteering for them since then.
CJB: Would you talk a little more about your art journalism? It sounds like that was important to the trajectory of your painting.
EA: It wasn’t long after my first solo exhibition in 2010 that I began to engage with the local art community though a blog called Art Is About. In the beginning, it was documentation of exhibitions, paired with their press releases. Occasionally, I would contribute the images with descriptive text of the show, lightly adding an observation or reinforcing a presented idea. But gradually my writing became more critical, as I gained more insight into each artist and gallery, observing its ongoing programing.
I was becoming more and more critical of the local art community in reference to its historic relationship with people of wealth. That’s why gentrification as a conceptual framework emerged in my existing work. When Art Basel came, the art community was located mostly in Miami Beach and another neighborhood called Coral Gables. But then it shifted to Wynwood Arts District, and when that happened I got to witness gentrification in real time. In the beginning, I was contributing to a blog and was already painting urban landscapes, but they weren’t infused with this notion of gentrification, although it was a curiosity.
So I started speaking about it, and of course some artists didn’t appreciate the way I was framing the conversation. Gentrification was a word that a certain number of artists had an aversion to. Nobody wants to be seen as part of that. But I’m not just speaking about them, but I am speaking about myself. Because this whole system in place is that artists for the most part serve the wealthy—the elite. We’re not here necessarily to sell to the working class. That’s not how we collectively work or aspire to be. This is at every single step, whether you’re an outsider artist or you’re academically trained in a local community college or in a very prestigious university. There’s always the knowledge that this system’s in place, and whether you’re entering the market or choose to go the nongovernmental-organization route through grants or what have you, it’s always in this pyramid scheme.
CJB: In a profile of you for Hyperallergic, Julia Friedman writes that your work “reimagines the tradition of history painting.” In 8395 NE 2nd Ave., Miami, FL 33138 (We Are Little Haiti), street art on a wall behind a group of protesters says, “Be Unpredictable, Be Real, Be Interesting, Tell a Good Story!” which, of course, is also the charge of writers. In what ways do you think explicitly about narrative when conceiving and developing your paintings? How does storytelling inform your artistic decisions?
EA: Revisionist history has been a great motivator, not in the ubiquitous sense of a “good story” but as a contribution to the counternarrative. On Sunday, January 27, 2019, a new mixed-use space branded “The Citadel” hosted a block party in what they perceive as the “Little River” neighborhood. The newly renovated structure is located on the edge of Little Haiti, as designated by the City of Miami. FANM found out about the event and presented a demonstration led by local Ayitian activist Francois Alexandre. Brand is an essential component to the gentrification process, due to the nature of generating commerce. In the past, certain ethnicities were seen as more valuable than others by property owners. The objective was to address this misconception through direct action. The “We Are Little Haiti” demonstration was made up of people from different backgrounds, not just Haitians.
CJB: Tell us a little about your early life. Were art and activism part of your family’s life when you were growing up? Who encouraged you as a young artist?
EA: A paradigm shift occurred when the Mariel Boat lift arrived in 1980. At that moment, Miami was perceived as a tourist destination existing for experience above industry. Growing up, tension between refugees and civilians was both palpable and incomprehensible. Language and interpretation were also a challenge within the Latinx social class. Many peers felt an impulse not to associate with ESOL students. The terms “Ref” or behaving “Refy” were thrown around in those formative years, I used them quite a bit as well, part of the American assimilation process. This distinction was reinforced in domestic life as well; I was encouraged to speak proper English by both parents, even though they addressed me in Spanish.
My father was an implicit influence in art. He never encouraged me to be an artist but there was always general passion toward it, evident whenever he’d reference Picasso, El Greco, and Chagall. We would go to art openings in Coral Gables and Coconut Grove where the art community was presenting ideas of the day, ranging from regional paintings to modern art. He had a studio set up in the house and would spend hours painting, exploring techniques and theoretical approaches from abstraction, figuration, landscape, still life, to spiritual/religious themes, and would speak to me in pseudo-philosophical thought. It was all very confusing.
CJB: Are there certain artists who have most influenced your technique or aesthetics?
EA: Miami has no history—this was a sentiment presented over and over after Art Basel arrived. The city’s creative class wanted to be global, but in order to do that Miami had to discard its identity. During this time, I began to gravitate toward Edward Hopper. Not only his technique and aesthetics but also his engagement with the Second Industrial Revolution, a sentiment of a lack of intimacy folded into intimacy itself, a postmodern actualization. By extension, he was an early American painter begging the question, What is America? Reflecting on this sentiment, is Miami part of America, and how does it look as a consequence of globalization?
CJB: You have mentioned your interest in narratives about the South. Would you talk a bit about what you would like more people to understand about the culture of the region, what or whom it should be understood to encompass?
EA: It’s interesting within the Southern narrative or the Deep South narrative that Florida, or specifically Southern Florida, is not always included in the South. And this isn’t really coming from states like Georgia, Alabama, or the Carolinas; it’s coming from Southern Florida as well. Certain Southern Floridians don’t want to be included as part of the Deep South history, narrative, or identity, because a lot of them feel like they’re doing their own thing. The way we choose to present ourselves is more in line with this idea of integration and not what historically has been segregation. In the integration model there is a requirement to not assimilate and to retain one’s own history and identity—allowing it to grow and not unnecessarily change.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of growth and change and how they are similar but not the same, because when one changes, there is the idea of changing to something completely different that has absolutely nothing to do with what came before the change, whereas growth is more organic. It’s like a plant or a tree. It has its roots and it grows and it spreads off into branches, but there is always a foundation or a point where it just sprouted up. How society chooses consciously or unconsciously to segregate itself is something that seems less prevalent in Miami and certain parts of South Florida but also presents its own ongoing challenge as well.
In reference to the Southern narrative, census data shows populations moving from South Florida into the rest of Florida. If the news reports are to be believed there are more Puerto Ricans moving into Orlando, which is shifting not just the identity of Orlando but the understanding. A lot of people in Orlando and northern Florida don’t understand or perhaps don’t believe that Puerto Rico is part of the United States. So, this whole reconsideration of “legal” and “illegal” immigrants is going to be more challenging to those who don’t understand that when they are questioning Puerto Ricans, who speak Spanish. It’s going to create an interesting dynamic that I’m paying attention to as well in terms of what it means in the expansion and integration process as well. Puerto Ricans are very proud people. They have a very low threshold for this kind of interrogation.
CJB: Do you feel like this dynamic you are seeing in Florida as cities’ or regions’ populations are changing is a kind of a microcosm of other things happening in the U.S, or is it more specific to Florida?
EA: I think South Florida is one of the few places that is a good indicator of what’s to come. There are strategies in place to try to mitigate it, suppress it, or prevent it. Which goes with this country’s history. The United States’ legacy is not black and white; there are layers to our nation’s mythos. Past immigration presented its challenges with German, Irish, Polish, Chinese, and Italian immigration, which did more than change the country but helped it to grow immensely.
CJB: In your painting, you have expanded your scope to documenting activism in other cities and communities. Would you tell us a bit about that experience?
EA: Provincial notions of tourism have always been subtextual in the paintings. When traveling, roles invert, shifting me from resident to visitor, making me re-evaluate what those roles mean. What kind of tourist I want to be informs my experience. For a number of years, I have been painting postcard-sized watercolor landscapes from Berlin, Innsbruck, Los Angeles, South Carolina, to New York. There is a sensitivity to what signifies change and growth in perception.
There was intense anxiety when Decolonize This Place (DTP) began demonstrating at the Whitney, asking for the resignation of Vice Chair Warren Kanders. All participants of the Biennale had to sign a non-disclosure agreement prior to the announcement, so it was not possible to connect with other artists prior to the press release. After the announcement, I reached out to DTP and other organizations to get a sense of how I could contribute. It was Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB) whom I gravitated toward due to their proximity to the Whitney Museum. A displacement tour was announced the day of the opening, and I decided to walk with CAB along the neighborhood as we all voiced our concerns toward institutions and businesses that contribute to the gentrification of Chinatown. Hrag Vartanian, editor of Hyperallergic, was documenting, and I was delighted to collaborate with him in the action. The day ended when we all joined with DTP and other organizations at Kanders’s home demanding his resignation from the Whitney board.
CJB: Would you describe your process when capturing direct action through painting? Do you take photos? Do you sketch on site? What challenges does this practice present?
EA: It’s always been a form of direct action even at its most banal. I typically use my own pictures, but recently I have been using other people’s photographs as a source, enjoying the collaborative nature of that process. An important aspect of the work is sharing it online and asking permission and crediting photographers when using their work in my paintings. It’s essential to reinforce solidarity as a consequence of the action.
CJB: It sounds like you are very conscientious in making sure that people can participate in your representation of them or of things they’re involved in.
EA: As an artist I’m already in there too much. Once I declare myself or recognize myself as an artist, I think it’s time to pull back. As an artist, I’m already important or recognized enough, just because we’ve all been conditioned from the cradle to believe that artists are, if not important, this magical or suspicious thing. At that point it’s more about pulling back and trying to include as many voices on my platform as possible.
When I use someone else as a reference it gives me more credibility. I can show that other people agree with me, or they are able say things that either I’m not allowed to by social constraints or I can’t articulate as well as they could. Haitians are a good example of that. There are limitations of what I can do—I am not Haitian. I am at best, someone who was born in Miami and I have Latin parents, but I’m not Haitian and my life has not been informed by their experience, which has been very challenging, especially in the eighties during the Mariel Boat Lift. The Haitians’ experience was not the same as the Cubans’, as I continue to realize. Even among African Americans there was this frustration with the Haitians because they did not speak English, they had an accent, their culture was different. Haitians have an immense sense of pride that I was not aware of, due to segregation. When they came to Miami, the challenge they had was that they were not allowed to be proud of being Haitian. They were encouraged to assimilate, but within the assimilation process you have to discard your past and Haitians do not like to do that, because they are very proud of their own history.
As I moved into Little Haiti I found the whole narrative and history and even mythology of the Haitian identity incredibly inspirational and valuable. It has informed my own personal practice as well, this idea of essentially taking agency and collectively killing your master and shaping yourself into the future. They embody the ideals of the integration of African culture and French culture, and they created something completely new. They did it in a way that shifted world history forever through the overthrow of Napoleon’s army, influencing the Louisiana Purchase; they were the richest nation of the New World at the time because of their sugar production. They fundamentally encouraged and financially supported revolution in Latin America. And that’s just in the nineteenth century going into the twentieth century. It was fascinating for me to realize this for myself.
CJB: As you know, this issue of The Georgia Review is devoted to the topic of the U.S. census. Do you have any thoughts or memories related to this theme that you’d like to share?
EA: I’ve been meditating on what it means to be a citizen and a civilian in this country. The idea of a citizen is alarming in terms of nationalism—allegiance to the country—potentially leading into fascism. When you’re a citizen, you’re encouraged to participate, whether in voting or civil action. When you’re a civilian, whether you’re an undocumented person, a tourist, or a resident in the country, there isn’t that kind of expectation or right toward a nation.
It’s a double-edged sword. If you have a responsibility, what are the benefits and consequences? When you talk about the collective, if enough people have certain responsibility and want to move it in a direction, it has the potential to shift the country. This could be good or bad, but it’s something we’re encouraged to do. The census is an indicator of who counts, contributes, and benefits socially and economically in this country.
CJB: Since this brings us back to your activism within the art world, what ethical principles should guide artists, galleries, museums, or other art-focused groups when engaging with local communities?
EA: We would benefit from asking, does an art initiative speak at or with the local community? People in general tend to speak at other people. There’s a moment to do that, but it’s a very authoritative position to take. When you’re speaking with them, it’s a conscious decision to really listen to the people you’re communicating with and looking for a way to genuinely connect.
Sometimes when artists talk to me about ethics, there’s frustration of what do I do next? or what happens now? Be more aware of speaking with people and not to people. I think that’s a good place to start.
Images appear courtesy of the artist. Copyright © 2020 Eddie Arroyo.