Miami’s MOCA museum had a long rocky patch. Now it’s getting international acclaim

Chana Budgazad Sheldon sits in an airy office at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami (MOCA NOMI), surrounded by a scattering of black-and-white art including the small coffee table shaped like a palm tree. It’s a room she has occupied for a year, since becoming the executive director last March.

Her arrival marks a new phase in the history of the museum, one of the original art institutions that under the leadership of Bonnie Clearwater started to make contemporary art a focal point for cultural growth in the area. The proof of Budgazad Sheldon’s success came last week, when the organizers of the prestigious Venice Biennale announced they have accepted an iteration of MOCA’s current show, “AfriCobra: Messages to the People” to the 2019 fair. As a result, it will close March 24, two weeks earlier than originally planned.


Chana Budgazad Sheldon, director of Museum of Contemporary Art – North Miami.

Under Clearwater, MOCA-North Miami became an international must see. Then came rocky times: Clearwater left for the NSU Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art in September 2013. Less than a year later, the museum’s board broke up, with some directors decamping and taking with them part of the museum’s collection (they would end up in the newly created ICA Miami in the Design District). Subsequent director Babacar M’Bow was ousted in late 2015 amid sexual harassment accusations.

After a rather rudderless period, the museum hired Budgazad Sheldon, who led nonprofit Locust Projects for eight years before joining Project Art, which introduces art to children in underprivileged libraries throughout the county.

Those jobs put Budgazad Sheldon in prime position to revitalize the museum. Her strategy: bring in high quality exhibitions, give exposure to local artists and re-engage the diverse neighborhood surrounding MOCA-NOMI.

So it is entirely fitting that the galleries next to the office are filled with work from a revolutionary, ground-breaking movement first created in Chicago 51 years ago that is still relatively obscure, despite its long-term impact. “AfriCobra: Messages to the People” opened during Art Basel and has since garnered acclaim as a stand-out, unique exhibition that particularly resonates with North Miami’s large black community.

The bright, exuberant exhibition features the five founding members of AfriCobra, short for the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists. The collective formed in 1968 as a complement to the Black Power Movement as it rose in the activist city of Chicago.

Carolyn Lawrance_Uphold Your Men, Unify Your Families (credit to Tony Smith).jpg

“Uphold Your Men, Unify Your Family,” 1971 silkscreen by Carolyn Mims Lawrence. From the show, “AfriCobra: Messages to the People,” at MOCA-North Miami through March 24, 2019.

Tony Smith

The bold, primary colors that make up the Afrocentric paintings, often in geometric form resembling textiles and tapestries, are initially the most eye-grabbing. We’ve seen these before, in posters and murals, but for the most part we haven’t seen these originals, only the aesthetic path they forged for future artists.

Interestingly and importantly, some of these are family portraits (two of the founding members were women), intentionally counteracting the image of a dysfunctional black community that in the late 1960s was also pictured solely as angry men rioting in the streets. Several of these colorful portraits come from Carolyn Mims Lawrence, with telling text and titles such as “Uphold Your Man.”

Lawrence is one of the five later members who make up the 10 core artists highlighted in the exhibit. Other portraits feature revolutionary and music notables — faces of such people as Angela Davis and Frederick Douglass, and jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie. Some are painted with acrylic, some are actual tapestries, some made from beads. Some are screen prints (which was somewhat novel, making it easier to reproduce the art). Several are fashion items, like the absolutely amazing cowhide jacket from founding member Jae Jarrell, emblazoned with the names of Monk and Coltrane and others in the black jazz pantheon.

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“Nation Time (gang members with berets and flag),” a 1970 screenprint by Barbara Jones-Hugu. From “AfriCobra,” on show through March 24, 2019, at MOCA-North Miami.

Lusenhop Fine Art

Jarrell and other founding members attended the opening in December, including her husband Wadsworth Jarrell, who created the wonderful mask-like sculptures in the introductory gallery made from bright painted wood and canvas. Similar color schemes make up his paintings, such as “Cutting Edge Musicians.” All of these works in “AfriCobra” tie in African roots with modern black culture, making the exhibit both a historical and artistic journey with contemporary resonance. Just as Budgazad Sheldon wanted.

Because of course, black activism didn’t die; it has morphed and gained new life with movements such as Black Lives Matter. The front room at the museum has a place for people to jot down their own memories of activism, from before the 1960s to the present, with images from the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida.

“We want the exhibits to promote a global conversation,” Budgazad Sheldon says, “and to explore under-examined art.” In MOCA’s programming, she hopes it can be a “response to living in a complex place, reflecting [ourselves] in the art.”

While shamefully under-examined, the works here (rarely shown even in Chicago) were made by professional and trained artists — they were never really street or “outsider” artists, but graduates of art schools who still teach and write and practice; there are several works made in the last few years.

The museum’s upcoming exhibit follows in the theme of “under-examined” art, but coming from a much different historical and art-making base — that of Haiti. “PÒTOPRENS: The Urban Artists of Port-au-Prince” will gather the works of 20 artists with varied backgrounds, from street dwellers who make works out of discarded objects, to those inspired by Haitian religious traditions who make beaded vodou flags, to paintings based on mythology and magic and colonialism, to sculptures reflecting the strong African ancestry of the nation.


Michel Lafleur’s painting “Rihanna,” 2018, will be part of the show “PÒTOPRENS: The Urban Artists of Port-au-Prince,” opening April 23, 2019, at MOCA-Nomi. Courtesy of the artist and Pioneer Works

Port-au-Prince is not Chicago, nor is it Havana — the first independent black country is a fascinating, polyphonic place unlike any other on earth. Constantly battered by natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes, in almost daily social and political turmoil, and isolated from most of its neighbors, Haiti has created unique art, literature, religion and architecture.

“PÒTOPRENS,” co-curated by one of Miami’s most iconic artists who is also Haitian, Edouard Duval-Carrié, will be set up in a unique way to underscore this rich but still unappreciated history and its corresponding contemporary art. It is organized by Port-au-Prince neighborhoods, each room representing an artistic cultural hotspot; for instance Bel Air, a district behind the famed cathedral destroyed in the 2012 earthquake, known for its Vodou-flag artists; or the Riviere Froide community, where people carve and forge sculptures from detritus of the river’s banks.

The front gallery will recreate a barbershop, a traditional meeting place where paintings and photos of athletes and musicians often hang, where haircuts are dispensed along with political discourse.

The exhibit, first organized by Pioneer Works in New York, will also present cutting-edge photography and film, and many of the art works have never been shown in the United States.

While Port-au-Prince was created out of a polyglot of international influences, “PÒTOPRENS” will also be specifically relevant to our neck of the Caribbean. According to Budgazad Sheldon, everything will be translated into Creole, the language of Haiti and also of many visitors and neighbors to MOCA. After taking the museum’s reigns, “I realized how important people found MOCA” as a town square and as a place for learning. “I realized the transformative power of art.”

Like “AfriCobra,” “PÒTOPRENS” will include talks and screenings, and it will coincide with Haitian Heritage Month in May.

The fall will go completely local, with MOCA hosting the winners of the South Florida Consortium, the largest regional government-sponsored art grants program in the U.S.; the featured artists come from five South Florida counties.

As a hub of the community, says Budgazad Sheldon, there should be multiple “entry points” to probe the depths of the diversity of art, and of the neighborhood.


“AfriCobra: Messages to the People”

WHEN: Through March 24

“PÒTOPRENS: The Urban Artists of Port-au-Prince”

WHEN: May 2 through Aug. 11

WHERE: MOCA, North Miami

770 NE 125th Street, North Miami