When then 21 year-old Jude Papaloko Thegenus arrived in Miami in 1986 to further his art studies, practically no one in the city thought of aesthetics and culture as a professional priority, especially for recent arrivals.
“The focus was on immigration, fighting for rights. It was about Haitians coming on boats and needing a place to stay, food, work, and immigration papers,” he recalled.
No one in the community knew where to buy art supplies, let alone how to help him sell his work in a city that had yet to acknowledge Haitian art as anything other than folklore. But a boom in urban gentrification, spurred by Miami’s burgeoning art scene is inspiring Papaloko, the owner of the Jakmel Art Gallery near Wynwood, to open an additional gallery up the street in Little Haiti, the neighborhood where he first settled. This gallery will be focused on tutoring youth in art, music, and Haitian cooking, activities his own non-profit Papaloko4Kids offered for years in Florida’s public school system and on visits to Haiti.
But like the mother country, it’s hard to shake dismal images of poverty in a community littered with garbage and peeling paint, where many businesses have yet to own a credit card machine.
The Northeast Second Partnership (NE2P) community development program was already working on those issues and campaigning for affordable housing when they were approached by artist and anthropologist Aimee Ortiz last summer. She offered to found the community mural painting project ART Beat-Miami, relying on Papaloko as the headlining artist. Ortiz is Cuban, not Haitian, but like most members of her non-profit community arts appreciation program Arte del Barrio, she’s an émigrée who knows art can ease and expand the minds of those struggling to survive in a foreign land. As a 15-year resident of Little Haiti, Ortiz had little trouble convincing other area non-profits and businesses such as Little Haiti Cultural Center, Little Haiti Optimist Club, Chef Creole Seasoned Kitchen, the B. Studio art gallery, and even Home Depot to participate through $60,000 in donations of art supplies, paint, and the very walls and garbage cans of NE 54th Street businesses, all of which will receive a colorful makeover.
“I’m really impressed at how the small business owners stepped up to the plate,” said Ortiz, “They really like the idea of uniting people.”
Through ART Beat-Miami’s contacts with the city, an estimated 23 tourist trolleys will be routed through Little Haiti each day during Art Basel. In addition to mural viewings, visitors can shop at the Caribbean Marketplace and grab lunch at Chef Creole or on the terrace of Leela’s, which is undergoing renovations with NE2P’s help.
Merging cultural preservation with gentrification is part of a creative industries phenomenon the Inter-American Development Bank’s Cultural Center calls the “orange economy.”
“This is precisely how we propose that the orange economy integrate minorities and disadvantaged populations, so that what sets them apart today is what they can actually offer in the process of integration and growth triggered by gentrification,” said Felipe Buitrago, one of the authors of a 2014 IDB book titled The Orange Economy: An Infinite Opportunity.
His IDB colleague Fadrique Iglesias says harnessing the momentum of Art Basel, which generates more business than any other annual event held in Miami-Dade County, is an excellent strategy.
“When a community realizes that its production has external value, it has an incentive to produce more,” he said, adding that he hopes ART Beat-Miami will generate creative industries opportunities within Haiti itself.
The ART Beat-Miami muralists on NE 54th Street are already venturing down that road.
Last week Papaloko’s Jakmel Art Gallery prepared a fundraiser to collect money and more art supplies, this time for Haitian artists returning to Port-au-Prince from a Florida Sister Cities International visit.
“Everything can be replicated,” he noted, “so in this way, Little Haiti becomes a resource.”
Photos by Evelyn Posada