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Observed Online Features

In the Florida Everglades, Indigenous Artists Reframe Sustainability

"We need people to see that there’s life out here," explained Miccosukee artist and curator, Cayla Willie.

By Alexandra Martinez

Installation view of Mae'anna Osceola-Hart's "Untitled" (2022) in Disruptive Flow. All images courtesy Voices of the River of Grass

Forty-two miles west of Art Basel Miami Beach’s static white tents, Disruptive Flow, an Indigenous-led exhibition, soared across the heart of the Florida Everglades.

Before boarding airboats at Tigertail Airboat Tours, visitors to the one-day immersive exhibition were greeted by a video of Miccosukee elder, Betty Osceola, as they sat underneath traditional Miccosukee chickee huts. Osceola, who is from the Panther Clan, and was raised in the Everglades with an ancestral tradition of caring for the land, shared her wisdom about the “river of grass” visitors were about to embark upon.

“They say that the world you know today will not be the world you know tomorrow but that of your ancestors,” Osceola said. “I understand that we’re going to go back to a more harmonious style of living and my goal is to help move that forward so we can be more in harmony and at peace with this environment, which we exist with because the environment is a reflection of you.”

Organized by Voices of the River of Grass, a non-profit organization that supports and promotes Indigenous artists through creative platforms, the day-long exhibit was held on November 19, just a few weeks before the annual international art fairs took over South Florida. Co-founders Cayla Willie and Alejandra Mendez felt it was imperative to elevate Indigenous artists in a market that so often excludes them.

Willie, a Miccosukee artist and co-curator of Disruptive Flow noted “Alejandra and I were talking one day about the art community in general and how little representation there is for Native American artists. We wanted to show what contemporary Indigenous art looks like now.” 

Once we boarded the airboats, we glided past the marshy sawgrass, which opened up to a seemingly infinite expanse of water, pond lilies, and pickerel weeds. Rippled cirrocumulus  clouds reflected along the water’s glassy surface–for a moment the land appeared in perfect parallel to the sky. 

Visitors were taken to two ancestral Miccosukee tree islands that have been passed down through generations of the Tigertail family. The first is a rehabilitation center for injured native alligators and turtles found on Tamiami Trail’s narrow and unforgiving asphalt. On the second island, where the Tigertail family once lived, artworks made by local Indigenous artists were presented across the sprawling hammock, suspended on found fishing lines that once polluted the sacred waterways. Meanwhile, Willie prepared fry bread, sofkee (a cornmeal beverage), and chili over a rolling fire pit. We were cared for in a way similar to how Willie’s people have cared for the land for centuries.

(L to R) Artworks by Mae'anna Osceola-Hart, Camisha Cedartree, and Amarys Huggins in Disruptive Flow

By celebrating the land that colonizing forces  have historically seen as inhospitable and cruel, Disruptive Flow redirects conversations about “sustainability,” emphasizing the expert stewardship of Indigenous people who have always cared for the land, which in turn cares for those who inhabit it. The artworks on view acted as a conduit for connection, inviting visitors to embrace the majesty of the Everglades as they considered the exhibition’s resonances with its environment. Where the US government saw the need to split the river in half and build Highway 41 (Tamiami Trail), Miccosukee people traveled via airboat and canoe to their homes built atop the water. “It is a way to show people that there’s still a way of life out there,” Willie explained. “It’s not just in books. Maybe they believe we only live in houses now. That’s not the case. People still live in camps. Some people still prefer living under the chickees […] We need people to see that there’s life out here.”

The art displayed along the boardwalk on the tree islands comprised mostly photography, video stills, and digital art. Mi Anichi, Mi Corazón (2022) by Amaris Cruz-Guerrero, is a series of self-portrait video stills of the artist. The title means “my heart” in Arawak and Spanish, respectively, the languages Cruz-Guerrero holds close, given her Taíno and Nicaraguan-Puerto Rican heritage. In the stills, Cruz-Guerrero cradles an achiote–a heart-shaped fruit native to tropical Central and South America, covered in stiff white fuzz. The artist has anointed herself in its crimson achiote paste, as she eats the pulp and spits out the seed. 

I felt the need to perform this poetic act on myself,” Cruz-Guerrero remarked. “That would express this repressed energy that was inside of me.” Her gesture was meant to be apotropaic, protective magic to ward off harmful energy. According to Cruz-Guerrero, achiote is used in Taíno ceremonies as a protective agent.

Installation view of Amaris Cruz-Guerrero's Mi Anichi, Mi Corazon (2022)

“Plants that look like the heart are good for the heart,” she explains. “It was really about heartbreak, it’s about how the material works on me. […] Whoever is willing and open enough to receive [the protection] can also take it in” 

Hearing this in retrospect, one can understand Cruz-Guerrero’s work as a prayer of sorts for the Everglades, warding off continuous overdevelopment and oil drilling, amid a profound lack of protection from politicians and developers. 

Along the boardwalk, viewers encountered a still from …what endures… (2021), a short film by Miccosukee artist and activist, Houston Cypress, which was commissioned by the Institute for Contemporary Art in Miami. The image features a perfectly symmetrical Everglades horizon with the titular phrase resting along the skyline. Here, Cypress hopes to highlight the ephemerality of humans and their creations, asking the central question: what really endures?

“So much of the things we do come and go,” Cypress elucidated during a conversation along the water. “We want to have a legacy, we want to pass on our language, we want to pass on our traditions, […] but what really endures? What is the thing that really lasts? Even those concrete water control structures have time limits, they’ll fall down. What endures is the land itself.”