Butterflies are Borderless, Unlike People
An exhibition of native and brown artists in Miami reflects on the contrast between natural patterns of migration and the circulation violently enforced by colonialism.
Installation view of Monarchs: Brown and Native Contemporary Artists in the Path of the Butterfly at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami. Photo by Daniel Bock and courtesy of MOCA.
The monarch butterfly is the only kind of its species to make a round trip migration, like a bird. It flies from southern Canada or the northwest United States to central Mexico or California in the fall, then returns the following summer, but no butterfly undertakes the journey alone; as females lay eggs throughout, the trek is made across several generations as they follow the route of their ancestors instinctually, often landing on the same trees.
Another seemingly infinite loop, though far more fraught, was considered by Risa Puleo as she curated Monarchs: Brown and Native Contemporary Artists in the Path of the Butterfly, now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), North Miami in an incarnation of the exhibition she organized for the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts last winter.
When Puleo first conceived of Monarchs, she had in mind two concurrent standoffs at the edges of the country that spoke to recurring conflicts over land and sovereignty: Donald Trump’s plans for a border wall between the US and Mexico, and the protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline led by the Standing Rock Sioux. “This land has been around much longer than it’s been called ‘the United States,’” she explained in a phone call. “I was investigating these territories when I realized the monarch travels through them.” Each of the thirty-five artists in the exhibition pull from their ancestral narratives—tracing, like monarchs, the path of their own histories.
The show is sprawling and though its manifold themes tend to overlap, resilience and resourcefulness, as intergenerational inheritances, emerges as its crux. In Merritt Johnson and Nicholas Galanin’s video, Exorcising America: Survival Exercises (2017), two bodies caress and nurture each other; an overlay of text reads: “Even after we’ve been raped, we enjoy exercising our survival…This is how everything begins.” Nancy Friedemann-Sánchez’s sublime collage, Cornucopia (2016), an explosive burst of flora nearly eighteen feet long, utilizes Tyvek and Mopa Mopa, the latter a “pre-Columbian technique from the south of Colombia and north of Peru and Ecuador,” she explained over email. “By making a monumental still life with flowers,” she said, “I challenge issues of hierarchy and power. A still life is always at the bottom of the totem pole in terms of status.”
In another video, Miami-based artist Onajide Shabaka’s Total Disappearance, 1905 (2012), two people recount their memory of a naked woman mysteriously rising from the Florida mangroves. In one minute, Shabaka mines mythology, legend, and the manmade construct of land ownership. The Americas belong to the descendants of those who lived here before the arrival of its European colonizers, and it’s worthwhile for the generations of people bred by the latter to ask what sorts of histories they have unwittingly been bequeathed, too, and what burdens they choose to ignore.
Monarchs: Brown and Native Contemporary Artists in the Path of the Butterfly is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami through August 5, 2018.