Art Exhibition: “Michael Richards: Are You Down?”

The Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami (MOCA) presents a retrospective of late Jamaican-American artist Michael Richards, “Are You Down?” Curated by Alex Fialho and Melissa Levin, the exhibition opens on April 21 and will be on view until October 10, 2021.

Description: Michael Richards: Are You Down? is the first museum retrospective of the work of Michael Richards, an Afro-Caribbean artist whose sculpture and drawing practice reflects on issues of systemic oppression and diasporic identity.

Born in Brooklyn in 1963, and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Richards tragically passed away on 9/11 while working in his Lower Manhattan Cultural Council World Views studio on the 92nd floor of World Trade Center Tower One. At age 38, Richards was an emerging artist whose incisive aesthetic held immense promise to make him a leading figure in contemporary art. On view through October 2021, the retrospective also marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11 with the largest ever exhibition of Richards’ work.

Richards used the language of metaphor to investigate racial inequity and the tension between assimilation and exclusion in his art. Aviation, flight, and escape were central themes for Richards as an exploration of transcendence and descent. His artwork gestures towards both repression and reprieve from social injustices, and the simultaneous possibilities of uplift and downfall, often in the context of the historic and ongoing oppression of Black people.

In a 1997 interview, Richards stated, “I think history has always been important to me because if you examine the past you can also read the symptoms of what is prevalent now in terms of racial associations and the relationships of power present in our society today. History is interesting in terms of how we mythologize it, how we accept history or interpretations of history as fact, and whose interpretation it is. In many ways my history is so different from the official white versions.”

Significant points of reference for Richards included the Tuskegee Airmen—the first African American pilots in United States military history—and the complexity of their triumphs in the face of segregation, as well as religious and ritual stories from African and Judeo-Christian traditions. Centering his own experience, Richards used his body to cast the figures for his sculptures, which often appear as pilots, saints, or both.

Michael Richards: Are You Down? takes its name from one of the last artworks Richards created during his lifetime. The exhibition includes numerous sculptures, drawings, and images of no longer extant work, including documentation of early site-specific installations. Several of Richards’ sculptures have been recently conserved, and are on view at MOCA North Miami for the first time since the artist’s passing in 2001.

Michael Richards had a close creative relationship to Miami, making the city and MOCA a fitting location for this expansive exhibition. From 1997–2000, Richards was an artist-in-residence with the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts at ArtCenter/South Florida (now Oolite Arts), spending three months each winter for three years making work and developing community in Miami. Richards created his best-known sculpture, Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian, as well as the retrospective’s namesake Are You Down?, in this residency program. Additionally, Richards had the largest solo exhibition in his lifetime in 2000 at Ambrosino Gallery, previously located across the street from MOCA North Miami. As Richards’ first museum retrospective, Michael Richards: Are You Down? marks a significant Miami homecoming for Richards’ artwork and legacy.

Richards’ artistic engagement with race, masculinity, diaspora, spirituality, police brutality, and fallen monuments is especially urgent and pressing today. Though Richards’ work is certainly of its time in the 1990s, it simultaneously speaks poetically and provocatively to our contemporary moment.

About the artist: Michael Rolando Richards (1963–2001) was born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. Richards moved back to the United States to attend Queens College, where he earned a BA in 1985. He received an MA from New York University in 1991, and attended the Whitney Independent Study Program from 1992–93. During his lifetime, Richards won several competitive awards including a 1995 Art Matters Individual Artist Grant, and participated in esteemed artist residencies at institutions such as the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Richards had a solo exhibition at Ambrosino Gallery in North Miami in 2000, and was featured in two-person and group exhibitions nationally and internationally at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY; Miami Art Museum, Miami, FL; and Debeyard Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, among others throughout his career. Richards’ artwork is held in museum collections including The Studio Museum in Harlem, NY; the Brooklyn Museum, NY; the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Richmond, VA; and the Pérez Art Museum Miami, FL. Franconia Sculpture Park, near Minneapolis, MN, is home to a permanent memorial to Michael Richards—Are You Down?—a bronze recast of an original, large-scale sculpture by Richards, originally displayed during a Fellowship there in 2000.

Source: [Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.]

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