The Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami (MOCA) is pleased to present the exhibition “Michael Richards: Are You Down?” ― the first museum retrospective of the work of Michael Richards, an Afro-Caribbean artist whose sculptural and drawing practice reflects on issues of racial inequity, anti-blackness, and diasporic identity. Richards passed away in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks while working in his Lower Manhattan Cultural Council World Views studio, located on the 92nd floor of World Trade Center Tower One. The exhibition will be on view from April 21 through Oct. 10, 2021, running through the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Born in Brooklyn in 1963, and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Richards was 38 at the time of his passing. He was an emerging artist whose incisive aesthetic held immense promise to make him a leading figure in contemporary art. Co-curated by Alex Fialho and Melissa Levin, “Michael Richards: Are You Down?” marks the largest exhibition of Richards’ work to date.
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, gesturing toward both repression and reprieve from social injustices, and the simultaneous possibilities of uplift and downfall, often in the context of the historical and ongoing oppression of Black people.
In a 1997 interview for the Bronx Museum of the Arts, 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.
Richards’ artistic engagement with race, masculinity, diaspora, police brutality, spirituality and art history feel especially current, urgent and pressing. Though the work was certainly of its time in the 1990s, it speaks poetically and provocatively to this contemporary moment.
“Michael Richards: Are You Down?” marks a significant Miami homecoming for the artist’s artwork and legacy. 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” (1999), as well as the retrospective’s namesake “Are You Down?” (2000), during this residency program. Since 2018, Oolite Arts has also given a $75,000 annual award in his honor, the Michael Richards Award, to Miami-Dade County-based artists.
“It is an honor for MOCA to host ‘Michael Richards: Are You Down?’ – as Miami was one of Richards’ artistic homes,” said MOCA Executive Director Chana Budgazad Sheldon. “His largest solo exhibition during his lifetime was at Ambrosino Gallery, previously located across the street from MOCA, in 2000, so his connection to the North Miami community and our institution is undeniable.”
Named for the largest public work Richards created during his lifetime, which now stands as a permanent memorial to the artist at Franconia Sculpture Park outside of Minneapolis, Minn., “Michael Richards: Are You Down?” includes numerous sculptures, drawings and images — many recently conserved or newly rediscovered — that will be on view for the first time since the artist’s tragic passing in 2001. The retrospective features approximately 12 full-scale sculptures, 25 drawings from multiple series, and dozens of images of no longer extant work, including documentation of early site-specific installations.
The sonic sculpture, “Swing Lo’” (1996), will be shown posthumously for the first time. Consisting of a life-sized, rusted chariot outfitted with blue neon underglow and one wheel attached to its right side (a second wheel is purposely missing), when installed, the chariot plays dancehall music from a booming sound system. The title, “Swing Lo’,” directly references the African-American spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Visually, the work traverses space and time, with allusions to Elijah’s biblical chariot, Jamaican sound systems which first appeared in the 1950s and were a significant presence throughout Richards’ upbringing in Kingston, and lowrider and custom car culture omnipresent throughout Miami beginning in the 1980s and 1990s. Artists william cordova and Luis Gispert, both friends and contemporaries of Richards, will lead the restoration of this work.
Also on view will be documentation and ephemera, including video and photographs of Richards in his Miami studio, historic catalogs, exhibition invitations, and remembrances from friends and curators. To commemorate the exhibition, MOCA and the exhibition curators will coordinate a robust series of public programs to engage and educate the public, and assemble a monographic publication with newly commissioned writing, including an essay by Miami-based MacArthur Fellow Edwidge Danticat.
“Michael Richards: Are You Down?” has been many years in the making, with Fialho and Levin beginning to engage with Richards’ body of work in 2016, starting with a visit to Richards’ cousin Dawn Dale’s garage in upstate New York. All of Richards’ artworks were stored in unopened boxes for the 15 years since his passing. As Richards had little online presence, Fialho and Levin have conducted analog research which has included more than 75 oral histories with Richards’ communities of friends and colleagues, site-visits to institutions such as the Studio Museum in Harlem (NY), the Bronx Museum of the Arts (NY), Oolite Arts (FL), Franconia Sculpture Park (MN), the Corcoran Gallery of Art (DC), and more.
“It feels fitting for “Michael Richards: Are You Down?” to be mounted in Miami and at MOCA North Miami, as an artistic homecoming for Richards’ art and legacy,” say curators Alex Fialho and Melissa Levin, “With incisive and poetic form, Richards’ artwork continues to have an urgent and pressing resonance two decades after its creation, and speaks powerfully and presciently to our contemporary moment.” Collaborators since 2014, Fialho is an art historian, curator and graduate student in Yale University’s Combined Ph.D. program in the History of Art and African American Studies; Levin is an arts administrator and curator with 15 years of experience creating innovative resources for artists and building progressive programs and institutions.
“Michael Richards: Are You Down?” is made possible with the continued support of the North Miami Mayor and Council and the City of North Miami, the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs and the Florida Council on Arts and Culture, the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs and the Cultural Affairs Council, and the Miami-Dade County Mayor and Board of County Commissioners. Lead support from Oolite Arts is gratefully acknowledged, along with support from the Green Family Foundation and Funding Arts Network. The generosity of Brooke Davis Anderson, Roberta Denning and V. Joy Simmons, MD is also gratefully acknowledged.