April Feature in Biscayne Times: Perception vs Portrayal

13 Apr


 rinidad native and Miami artiArtFeature_1st Johanne Rahaman pays tender, determined witness to what she calls “the normal that blackness is not ever given.” In that effort, she says, “I’m obsessed with Florida.”

That’s why she’s driven some 100,000 miles up and down the state of Florida since 2014 for her BlackFlorida project. So far she’s shot 50,000 photographs and recorded hours upon hours of conversations with residents of black communities. Grants from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, Ford Foundation, Knight Foundation, Oolite Arts, and others support this work. She posts on Instagram at BlackFlorida.

Rahaman is on a journey to upend the state’s glamorous, exclusionary, and market-friendly story. Illuminating what’s often been obscured, she generally traces the path of the Florida East Coast Railroad. “The entire east coast of Florida was developed through prison labor on the backs of black bodies,” she says. “Black communities have always been vital organs of the state and kept the railroad and industry functioning, from Jacksonville to Key West when it did go to Key West.”


Sacred Feminine Ceremony at Historic Virginia Key Beach, Historic Virginia Key Beach, June 2018.
Kwanzaa at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, Liberty City, December 2015.

She portrays places like Bahama Village in Key West, whose names have changed as their black population declined, as gentrification erases much of their history. “Bahama Village is now just a few people holding on to their homes,” she explains. “My project is about embracing and uplifting contributions of the African diaspora in Florida, but especially it’s an homage to black Americans. The African American community made vibrant contributions to Florida before migrations from the Caribbean and Latin America.”

Her work has garnered attention in The New Yorker, Huffington Post, Vogue, and other publications. At the U.S. Embassy of Rwanda, her works are part of a group show dedicated to women photographers of the African diaspora, spanning 27 countries.

Through October 11, HistoryMiami Museum presents 173 of Rahaman’s photographs, as well as audio and video recordings, in “Embracing the Lens: The BlackFlorida Project.” Portraits, street scenes, and landscapes highlight people, places, and events, such as Overtown’s Music and Arts Festival.


Brother Gerald Muhammad at the Overtown Music and Arts Festival, Historic Overtown, July 2015.

The exhibit’s guest curator is Jeffreen Hayes, an art historian and curator of the acclaimed exhibit “AFRICOBRA,” presented at MOCA in North Miami before heading to the 2019 Venice Biennale. Executive director of Chicago’s Three Walls, Hayes leads a diverse, itinerant, contemporary arts organization committed to engaging with various Chicago neighborhoods. She urged Rahaman to describe this project as not merely an archive, but a living archive.

“What really stood out to me is that this not static,” says Hayes. “It feels very much like a living organism. There are stories that go along with the photographs, whether they are written or audio.”

A self-taught photographer praised for her artist’s sense of beauty, Rahaman, age 51, says the project progresses slowly, partly because she works full time as an office administrator on South Beach. On weekends she doesn’t simply travel to a place, photograph, get the story, and leave.


Saturday afternoon in Collier City, Pompano Beach, November 2016.

“I always say it’s 90 percent conversation and connection, and ten percent photography. I don’t just show up and start photographing people,” she explains. “I have to get to know them. They have to get to know me and trust me.” Her process is unobtrusive, unencumbered by high-powered equipment. Although she often uses a Nikon camera, she sometimes shoots video and photographs on her phone, attaching a microphone to it for audio.

“Any camera is a camera,” she says. “It helps people understand that they can replicate what I am doing.” For her, this is a collaborative project with the people she photographs and records.

Rahaman moved to Miami in 1996 from Laventille Hills, a troubled ward in Trinidad, where she was raised and is proud to call home. Although she left Trinidad because she found the island stifling, feelings of homesickness spurred her to shoot street photographs of Liberty City in 2014. Liberty City, she recalls, “reminded me of the streets where I grew up, walking to school and going to market. I saw the same kind of scenes. People were hanging out on the corner, talking to each other. Someone would ride by on a bicycle and call out to everyone. It just felt like Trinidad.”


Johanne Rahaman: “The entire east coast of Florida was developed through prison labor on the backs of black bodies.” Photo by Maggie Steber

Those Liberty City street photographs grew into her remarkable Florida archive. Reflecting on why the project began, she says, “I’m the last of eight children. Then the grandchildren started coming. I was always looking for space,” she admits with a laugh. “I was always a wanderer. I would go hiking, sometimes with friends, through the hills, to the mountains, and to the beach. Then I would go back by myself and do the same hike. I was always curious about exploring on my own,” she remembers. “I came to America wanting something else. You know, the grass is always greener. But if I didn’t leave Trinidad, I don’t think I would ever have done what I am doing now.”

A pervasive disconnect with what many people consider the best parts of Miami compelled her to explore black communities. “When I go west of I-95, I feel at home,” she says. “I feel more grounded and rooted in spaces where I see people who look like me and are just regular, everyday people. They are not driving fancy cars.”

There, she sees people who resemble her family members, hardworking people on a tight budget. Some are doing what she considers most important. They are, she says, “sending children to school, making sure they get educated, and creating new pathways for them. I see a lot of that in my work. The black everyday is not what you see in the news.”

Initially, Rahaman had asked Hayes to recommend a curator for her exhibit, never thinking that Hayes would do it herself, but recalls being “absolutely blown away” when Hayes agreed to curate. For her part, Hayes disdains how the commercial art market dictates who is valued in terms of art history and museum exhibitions. By contrast, Hayes admires “artists whose work has deep intention, deep impact, and their values are all about the craft.”

That’s why Hayes became involved with Rahaman’s “Embracing the Lens.” As Hayes explains, “While she considers herself a documentary photographer, I see her as an artist.”

Hayes finds her photos of the Sacred Feminine Ceremony at Virginia Key Beach intimate and majestic, particularly one with a woman depicted in a movement with her arms up in the air, her right leg extended behind her, almost like she is taking flight. “It’s a beautiful moment,” Hayes says.

Addressing the scope of this archive, she adds, “It’s rare to work with an artist who really does know how to bridge art and community without exploiting black communities.” In Rahaman’s project, “we really get at the soul of blackness.”

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