Heart gallery: Artists' works tell stories of immigrants

By Ruth Morris
Staff Writer

June 23, 2005

Their art tells of jolting journeys, lives split into before and after.

In an exhibit that opened Monday to commemorate World Refugee Day, the Miami International University of Art & Design is showing work by 13 local artists who are either refugees or have been inspired by journeys from Cuba, Colombia, Haiti and Venezuela. Here are the stories of four of the artists featured in the exhibit.

Jamie Rodriguez Morhaim of Parkland was just 5 when his parents fled Cuba. He remembers Three Kings Day had just passed, and he brought all his new toys with him to the airport. His parents had told him he was going on vacation.

"At the airport [in Havana] all my toys were taken away from me, and when we got to Miami my father was taken away," Morhaim, now 48, remembered. "As an adult, I realize I went through a lot before I should have."

Morhaim was eventually reunited with his father, who he thinks was questioned by U.S. authorities in New York. After that, he remembers a big hotel "with lots of refugees in it."

One of the works he is exhibiting, called The Promised Land, recalls a similar scene: a boxy, cubist rendering reminiscent of a busy Brooklyn street block, pasted with dog-eared photographs of yesteryear's newcomers, all floating on a churning, watery base.

Morhaim said his immigrant experience was somehow lost in a shuffle of schooling and assimilation. He studied medicine at Columbia University, became a dermatologist and opened a private practice in Coral Springs. But with the birth of his first child, he began to appreciate what it had meant for his father to uproot his family, to be separated from them unexpectedly, and to start again from scratch.

"It's a lot more important and has more impact on my psyche and my life than I ever expected," Morhaim said.

Julian Navarro received his first death threat while he was still in high school. He'd been protesting the recruitment of children in Colombia's drug-fueled civil conflict, and the National Liberation Army, or ELN, a Cuban-inspired guerrilla group, took offense.

"Our message was against violence. We asked not to be involved. They said we were snitches," said Navarro, 25, who lives in North Bay Village. "My mom picked up the phone and they told her I was on a death list, marked."

When Navarro kept protesting, ELN gunmen tried to kill him in a parking garage. He escaped unharmed, but his car was riddled with bullets. He traveled to Miami and took refuge at an uncle's house, but the death threats kept coming. One day he realized he would never use his return ticket.

"I was lost to the world," he said of the depression that cloaked him for two years. "I felt I was doing nothing, for nothing."

Like a soldier forced to leave comrades in the field, he throws attention off himself and onto Colombia's internal refugees -- dirt farmers and ragged villagers who have drifted into slums, uprooted by rebels and paramilitary death squads. Unlike him, Navarro says, they have no money for a plane ticket, no U.S. visa to fall back on.

The photograph Navarro is showing at the refugee exhibit is inspired by these trapped families. Titled Footprints, it depicts a shackled foot stepping in the mud, then repeats itself over and over.

"A lot of my friends couldn't leave," Navarro said. "There are 2 million internal refugees who have no chance to go anywhere else ... I want to be able to be with them."

Silvio Fredy Gonzalez arrived in Miami nine months ago, but he is still painting Cuba.

The 50-year-old landscape lover decided to apply for a U.S. visa after he married the daughter of a dissident and was fired from his job teaching art to schoolchildren.

One of the pieces he is exhibiting at Miami International University depicts the hot and silent interior of a forest not far from his old home in San Cristobal -- an intimate portrait of a peaceful place he left behind.

"I went out to walk in the mountain and I went off the trail. I started to penetrate inside these places," he said of the composition. "I wasn't going to paint what I could see out a car window ... I said, `What I have to paint is here, inside.'"

Talkative and playful, Gonzalez now lives in northwest Miami, and he says he has plenty of work. He is particularly fond of the Everglades, which he found by accident after getting lost on a highway.

He continues to paint Cuba from memory, but from wider angles, from farther away. His last glimpse of the island, after all, was from the air: green patches between clouds under an airplane's wing.

Asked where exactly the forest from his print is located, he grinned and pointed to his skull. "In here," he said. "And in here," he added, pointed with the other hand to his heart. "It exists," he insisted. "I love it. I know it. It's here."

Carlos Augusto Pereira, of Hollywood, is not a refugee and he doesn't consider his art political. His mixed-media pieces tend toward pearl strands and roses and icons of beauty. Hearts are a common theme.

But after his parents left Caracas two years ago, prompted to flee by escalating violence, his anger simmered over. The result was a scathing critique of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, pictured behind a barred window, against a heart that bleeds over verses of the national anthem. A scissors symbolizes the deep divisions in Venezuelan society, and a "stinky cigar" catalogues Chavez's close ties to Cuba.

"We were proud of our democracy. Now we are going backwards in history," said Pereira, 40. Echoing Venezuela's opposition movement, he charged Chavez had exacerbated the country's economic divisions to win support, while moving toward a military-style government. "Maybe this was my personal therapy. Maybe I needed to get it out of my chest," he said.

Pereira's parents moved to Australia, where they have another son, after a protester was shot and killed near their supermarket. They're settling well into their new life, Pereira said, but miss old friends.

Since he finished the piece, two Miami-based galleries have refused to show it. Monday's opening marks its first public showing.

The show, sponsored by the International Rescue Committee and the City of Miami, runs through July 20 at the Miami International University of Art & Design, 1501 Biscayne Blvd. For more information, call the school at 305-428-5700.

Ruth Morris can be reached at rmorris@sun-sentinel.com or 305-810-5012.

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