Picture the moment of the dreaded call, the rush to ER, finding your mother, father, loved one, wavering, then the days or weeks in hospital, the intensity of doctors, tests, more tests, scans, blood work, waiting for numbers, procedures, wandering the halls, fortified by the kindness of nurses. If this should occur, and if you happen to be so fortunate as to be in the Skolnick Surgical Tower at Mount Sinai Medical Center on Miami Beach, walking through the ultra modern, sun light-filled lobby hallway, perhaps looking for a colada to share as the hospital becomes your temporary home, or even if you are just visiting on the day, you cannot help but to come upon Onajide Shabaka’s photo exhibition, “The future and the past are one.”
When you see Shabaka’s hallway-long, twenty-image gallery exhibition presented by Oolite Arts, hosted and sponsored by Mount Sinai Medical Center, you may well be visually transported away instantly, taken far outside the fog of hospital stress and delivered gently and quietly into nature, into the embrace of a moment of calm.
Take a deep breath as you land in Shabaka’s quietly serene Everglades rivers of grass and pinelands, in the becalmed Indian River Lagoon habitats, or in other hidden places captured here. You may even feel the warmth of the golden sunrise through the trees, be awed by the barred owl, nestled in leaves and twigs staring directly up at you in wide eyed wonderment, or perhaps feel an embarrassed surprise after two weeks of passing this way before when you finally notice the two fish, one native, the other invasive, both almost just out of frame but steadily approaching through dense underwater vegetation. Finally, take pause long enough to fly with a turkey vulture through the darkness of night towards the fullest of moons. This exhibit has been curated by Shabaka for calm into the hospital world, here art heals the mind and body in every sense.
Known for his walking practice, Shabaka jokingly says it isn’t like a medical practice, but how he takes photographs, on long walks through nature, which he has done since he was in high school and didn’t yet know he was beginning a long career as an artist. “The reason why the walking practice developed something more for me was because, as you see in these photographs, there’s a certain ambiance that one can give in nature when one wants to attend to that and be quiet and listen, and observe…I can walk fast, but I normally walk slow and I look down and I see things. I see little rocks, I see little seeds and different little things…you’re hearing birds and different animals in different parts of the canopy,” described Shabaka of his walking practice.
Shabaka lives and works in Miami, he is described in a small informational poster on site as an ‘interdisciplinary cultural practitioner.’ He’s an artist interested in nature and history and also the places where both connect and leave their mark, which he then seeks to uncover. His long, successful career includes his current 2023 residency at Oolite Arts, two residencies in the Everglades with A.I.R.I.E. (Artist in Residence in the Everglades), where during COVID, his time was extended as the only resident that year. Many of the images here come from that time. He is represented by Emerson Dorsch Gallery, where one can find his extensive CV.
Mount Sinai Medical Center President and CEO, Gino Santorio, has been at Mt. Sinai for two and a half years, a dynamic, young CEO, he brings with him a confident, collaborative spirit, crediting his team for success. Santorio is continuing the Oolite Arts relationship which began with the building of the new Skolnick Surgical Tower in 2019. Santorio explains, “when this building was designed, every component of it was designed to enhance the environment. Studies have shown that art program actually speed up healing time, and help with overall wellbeing, so including that was an important part of that process and is now again moving forward with our new Irma and Norman Braman Comprehensive Cancer Center…it’s going to have some of the same aspects of the art that you see here today…Having artwork like this (Onajide Shabaka’s exhibition) and spaces that are conducive to relaxation, is really important.
Shabaka agrees to take his walking practice down the long hall of the Skolnick tower to describe his images. He is softly spoken, a gentle man, who makes time slow down as he talks through his images. Shabaka describes each work of art with a fresh, wondering voice, seemingly surprised at seeing his own images anew. He has book ended his exhibit with night images at each end. Starting in the Everglades pinelands where he has captured a celestial event, “this is actually a sunset image from 2020 in December when there was a conjunction between Saturn, I believe it was Venus, and the moon. The day before… so they were real close. There’s the two planets and the moon,” he says, pointing out tiny in the sky the two planets, while the rest of the image is filled with trees, and light and shadow, and darkness and beauty.
During the interview, in the midst of a busy hall filled with doctors, nurses, patients, electricians, visitors, staff and cafe goers, cafe barista, Miss B Burris, walks over to say hello. She has wanted to meet the photographer, as the view from her work station is directly across from the exhibit. Delighted to be introduced, Miss B’s face lights up like the sun and the moon and perhaps Venus, as laughingly she claims her favorite image is of the shells, “she sells seashells by the seashore!” she almost sings out.
No sooner has Shabaka begun again on his walk and talk, than another enthusiast of his work, this time Security Officer Angelis Perez, walks up to say hello, “These are beautiful, one day I’m going to do like you and have my pictures out there.” Word has gotten out quickly, the artist is in house. Shabaka welcomes each conversation, he and Angelis are soon discussing photography, talking about where they go out into nature to shoot, swapping stories, and then about Puerto Rico, where Angelis comes from, and about which Shabaka seems to know surprisingly much. It turns out Shabaka basically knows every twist and turn of the roads, from a previous, younger career, racing bicycles internationally and having competed in Puerto Rico’s La Vuelta race. The two part with Shabaka telling Angelis, “Go to the Everglades!” Shabaka’s images have created a warm and welcoming atmosphere in the hospital, which not only transports viewers outwards into nature, but have also inspired viewers to stop and share moments of their own lives.
Shabaka is nearing the end of this hallway walking tour with just two images left to go. He has reached the other book end and stops before a powerful image of a larger than life vulture soaring towards a huge moon through the trees, titled, “Celestial vulture (pinelands),” an image he explained that he created. “During December vultures are here in South Florida. Every morning, they come out and they’re sort of circling around until the winds warm up and then they go and take off and then they come back in the evening…This one conceptually comes from my art practice. I was trying to montage digitally some images, it isn’t actually the moon,” and he later also admits, “vultures don’t fly at night.” It was something he confides, that he made for himself, but then someone wanted to buy it and he thought to himself, well somebody likes it beside me, so it must be pretty good. Now it hangs in Mt Sinai, seen by thousands of people each week, and is one of his most appreciated images.
Esther Park, Vice President of Programming for Oolite Arts, is focused on the details of the program, the size of the space, finding the right artists with enough work to cover what seems to her like 70 feet of hallway. Park especially appreciates the relationship with Mt Sinai as being important for both their Miami Beach organizations to build a greater sense of community, of fulfilling their partnership by bringing only local artists into the mix. Park explained further, “I think one of the interesting factors is that they (the artists) know that this is a hospital setting. It’s not like an underpass and a highway, it’s not some blue chip, white wall gallery, this is a public kind of viewing hospital and hospitals serve a specific purpose. And so with that in mind, I think artists understand that they have this kind of responsibility when they are here.”
Santorio is forthcoming as a scuba diver with his appreciation first for Shabaka’s underwater images, “There’s so much detail on all these…you go through there and you’re wondering, what’s next, what’s on the other side? The reason I like this…is because we’re in a time period in Miami, where we are exploding in terms of population and development. And it’s nice to see what we have, that’s a short drive in a protected environment. I’m an outdoors person…and it’s such a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of every day. When I walk this way for my morning commute…this speaks to me.”
Shabaka closes the interview sharing an unexpected insight which points to subtle synergies which may surprise. It turns out that he likes hospitals. He doesn’t find them stressful. He reveals, “I used to live in Broward and I used to go to Broward General all the time, because it had a Starbucks, and I even ate in the hospital restaurant quite a few times. I started going there because I needed WiFi… And I’m thinking that’s okay, I can work here, I don’t know anybody, nobody’s gonna bother with me. And then I see this guy sitting down in the chair over there. And I look at him on Instagram, he doesn’t have a beard, but sitting there, he’s got a beard, I said, ‘Man, aren’t you?.. I know people that know you.’ Right. And then he goes, ‘Yeah, Dan, that’s my brother. And the guy behind the counter is my father.’ Then a couple years later, he has a baby and I’m there on the day the child is born. Just by accident. So I’m just saying the hospital is a place for me. For me, it’s a comfortable place.”
WHAT: “The future and the past are one,” Onajide Shabaka Free Art Exhibition
WHERE: Skolnick Surgical Tower at Mount Sinai Medical Center, 4300 Alton Rd, Miami Beach, FL 33140
WHEN: Now on view through December 17, 2023