Five miles east of the Miami International Airport, Allapatah is home to Caribbean, South and Central American immigrants. Mostly known for bodegas, textile manufacturers and the Miami Jackson Senior High School, Allapatah is also now home to a colonial art renaissance.
Florida’s past and present collide in the neighborhood’s small, Peruvian-inspired chapel-museum: Iglesia-Museo Perú de Nuestra Señora de la Merced. Located next to Corpus Christi Church, the chapel-museum houses the Colonial Florida Cultural and Convention Center Project – dedicated to reviving, restoring and exhibiting colonial art masterpieces as well as numerous Latin American, and specifically, Cuban historical documents.
Several FIU faculty members and students are helping in this revival of art and culture.
FIU Art and Art History Professor and former Director and Chief Curator of the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum Carol Damian is the curator of the art collection for the project.
“This is such a unique opportunity to have this collection and this little chapel in Miami, in our backyard,” she says. “Colonial art is the area of my Ph.D., and I seldom have opportunities to work with collections like these, so I’m thrilled.”
Damian has been working with the project for about two years and says volunteering her time for this project is a “labor of love.”
“You work in the arts because you have a passion for it, a love for it,” Damian says. “So here I am among the objects and paintings that for 20 years I’ve dedicated my life to studying.”
Alfredo Garcia – an adjunct lecturer in the Department of Global Sociocultural Studies who’s also a Ph.D. student at Princeton – is currently working on the project as part of his dissertation studying the effects art can have on neighborhoods; he also helps the project with their social media and online presence.
“I became enamored with this project by how courageous and bold it is,” Garcia says.
Ten years ago, Corpus Christi’s Father Jose Luis Menendez and several of his Peruvian parishioners were inspired by a Peruvian church they visited to build a chapel in the same style. That endeavor has evolved into the Florida Colonial Project, and today – with more than 150 colonial art paintings and sculptures from Latin American countries like Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Mexico – La Iglesia-Museo Perú de Nuestra Señora de la Merced houses one of the largest colonial art collections in the country.
Paintings like the “Lord of the Earthquakes,” showing Christ on the cross, as well as “The Virgin of La Merced” and the “Virgin of Annunciation” adorn various altars inside the chapel. Currently undergoing conservation is a painting by Diego Quispe Tito, a Cuzco artist. Cuzco was the first indigenous guild of painting in the Americas. Many other Cuzco artists of the colonial period did not sign their works so may remain a mystery of the past, but their paintings continue to shed light on the cultural roots of the New World.
The paintings of the Cuzco artists, often characterized by gold stenciling, usually depict Spanish, Catholic religious figures from an indigenous perspective.
“One of my jobs was to determine what was going to be in the chapel,” Damian says.
But first she found an appraiser to document all of the paintings and get an insurance value for the artwork. Then she spent hours documenting every painting, artist and painting date.
Notable sculptures also include the life-size silver Archangel with sword and armor and a statue of Santa Rosa de Lima.
The art extends beyond the collection to the building itself. The chapel-museum has a coral-rock façade from the Dominican Republic; marble floors from Brazil; and wooden columns and hand-carved cedar ceiling from Bolivia.
All the work has been done by local craftsmen by hand and gilded, using authentic gold-leaf.
Menendez says the chapel-museum demonstrates the beauty of the people living in Allapatah and the beauty of their cultural roots.
“This project is a gift from the Latin American people to the North American community for what it has given us. It accepts us and gives us a chance to build a new life,” he says. “We want to tell the world that we are a people that have a beautiful culture and we want to give it to this country as a gift.”
“As far as we know, this baroque chapel is the only one of its kind in the U.S,” says Ray Zamora, director of the Florida Colonial Project.
La Merced also houses more than 500,000 digital historical documents and more than 12,000 original documents. Among these documents are copies of Cuba’s original constitution and letters from King Ferdinand to the governor of St. Augustine.
Zamora says they would like to create a digital library so students can access these historical documents for research.
FIU student Michelle Gonzalez has been volunteering at the chapel-museum for about a year and a half.
“It’s a landmark in progress. Being a part of the project… it’s a part of me,” says Gonzalez, who helps keep inventory of the artwork. “It’s more than a project. It’s about being human. And this project is full of culture, knowledge and a new level of respect for art.”
Gonzalez hopes to pursue a master’s in art management. This opportunity allows her to get hands-on, direct experience with art and work with experts like Damian and Zamora.
“They take hold of you and make sure to mold you for success,” she says of the Colonial Florida team. “They give you buckets of knowledge. You want to work with them desperately.”
Students in Garcia’s sociology class, which includes the study of religious sites, will also be visiting the chapel-museum.
Visiting the chapel-museum he says will give his students the chance to see the kinds of behind-the-scenes decisions made when constructing such a site. “Sociologically there is a lot that has to be taken into consideration when constructing a sacred place.”
In the spring of 2016, Damian will teach “The Art of Spain and the Colonies.” Students will be asked to research the paintings in the chapel-museum.
“When you look at the paintings, they are complicated in scenery and symbolism because they all tell a story,” she says. “So it’s going to be an opportunity for students to figure out what that story is. They are going to learn to read the painting.”
In addition, Garcia says this is huge for all Miami residents. “There’s nothing like it, and it is in an inner city parish,” he says. “It’s about identity, culture, unity and community.”
He adds that places like the Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami, the Design District and even the Wynwood Art District are designed for an audience made up of tourists or wealthier people; those venues are not necessarily comfortable, feasible or even inviting for many Miamians.
For Barbara Bollini, an FIU student who was raised in Bolivia, going to the chapel-museum proved to be a sweet reminder of home.
“Once I saw the chapel-museum, more than the impact and surprise, it was the feeling of being transported back home and the beauty of seeing your heritage represented in Miami in such a grandiose way.”
Bollini, who is currently in one of Damian’s classes and working toward her Museum Studies Certificate, plans to volunteer at the Florida Colonial Project come January.
The Colonial Florida project involves several different phases. The second phase includes a three-story museum with the first floor housing Cuban independence artifacts; the second floor housing Florida artwork from 1508-1821; and the third floor housing more colonial paintings and sculptures as well as rotating exhibits.
The third phase is creating a colonial-style plaza, with restaurants, international boutiques and possibly a bookstore; a language institute; and a parking garage to provide easy accessibility for those visiting the plaza.
Another goal of the project is to create a space for Baroque music to be enjoyed. Several concerts have already been held at the chapel-museum, including a concert by FIU Associate Professor of Musicology David Dolata.
“We want to be able to unite the community,” Menendez says. “Our dream is to create a place where everybody feels welcome and where everybody can enjoy what we have created here. ”