Tropical Gardens: Imagining paradise and Cultural Practices in South Florida.

Aldeide Delgado.

The geographical location of South Florida allows us to enjoy several Caribbean weather conditions in the northern part of America, while it has favored the establishment of diverse communities in the state. From the eighteenth century settlements of Creek groups and other Southeastern natives to the migratory waves of Cubans, Venezuelans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, Colombians – not to mention the annual influx of seasonal travelers (so-called “snowbirds”); Florida has long stood out for its physical and cultural peculiarity. Flanked by the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, Florida is home to a fascinating biological diversity featuring manatees, alligators, pelicans, flamingos, peacocks, iguanas, parrots and many other animals. South Florida is the only Torrid Zone in the United States; consequently, it has created and developed an image of the state as a tropical paradise.

Paradise is “an escape from history and the miseries that obscure the human condition.” An infinity of delights nourished by the desire to recover a lost time of eternal well-being and happiness. According to the anthropologist Adolfo Colombres, its seeking is evident in Christopher Columbus, who probably came to America with the secret intention of finding earthly paradise[1], but also (and worth adding), in the visionary industrialist Henry M. Flagler. In 1893, on one of his first trips 200 miles South of Daytona, when Florida was yet an unexplored region, Flagler was captivated by a white-sand island called Palm Beach. “I have found a veritable Paradise”, he said.[2]

The word “paradise” derived from the Persian term pairidaeza which refers to gardens, and the Hebrew expression pardes, which names a happy place, full of sweetness, flavors, and perfumes. The idea is that in paradise, one lives in a state of supreme happiness and harmony with nature. It is the land where “the water runs in abundance”[3] and “the air blows very softly tempered by the sun’s rays”.[4] Finding Paradise usually requires one to abandon the everyday world, to move away and forget about suffering to explore a serene place full of lush gardens, nourishment, and peace.

“Whatever else it is and has been”, wrote historian Gloria Jahoda, “the state of Florida is the Great American Escape (…) Florida is the place to go when you want to go away (…) from life in the rest of United States”. [5] During the nineteenth century, the region was promoted as a tropical paradise whose attractions revolved around sunshine, sand, the jungles of monkeys and parrots, gardens, alligators wrestling and the Seminoles. The arrival of Flagler’s Railroad at the end of 1890 stimulated tourism, allowing visitors to observe the tribes of Florida. Tropical Gardens was a Seminole village established on the banks of the Miami River which, from 1915-1969, invited tourists to observe its exotic plants and palms, and the way of life of its native tribes.

The studies of paradise penetrate the field of imaginary and symbolic universes; hence, postcards are one of the fundamental sources for understanding its dimension as a cultural construct. Postcards usually represent stereotyped landscapes that communicate the identity of a region. These images are like windows that show to loved ones of tourists, their lived experiences in foreign places or exotic geographies. The Florida Postcard Collection of the University of Miami offers an extensive archive of pictures that reflect the fabulous beaches, palms, art deco architecture, and Everglades tropical vegetation that Florida is known for. It should be noted that the concept of “tropical” does not only include the fantasy and exoticism associated with paradisiacal plantations of different contexts, but also connotes a sensibility that recognizes the impact of climate, and flora and fauna on the constitution of culture.[6] Paul Amundarain’s recent work Life seeks to explore the aesthetic delight around the idea of happiness by incorporating various Internet images and postcards of plant and animal species.

Amundarain (Caracas, 1985) is a Venezuelan artist initially trained as an architect at the Central University of Venezuela. He belongs to a generation of artists who have benefited from the legacy of modern geometric exploration. His work seeks to engage critically with different manifestations of the social. To this end, Amundarain utilizes mirrors to depict fragmentation, as well as meshes and thorny fences to express the political and economic instability of his born-country. Neighborhoods, architecture, crumbling spaces, and historical Venezuelan monuments are also recurring themes in projects; they reveal an obvious pessimism which is informed by the steady erosion of a hopeful society into an abyss of poverty.

However, the establishment of Amundarain in the United States has enriched its praxis with a more personal vision. In the words of Adriana Herrera in the introduction to the catalog Pursuit of Paradise,

Amundarain superimposes the appropriation of that matrix of modernism [the reticle] filtered by the local history of Venezuelan art, with the notion of a “grille” from which he reflects his “Search of paradise”, within the journey of leaving his own country to insert himself in a city such as Miami (…) The grille, reticle, or grid that the generations prior to his, inserted in the skin of other cities through fleeting urban interventions, multiplies in his hybrid works, assuming multiple meanings: fence, grille, mesh… and it also serves, in a method of displacement, as a sign of experience of mobility (personal and collective).[7]

And she continues,

…since 2015 [he has applied] the grille, which is usually black in the paintings, appearing as mesh, prickly barbed wire, or any motif through which one can perceive the architecture of the streets or the landscapes of Florida palm trees. This pictorial metaphor of the difficulties in the process of re-insertion also appears in the intertwined mesh which he covers in silver or gold and in which the destruction of the reticle equals a sort of formal liberation, while the act of embellishing with gold or silver refers to the illusion of finding a land of abundance. [8]

In his previous exhibition, Pursuit of Paradise, the artist generates tension with the conjunction of palm trees and thorny fences. The predominance of a low chromatic scale of dark greens and blacks announces the contradictions that such a search process implies. However, on this occasion, Amundarain takes up the notion of paradise from the concept of vitality. His newest project, which aligns with the birth of his second child and the celebration of his 33rd birthday (Life painting 33) is much more self-referential and introspective than earlier works. The paintings, a song to life (which is the proposal), presented at the Tropical Gardens exhibition in the Art Nouveau Gallery space, overflow with tropical pinks, greens, oranges, and yellows. These original pieces made specifically for the exhibition appropriate of documental images about the natural environment of Florida, and at the same time, they invite viewers to imagine what it might be, what it perhaps once was: an oasis of relaxation and peace.

Amundarain takes the plastic resource of the palm leaves to its maximum expression, while the semantic concept recalls the Seminole basketry work, as well as the Miamian landscape identity. In his canvases, the images of palm trees, hummingbirds, and parrots intermingle to generate a natural environment as a way of access to the universe. Perhaps it is from this perspective that his work is more interesting, or at least, (as I prefer to understand it), the paintings constitute an essay on the influence of the tropical – that is, the impact of climate, flora, and fauna – on the processes of configuration of the cultural identity and economic development of South Florida.

Translated from Spanish: Aldeide Delgado

Edition: Anabel Ruiz; Brandon Ambrosino

(versión español)

[1] Vid. Adolfo Colombres. Imaginario del Paraíso; Ensayos de Interpretación. (Havana: Editorial Arte y Literatura, 2012), p. 14.

[2] Michael Grunwald. The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise. (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2007), p.104.

[3] Vid. Adolfo Colombres. Imaginario del Paraíso. p. 16.

[4] José Ramón Cardona, María del Carmen Azpelicueta Criado and Antoni Serra Cantallops. El mito del paraíso perdido en la definición del destino turístico. 2015 ˂http://www.scielo.org.ar/pdf/eypt/v24n3/v24n3a15.pdf˃ [accessed April 18th, 2018]

[5] Tina Bucuvalas, Peggy A. Bulger and Stetson Kennedy. South Florida Folklife. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994), p.201.

[6] Pablo León  de La Barra. Under the same sun: Art from Latin America today. 2016 ˂https://www.guggenheim.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/guggenheim-under-the-same-sun-pablo-leon-de-la-barra-curatorial-essay-english.pdf˃ [accessed April 18th, 2018]

[7] Adriana Herrera. Paul Amundarain: a propósito de la búsqueda del paraíso. (Catalog). 2016. [n.pl.]. [n.pub.]

[8] Ibídem.

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Tropical Gardens: Imagining paradise and Cultural Practices in South Florida.

Aldeide Delgado.

The geographical location of South Florida allows us to enjoy several Caribbean weather conditions in the northern part of America, while it has favored the establishment of diverse communities in the state. From the eighteenth century settlements of Creek groups and other Southeastern natives to the migratory waves of Cubans, Venezuelans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, Colombians – not to mention the annual influx of seasonal travelers (so-called “snowbirds”); Florida has long stood out for its physical and cultural peculiarity. Flanked by the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, Florida is home to a fascinating biological diversity featuring manatees, alligators, pelicans, flamingos, peacocks, iguanas, parrots and many other animals. South Florida is the only Torrid Zone in the United States; consequently, it has created and developed an image of the state as a tropical paradise.

Paradise is “an escape from history and the miseries that obscure the human condition.” An infinity of delights nourished by the desire to recover a lost time of eternal well-being and happiness. According to the anthropologist Adolfo Colombres, its seeking is evident in Christopher Columbus, who probably came to America with the secret intention of finding earthly paradise[1], but also (and worth adding), in the visionary industrialist Henry M. Flagler. In 1893, on one of his first trips 200 miles South of Daytona, when Florida was yet an unexplored region, Flagler was captivated by a white-sand island called Palm Beach. “I have found a veritable Paradise”, he said.[2]

The word “paradise” derived from the Persian term pairidaeza which refers to gardens, and the Hebrew expression pardes, which names a happy place, full of sweetness, flavors, and perfumes. The idea is that in paradise, one lives in a state of supreme happiness and harmony with nature. It is the land where “the water runs in abundance”[3] and “the air blows very softly tempered by the sun’s rays”.[4] Finding Paradise usually requires one to abandon the everyday world, to move away and forget about suffering to explore a serene place full of lush gardens, nourishment, and peace.

“Whatever else it is and has been”, wrote historian Gloria Jahoda, “the state of Florida is the Great American Escape (…) Florida is the place to go when you want to go away (…) from life in the rest of United States”. [5] During the nineteenth century, the region was promoted as a tropical paradise whose attractions revolved around sunshine, sand, the jungles of monkeys and parrots, gardens, alligators wrestling and the Seminoles. The arrival of Flagler’s Railroad at the end of 1890 stimulated tourism, allowing visitors to observe the tribes of Florida. Tropical Gardens was a Seminole village established on the banks of the Miami River which, from 1915-1969, invited tourists to observe its exotic plants and palms, and the way of life of its native tribes.

The studies of paradise penetrate the field of imaginary and symbolic universes; hence, postcards are one of the fundamental sources for understanding its dimension as a cultural construct. Postcards usually represent stereotyped landscapes that communicate the identity of a region. These images are like windows that show to loved ones of tourists, their lived experiences in foreign places or exotic geographies. The Florida Postcard Collection of the University of Miami offers an extensive archive of pictures that reflect the fabulous beaches, palms, art deco architecture, and Everglades tropical vegetation that Florida is known for. It should be noted that the concept of “tropical” does not only include the fantasy and exoticism associated with paradisiacal plantations of different contexts, but also connotes a sensibility that recognizes the impact of climate, and flora and fauna on the constitution of culture.[6] Paul Amundarain’s recent work Life seeks to explore the aesthetic delight around the idea of happiness by incorporating various Internet images and postcards of plant and animal species.

Amundarain (Caracas, 1985) is a Venezuelan artist initially trained as an architect at the Central University of Venezuela. He belongs to a generation of artists who have benefited from the legacy of modern geometric exploration. His work seeks to engage critically with different manifestations of the social. To this end, Amundarain utilizes mirrors to depict fragmentation, as well as meshes and thorny fences to express the political and economic instability of his born-country. Neighborhoods, architecture, crumbling spaces, and historical Venezuelan monuments are also recurring themes in projects; they reveal an obvious pessimism which is informed by the steady erosion of a hopeful society into an abyss of poverty.

However, the establishment of Amundarain in the United States has enriched its praxis with a more personal vision. In the words of Adriana Herrera in the introduction to the catalog Pursuit of Paradise,

Amundarain superimposes the appropriation of that matrix of modernism [the reticle] filtered by the local history of Venezuelan art, with the notion of a “grille” from which he reflects his “Search of paradise”, within the journey of leaving his own country to insert himself in a city such as Miami (…) The grille, reticle, or grid that the generations prior to his, inserted in the skin of other cities through fleeting urban interventions, multiplies in his hybrid works, assuming multiple meanings: fence, grille, mesh… and it also serves, in a method of displacement, as a sign of experience of mobility (personal and collective).[7]

And she continues,

…since 2015 [he has applied] the grille, which is usually black in the paintings, appearing as mesh, prickly barbed wire, or any motif through which one can perceive the architecture of the streets or the landscapes of Florida palm trees. This pictorial metaphor of the difficulties in the process of re-insertion also appears in the intertwined mesh which he covers in silver or gold and in which the destruction of the reticle equals a sort of formal liberation, while the act of embellishing with gold or silver refers to the illusion of finding a land of abundance. [8]

In his previous exhibition, Pursuit of Paradise, the artist generates tension with the conjunction of palm trees and thorny fences. The predominance of a low chromatic scale of dark greens and blacks announces the contradictions that such a search process implies. However, on this occasion, Amundarain takes up the notion of paradise from the concept of vitality. His newest project, which aligns with the birth of his second child and the celebration of his 33rd birthday (Life painting 33) is much more self-referential and introspective than earlier works. The paintings, a song to life (which is the proposal), presented at the Tropical Gardens exhibition in the Art Nouveau Gallery space, overflow with tropical pinks, greens, oranges, and yellows. These original pieces made specifically for the exhibition appropriate of documental images about the natural environment of Florida, and at the same time, they invite viewers to imagine what it might be, what it perhaps once was: an oasis of relaxation and peace.

Amundarain takes the plastic resource of the palm leaves to its maximum expression, while the semantic concept recalls the Seminole basketry work, as well as the Miamian landscape identity. In his canvases, the images of palm trees, hummingbirds, and parrots intermingle to generate a natural environment as a way of access to the universe. Perhaps it is from this perspective that his work is more interesting, or at least, (as I prefer to understand it), the paintings constitute an essay on the influence of the tropical – that is, the impact of climate, flora, and fauna – on the processes of configuration of the cultural identity and economic development of South Florida.

Translated from Spanish: Aldeide Delgado

Edition: Anabel Ruiz; Brandon Ambrosino

(versión español)

[1] Vid. Adolfo Colombres. Imaginario del Paraíso; Ensayos de Interpretación. (Havana: Editorial Arte y Literatura, 2012), p. 14.

[2] Michael Grunwald. The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise. (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2007), p.104.

[3] Vid. Adolfo Colombres. Imaginario del Paraíso. p. 16.

[4] José Ramón Cardona, María del Carmen Azpelicueta Criado and Antoni Serra Cantallops. El mito del paraíso perdido en la definición del destino turístico. 2015 ˂http://www.scielo.org.ar/pdf/eypt/v24n3/v24n3a15.pdf˃ [accessed April 18th, 2018]

[5] Tina Bucuvalas, Peggy A. Bulger and Stetson Kennedy. South Florida Folklife. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994), p.201.

[6] Pablo León  de La Barra. Under the same sun: Art from Latin America today. 2016 ˂https://www.guggenheim.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/guggenheim-under-the-same-sun-pablo-leon-de-la-barra-curatorial-essay-english.pdf˃ [accessed April 18th, 2018]

[7] Adriana Herrera. Paul Amundarain: a propósito de la búsqueda del paraíso. (Catalog). 2016. [n.pl.]. [n.pub.]

[8] Ibídem.