arla Ferguson can’t pinpoint where and when she developed her rebellious streak. “It was just always there,” she says.
As a child, her mother nicknamed her Kilimanjaro after the tallest mountain in Africa. “I was tiny, but stubborn,” she explains, “and my mother always said I would do anything I set my mind to.”
“I became very aware that I was being placed in a category,” she said. “They wanted blacks to be with blacks, whites to be whites, the sexism was sharp, men with men. I never respected any of those rules.“ While at Tulane she began to volunteer at the Innocence Project, a non-profit that identifies and remedies wrongful conviction cases through the use of DNA.
Today, the still diminutive art director has emerged high atop the Miami art scene with the transformation of her Yeelen Gallery in Miami’s once-forgotten “Little Haiti” neighborhood into an international sensation showcasing art that powerfully humanizes the black experience.
The group’s fight against injustice appealed to her and for years, she advocated tirelessly on behalf of men and boys wrongfully imprisoned.
But for Ferguson, what may appear to be an “overnight” success has been anything but.
She credits her artistic Jamaican family with her early interest in the arts—a father who was a musician, a mother who acted and uncles who dabbled in painting and architecture.
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, she spent her early years in a crime-ridden corner of the city where the warm air was often punctuated by the sound of machine gun fire. At six years old, her parents emigrated to the United States and she was left to take care of her younger sister while they waited for their visas to be finalized. “At a very young age, I had to grow up fast,“ she recalls. This resiliency would serve her well once she joined her family in the United States, facing a stark racism she’d never experienced in her home country where “everyone was brown like me.” The family would eventually move to Miami, to an equally tough neighborhood just north of the city. At her high school, where metal detectors and student melees were commonplace, teachers counseled her to be sensible and head for community college.
Yet through it all she nurtured an unfailing love for art.
Then one summer, while still in Law School, she traveled to France and met her husband, esteemed visual artist Jerome Soimaud. Upon their return from France, they joined forces and opened up Yeelen Gallery in Wynwood Art District of Miami in 2008. This exhibition space was dedicated to counteracting the negative stereotypes that exist for people of color. “I think art is a more powerful tool if we use it as propaganda in a positive way,” she says. “We can change people’s minds and perceptions by showing them the other side, our shared humanity—and not just what we see in the media.”
Instead, she boldly announced her intention to pursue an undergraduate and then eventually a law degree. One of her teacher challenged her “nerve” branding her “a rebel without a cause.”
Yeelen quickly gained popularity amidst the more mainstream galleries in Wynwood. Yet in 2012, the rebellious streak struck again and Ferguson and Soimaud decided to move their gallery to economically-challenged area of “Little Haiti.”
“I just laughed,” remembers Ferguson, “and told her that I’d better get around to finding a cause.”
“Everyone said do not do it!” she remembers with a laugh, “That’s the hood!”
And that she did.
Yet propelled by that same Kilimanjaro spirit, the couple relocated their gallery to a 10,000 square foot space in what was then a sea of industrial warehouses and abandoned storefronts. In so doing, they became pioneers, both anchoring and ushering in an incredible renaissance in that community.
Her first step was Florida International University where she studied international affairs and political science. Then onto the Law School at Tulane University, where she officially, as she puts it, “discovered the South.”
Today, Little Haiti has been transformed into a bustling neighborhood and artistic hub of various ethnicities and cultures. It has become a destination of choice for the throngs of art enthusiasts that flock to Miami every year for the art sensation that is Art Basel Miami. The gallery’s Art Basel show “Fade to Black” is a celebration of contemporary black art and its most important and emerging artists and is arguably the hottest ticket of the four-day art event The New York Times called it a “mustsee” event. On the last day of Art Basel Miami 2014, Ferguson and the rest of the city awoke to an image of herself splashed across the front page of the Miami Herald. In the image, she is standing in all her glory, overseeing the art she has worked tirelessly to curate and help bring to the fore. Later that same day, more than 1200 artists and art enthusiasts converged on Yeleen gallery to drink in the work of the second annual Fade to Black exhibit. They came from all over the world, in every hue and color. They danced till three in the morning. And even then, no one wanted to go home. So they set up tables in the gallery’s main space and talked about art, imagery and social change until the sun came up. Today the mother of two is clear about her role in that space where art meets social change. “It’s what I tell my children—our only job is to make this world a better place than how we found it. Today between Ferguson and the Gardener case, people are looking for answers. Why in 2014, are we still second class citizens in this country?” she asks rhetorically. Then adds, “more than ever it’s critical that we continue to do this work—to provide a powerful reminder that not just black lives matter, but all lives matter, including ours.” The rebel has found her cause.
Published on Dec 31, 2014
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