"I felt like they would all be very open-minded and that would lead to really being able to learn things from one another - from a cultural perspective, from a life perspective, from an art perspective," said Kathryn Mikesell, the founder of The Fountainhead Residency, explaining the vision behind the selection of the residency's latest cohort. Shatha Al-Deghady, María Luisa Sanín Peña, and Guy Zagursky – international artists who descended upon Miami for roughly four weeks during the sweltering late Summer months – found inspiration and synergies despite their wildly diverse cultural backgrounds, ages, and career experience.
For Mikesell, that's exactly the point. Founded in 2008, The Fountainhead was designed to encourage nuanced dialogue and radical creative thought by bringing together a diverse band of artists in a communal environment. This particular pairing of artists was motivated by contrast. "It was really about their differences that we put them together, they're all working with vastly different mediums and approaches," says Mikesell. "But what they did have in common is that each artist has a very deep practice, either in research or in immersing themselves within their subject matter or in their materials."
Nestled on a quiet corner of Morningside, in a 1950s Florida home just steps away from a turquoise Biscayne Bay, Al-Deghady, Sanín Peña and Zagursky spent the majority of their days working on their individual projects as a sort of collective. "It became our ritual to have breakfast together every morning," says Al-Deghady. Zagursky explains that this daily ritual often led to discussions about the parallels within their work, often pivoting into an opportunity to explore their practices from a different perspective. "Even the small talk was about art," he laughs. And according to Sanín Peña, the experience pushed her toward a new medium, with the artist constructing a geometric paper sculpture – a vast departure from her video-based installations. “Both Guy and Shatha said it was too much work and I should drop it, but when I insisted, they were tremendously helpful.” Peña says.
Hailing from Tel-Aviv, Zagursky – the eldest and most established artist in the bunch – was unsure what to expect from his time in Miami. "I had never really done an artist residency before, and my only experiences in the U.S. had been in Denver and briefly in New York," says Zagursky. With a stocky build and a long salt-and-pepper beard, tribal tattoos and black-rimmed glasses, Zagursky's gentle, boyish demeanor is hardly apparent from his appearance. Such an idiosyncrasy is indelibly present within his work: Playful and imposing, Zagursky's oeuvre cannily discusses the elephant in the room with the same subtle charm he tends to radiate. Rarely sticking to any one medium or material – Zagursky's practice has included performance, sculpture, embroidery, and installation – the artist aims to comment on the human condition, creating a shared language with levity and wit. "I try not to take myself too seriously," he says, "but the work is serious."
In Miami, Zagursky was inspired by the city's rapidly gentrifying city landscape, noting that opulent wealth and extreme poverty intersected frequently. Drawing a parallel between Miami and the U.S.'s consumer-driven culture, and exploring themes related to the country's current racial tensions, Zagursky produced a sculptural work composed of a found police car door, with colorful embroidery etched across the door proclaiming "Swim at Your Own Risk" and "No Lifeguard on Duty." "Blissfully Miserable," another colorful, text-based textile work, highlighted how limitless choice often leads to existential doubt.
The ironies present within Zagursky’s work find some millennial parallels in Sanín Peña’s, who often works with pop culture media and themes. The youngest of the group at just 26 years old, a new work environment, coupled with Zagursky and Al-Deghady’s influence prompted Sanín Peña to move confidently toward a new direction. "My practice is very installation-based, and I've been wanting to make larger objects for a while but didn't do so because of a lack of storage space," says Sanín Peña, pointing to an orb-like sculpture that dually functions as a planetarium for projecting her films in an indoor setting.
Like Zagursky, Colombian-born Sanín Peña explores the human condition with humor and kitsch. Her tendency to appropriate low-culture images and themes illustrates her preoccupation with a post-apocalyptic future. "The gaze I make my work through is, I imagine an alien archaeologist arrives to a scorched earth, and all that remains is garbage," she explains. "And if this character had to piece together our society from this garbage, what would they think? How would they make sense of who we were? What if they got everything wrong?" Working primarily with video and installation, this question usually brings Sanín Peña to juxtapose images of popular celebrities with futuristic elements.
In Miami, Sanín Peña was inspired by Walter Mercado. "He's such a Miami character, and working with his image was an interesting way to prioritize the Latin American viewer. I was interested in exploring why he's so popular to all these people who don't really know who he is."
For Sanín Peña, these images transcend geography and language, becoming instead symbols that represent a universal post-internet culture. Al-Dhegady, too, works frequently with symbols, often creating her own and assigning meaning to them. Born in Cairo, the Miami residency was Al-Deghady's first experience traveling abroad. "I'm usually in search of finding what a symbol can communicate," she says, explaining that many of symbol works she has produced usually cast doubt over classist, racist, and misogynist ideologies and tend to illuminate forgotten histories.
The 31-year old Al-Deghady creates these symbols and codes expressly so an audience can do the work of deciphering their hidden meaning. Methodical, pensive, and intentional in her practice, Al-Deghady is currently exploring the relationship between trauma and fear in the hopes that her work will take viewers through an introspective healing process. In Miami, she had initially considered that this exercise might be a text-based, graffiti work. "When I first arrived here, I was really interested by the street signs that you seem to find everywhere," says Al-Deghady, noting the contrast between the orderly traffic flows of the U.S. and the chaos of her native Cairo. "I had thought writing in graffiti, 'Dare to Doubt,' to instruct viewers to doubt everything because it will free you. Doubt is the start."
Al-Deghady has instead begun work on a clay series in which the artist imprints her belly button into the clay. "I want people to talk about their scars and examine the gap between life and death," says Al-Deghady. She is also exploring the possibility of a collaborative project with Zagursky – a work that would aim to quell political differences between Egyptians and Israelis. "In Israel, you rarely meet an Egyptian," Zagursky notes.
Though their cultural backgrounds and experiences don't necessarily overlap, the experience of working together under one roof – exploring the local cultural framework while discussing their own intentions for their practice – sparked ideas and even new opportunities for each artist. "Once they got to know one another, I feel like the world just opened up," says Mikesell. As a long practicing artist, Zagursky’s experience shed light on the path that Sanîn Peña and Al-Deghady should attempt to fogre. "It was educational being with Guy because he's so much more established," says Sanín Peña.Likewise, all three artists was pleasantly surprised to find that local collectors, curators, and patrons preferred open lines of communication when discussing work. "In Israel, I'm used to people coming to me and telling me what my work is about," says Zagursky. "But here, they want to hear your story, they want to know how your work relates to your personal life."
As their time in Miami comes to an end, each artist is contemplating how their experience might be infused into their work. Sanín Peña wants to recreate her experience in a Sims-style video, Zagursky is considering a return to Miami for a longer stay, and Al-Deghady and Zagursky are planning on exploring a possible collaboration. Meanwhile, Mikesell notes that the experience is designed so a piece of Miami culture can be exported to other parts of the world. "People move here with great ideas and they come from all over the world," she says. "And the people that I've been lucky enough to surround myself with, are open, happy to share information, interested in collaborating, interested in learning, and I think that that's unique to Miami. I really want to share that with the artists."
Written by Nicole Martinez of Culture Conductor