December in Miami is often one of the most exhilarating - and exhausting - moments of the calendar year. With a caravan of international art collectors descending onto the city for Art Basel Miami Beach, the sheer inertia piloting Art Week fairs, events, and exhibitions can be daunting. For artists, it’s a crucial moment to showcase their work, forge new connections, and hopefully push past a barrier and reach a new zenith within their practice. December’s cohort of Fountainhead artists were particularly lucky to be in Miami at this pivotal time. Julie Escoffier, Dada Khansiya, Rodrigue Mouchez, and Umar Rashid - talented visual artists and curators hailing from various global cities and points in their careers - didn’t squander the opportunity.
“We had this common energy to be working all the time, because there really was this mad rush of excitement,” says Escoffier.
Each of the artists were invited to the Fountainhead Residency in December because they were showcasing their works at one of several fairs throughout the week. Rashid’s work was exhibited at NADA art fair; Khansiya was shown at Art Basel Miami Beach, and Escoffier and Mouchez each contributed works to a guest curatorial program at Untitled art fair, AGUAS, an artist-run project launched by Mouchez in 2017. “We each had definitive things to work on, and that really contributed to this inspiring energy throughout the residency,” says Rashid.
Originally from Chicago and now based in Los Angeles, Rashid’s recent body of work revolves around colonial history. In creating a fictional landscape called Frengland, Rashid aims to recreate history and propel his paintings’ subjects into fighting back against colonization and slavery. Frengland - a blend of France and England - was coined by the artist’s musings around what could have stifled colonization in the Americas. “I’m essentially proposing that France and England, if working together, would have checked the ambition of other colonizers,” says Rashid. “I think power dynamics would have changed if those two entities would have worked together.”
Rashid’s paintings often tell a monumental story, with wonderfully colorful characters and iconography prompting an alternative historical narrative. Rashid himself is an encyclopedia of colonial history - the artist has spent years researching the 18th and 19th century, careful to follow the thread of the untold story. “There were all these stories that never got told because they didn’t fit within whatever narrative the powers that be wanted to tell,” he says. “But now you have all these projects that transcribe oral histories and we have a more well rounded view of history. So I correlate these events with modern events to comment on the human condition.”
He tells these untold stories, re-inserting black figures, drawn in an Imperial tattoo style, and Middle Eastern iconography into a colonial narrative. At the Fountainhead, Rashid completed hand-sewn tapestries resembling Caribbean flags and large works on paper referencing the Book of Revelation that were made almost entirely with ink. Blending mythologoical and traditional Afro-Caribbean motifs, a major theme within the work is complicity, and forces the viewer to consider their own role within history. “Throughout history, there has always been someone who is complicit, the one snitch that puts everyone back,” says Rashid. “I paint heroes and villians and tell it like it is, because I believe that the only god of this world is chaos, that there’s no rhyme or reason to any of this shit.”
Khansiya, an artist based in Johannesburg, is similarly fueled by the black experience, particularly the complex history of South African apartheid and racial politics. “Back in the day, most of the black artists had paint and paintbrushes and pencils to tell stories because cameras were tools that could only be afforded by photojournalists,” says Khansiya. “Their work was a way to document daily living and really illustrate their experience.”
Building on that tradition, she views her work as an exercise in documentation, carefully fashioning black subjects in mundane, everyday settings. Rather than creating two-dimensional paintings, Khansiya creates sculptural paintings - she carves her subjects out of wood, paints each carving, and attaches them to a canvas so their gestures are brought to life. With formal training in animation, Khansiya’s subjects have a singular, almost cartoonish style; the artist says this style offers more freedom of expression.
“What I enjoy about cartoons or any form of caricature is that you can express something and people will still maintain some level of distance between the character and who they are,” she says. “I can say most things through the filter of the cartoon about humanity because it’s not a human being; no one has eyes or a nose like that.”
In Miami, Khansiya focused on a series exploring our relationship to cell phones. “This work isn’t just a representation of youth in South Africa because cell phones have globalized everything,” she says. “It’s not just Americans on Instagram. That’s what felt like needed to be documented this time around for me; how similar things are and how our experiences are not so divorced.”
Just as Khansiya’s work is fueled by personal experience, Mouchez is considering how artists use their experiences to push past barriers and evolve their own work. AGUAS, a curatorial platform he founded in 2017, remains primarily artist-driven because experimentation is at the project’s core. “As an artist I feel shows organized by artists are focusing on the idea of collectivity and openness between practices and disciplines,” he says. “We as artists don’t have to wait for another structure to push forward our ideas.”
The French-Mexican artist, who today lives in Mexico City, places a heavy emphasis on found materials and objects to create situational installations that respond to their environment. Much of the premise surrounding the project at Untitled reflected this practice, which stands at the crux of Mouchez’s proposition as both artist and curator. “I really want to let the materiality of things that surround us appear and get real strength and a certain depth,” says Mouchez.
While in Miami, Mouchez reflected on his Mexican surroundings and produced a sculptural installation for the AGUAS program. Mouchez suspended a series of natural bowls, filled with agua de jamaica - a staple in many Mexican households derived from the hibiscus flower - in net bags that typically hold merchandise from Mexican markets. “This is really about how matter can transform itself in different states, which is why I used materials that have these multi-functions,” he says. Agua de jamaica, for example, is sometimes a pigment, sometimes a candy, and often drank as though it were water. With this work, the artist hoped to create a ‘living’ artwork, one that reflects how human bodies are just in the middle of a pre-existing cycle.
Escoffier, a Lyon-born artist currently residing in Chiapas, joined Mouchez for the AGUAS installation. The artist, who began her career studying photography, decided she was more interested in reverse-engineering the process of photography than the resulting work. “I can’t explain why I started to be more interested in the process of photography than the photography itself, but I think it’s because I had a strong interest for materiality and impermanence,” she says.
Her practice is alchemical in nature - she often transforms elements that form photography - silver nitrate, sodium chloride, ammonium dichromate and gelatin, for example - into sculptural pieces meant to decompose over time. “I observe and analyze nature or matter against the space and context in which my works will be exhibited,” she says. The resulting sculptures are defined by their incompletion, and take on a performative aspect as they begin to transform over time.
Because her work is strongly tied to her environment, lately it often takes on a sort of mystic appeal. At the Fountainhead, Escoffier served as project coordinator of AGUAS while making a piece for the show, inspired by her grandmother’s work as a healer and the animistic beliefs of Chiapas residents. Escoffier created a sculptural work inspired by mushrooms, linking both the idea of decomposition and the role of the alchemist in self-realization.
“I feel that the mystical experience of hallucinogenic mushrooms is a great echo to the alchemist search,” says Escoffier. I truly believe that the philosophical approach of the alchemist leads essentially to the metamorphosis of the soul, a self transformation.”
Strung together in a common quest to expose the nuances of the human condition, these four artists reflected on how their practices were enriched by the experience. While their work appears dramatically diverse on the surface, a deeper dig reveals a commonality - and isn’t that, after all, at the core of being human?
“I think doing this residency just allows you to understand that there are plausible things you can do to step out of your own skin,” says Rashid. “You see art at the fairs and at the galleries, but when it’s made before your eyes it really inspires you. You appreciate what you couldn’t see before.”