In Conversation with Karla Ferguson-Soimaud: Creating a Hub for Social Thought in Miami
Yeelen Gallery, located in Miami's Little Haiti, is more than just a commercial art gallery, but a powerful space that nurtures political thought, social advancement, and community building. Owned and operated by Karla Ferguson-Soimaud, Yeelen Gallery boasts an impressive roster of artists rooted in exploring race, class, and gender at the intersection of visual arts. Notable painters such as Tim Okamura, Sylvia Maier, and Patrick Earle Hammie use their canvases to examine narratives centered around female empowerment, gun violence, identity and sexuality. Their messaging and visual statements resonate with Yeelen's purpose and philosophy. Previous exhibits such as Black Freedom, What's Inside Her Never Dies, and TransCuba, tell compelling stories in an ongoing dialogue regarding racial equality, black feminism, and transgender/queer rights. Ferguson-Soimaud bridges art and social justice in showcasing intellect-provoking exhibitions, and by championing artists of color, succeeds in sharing their crucial perspectives. I speak with the gallerist about her work/life balance, what's next for Yeelen, and the state of the Miami art scene.
Gallery Gurls: Prior to opening Yeelen gallery, you worked as a civil rights attorney, how did you evolve into becoming a gallerist?
Karla Ferguson-Soimaud: I joined the Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO) in 2001 while still a law student which allowed me to really explore the underbelly of our democracy, I got to see first hand how racism, classism and the prison industrial complex truly functioned. Deeply rooted in our nation’s history are a ton of skeletons, which inform our contemporary experience. During this time I used art as an outlet, I spent my free time going to galleries, museums and conversing with creatives in general, heavy topics such as civil rights and police misconduct would come up frequently; I took what I learned and applied it to art in the form of social practice and commentary.
You’ve been operating in Miami since 2008, what are some of the pros and challenges of the Miami art scene?
Miami is still viewed as a tourist destination for sand & sea, slowly however the world is beginning to recognize our cultural offerings. A major pro to living in Miami is that the city is rich with cultural diversity and an array of voices, however, there was no real outlet of meaningful expression that spoke to people of color, so I took it upon myself to create a platform that voiced our issues in the hopes of creating meaningful dialogue that could effectuate positive change.
"Yeelen has been that expression, we have drawn attention to racism, sexism, LGBT discrimination as well as cultural and ethnic ignorance and indifference."
What’s clear from the start about your gallery’s mission is the primary focus on human rights advocacy including trans rights, civil rights, police brutality, gun violence, etc Talk to me about shaping your artist roster and gallery programming around these social issues.
My artists must reflect Yeelen’s focus on advocacy by contributing to positive dialogue, by challenging the status quo and by doing so in a high quality manner. Growing up I learned early that I had to work twice as hard or twice as smart to get half as much and so I look for those qualities in the artists I work with.
"The subjects we tackle aren’t popular or particularly attractive, they are simply not easy topics so the work produced as a reflection requires strength or its effectiveness won’t be felt and I am in the business of stimulating feeling. "
Acclaimed artist Marina Abramovic recently stated that marriage and children hold women back in the art world. You are married to your artist husband Jerome Soimaud and you have four daughters, what are your thoughts on that?
There is truth in Ms. Abramovic’s statement, however, this truth does not hold true for all women, I believe it is up to an individual’s determination and spirit to break the chains of their society. Certainly family life and career has its challenges but it does not have to dictate how successful you can be, if anything it forces you to work smarter and not just harder.
Are you involved in other art-related projects outside of Yeelen Gallery? and what’s next for Yeelen Gallery?
Yeelen will be evolving, I will drop the word “Gallery”… I really dislike labels and cliché expectations I prefer to be Yeelen where all things are possible. We live in a constantly changing environment and in order to move with the times I am flexible and always striving to improve. Side note: I enjoy projects and being busy, so I often seek out collaboration, this fall I will be involved in the production of an independent film with a focus on art and Miami, stay tuned for more details…