An Alchemist At Work

This week’s contributing blogger, William Cordova, is an interdisciplinary cultural practitioner born in Lima, Peru who currently lives & works between Lima, Miami, and New York City. He received a BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1996 and MFA from Yale University, 2004.


I first met Michael Richards in November 1997 at Art Center/South Florida (AC/SF), a non-profit art center in Miami Beach, FL. Michael had just started his National Foundation for the Advancement in the Arts (NFAA) residency program that shared space within the AC/SF.

VoCA Contemporary Art NYC

i wish it were true (1999), Michael Richards & William Cordova, Collaboration cast wax Monopoly hotel. Courtesy Francisco Casale

Michael was very charming, funny, and polite. He was obviously [happier] to be in South Beach than in cloudy and cold New York where he lived full-time. In the mid 1990s, South Beach was culturally diverse, creative, inexpensive, and working class but it was changing fast. Michael and I gravitated toward each other because we had similar family backgrounds and shared interests in history, art, and culture. Most of our early conversations addressed the Tuskegee Airmen series Michael had been developing through smaller works. His AC/SF studio space was much larger than anything he had in NY so he started to develop more expansive ideas that would evolve into Tar Baby Vs. St. Sebastian, a sculpture piece depicting a levitating fully uniformed Tuskegee airman pierced by a dozen miniature US P-51 Mustang fighter planes.

Michael was riffing on Saint Sebastian, the early Christian saint and martyr who was tied to a tree and shot with arrows by the Roman Empire. There were multiple historical narratives interwoven in Tar Baby Vs. St. Sebastian other than the early Christian martyr depicted in Psalms:118 or Christian paintings. Some popular cultural references include the film King Kong (1933) and Muhammad Ali’s infamous Esquire Magazine cover (1968). The Tar Baby reference comes from the character by the same name in the Uncle Remus stories (1881) written by Joel Chandler Harris, made up of Black stereotypes in the 1800s; Tar Baby literally being made up of tar and turpentine.

I remember Michael speaking about the complexity of the themes running through the piece. Concepts of isolation, sacrifice, and transformation were key elements in Tar Baby Vs. St. Sebastian. The discrimination and racism the original Tuskegee airmen had to struggle with and overcome as it came from their own U.S. Government was only the beginning of their battle during World War II. This complex and contradictory part of America’s history was crucial in the development of Michael’s piece. Interestingly enough, today most search engines describe this piece as “St. Sebastian” and exclude “Tar Baby Vs.,” revealing a lack of critical attention to the American-built Mustang fighter planes attacking their own pilots. I know Michael would have scoffed at the misrepresentation of his work today because he was very particular about media-history and its representation of people of color.

VoCA Contemporary Art NYC

Michael and William, ACSF, 1998. Courtesy Nina Ferre

He decided Tar Baby Vs. St. Sebastian was too expensive to make in bronze, plus he lacked the proper facilities. Michael spent weeks making the life-size clay figure based on himself and in the process later taught me how to make a rubber mold. “Resin instead of bronze, an alchemist at work,” he said. Michael didn’t complete the piece in Miami but worked on it in parts from 1997 through 1999 and exhibited first at the Caveat Emptor exhibition at Ambrosino Gallery, Coral Gables, FL. Genaro Ambrosino (Director) admired Michael’s work and was a close friend. Ambrosino Gallery would eventually give Michael his first solo show in Miami on September 16, 2000. The exhibition was a coming home of sorts for Michael after finishing his CAVA residency in South Beach the year before.

Sometimes, we would sit at night under the dusty blue neon Art Center sign talking to eccentric folks at 3 or 4 AM. David’s Cafe was the only 24 hour Cuban cafe still around at the time as most Jewish, West Indian, Haitian and other local eateries had been permanently shut down. Our conversations always involved our family roots in the diaspora. His Jamaican and my Peruvian lineage were as layered as our understanding that a label could not be so easily affixed in defining our identities.

I owe much to Michael’s friendship, wisdom and selflessness.

Michael Richards & William Cordova, sept 2011, Manhattan, NY. Courtesy William Cordova

Michael Richards & William Cordova, September 2001, Manhattan, NY. Courtesy William Cordova



Richards’ work is currently on view in Michael Richards: Winged at the Arts Center at Governors Island, Building 110, which is open to the public on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and holiday Mondays (from 12:00–5:00pm) now through September 25, 2016.


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