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The Opa-Locka Effect

Everyone who drives around Downtown Miami is a witness to the multitude of cranes that populate this area, symbols of the constructive reawakening of a city that was the protagonist of one of the biggest real-estate crises in United States history. But most of the urban development projects currently in construction won’t be populated by Miami residents, many of whom lost all their money when the real-estate bubble burst a few years ago. The current mega-million-dollar Miami projects are the focus of a growing investment market from South America, Europe and Asia in search of a new development scene where, among other things, they can buy property without having to pay the high taxes required by their countries’ governments. Miami promises to soon be a paradise of luxury condos, high-end hotels and casinos, but other areas of the city, particularly in the north, present a very different face. I met photographer Jorge Sánchez to talk about his recent exhibition, “The Opa Locka Effect,” which is on view through September 7, 2014, at ArtMedia Gallery in Wynwood Art District. In these series of works, Sánchez shows the decay of an area of the city that a few decades ago was a kind of mecca for the manufacturing industry. The images were taken by the artist on his daily journey of approximately 6.9 miles, which spans the distance between his home and workplace. “The Opa-Locka Effect” recalls the past of a city that was the victim of poor economic planning. The abandoned buildings, empty streets and shut doors are the new faces of poverty in Miami. In this interview, Sánchez shares with us his motivations to create this body of work and how it constitutes a visual essay on the effects of globalization and modern-day capitalism strategies.

By Raisa Clavijo

Raisa Clavijo - The Opa Locka Effect is part of a larger project called ‘North of Flagler’ that recalls how certain zones of Miami changed due to poor urban planning and the displacement of manufacturing industries to Asia and Latin American countries in the last three decades. How did you become interested in this topic?

Jorge Sánchez - Everything started with my daily commute through the area and my realization that Miami clearly used to have more of a manufacturing industry than is evident today, given the contentious business efficacy of outsourcing and the focus on Miami’s tourism and banking industries. The abandoned buildings, to me, started to represent Miami’s past.

Jorge Sanchez, Untitled # 4, Photographs from the series “6.9 or Less,” 2011-2014, archival fine art prints, edition of 3 for each size: 19” x 15.7” and 21.6” x 26.1.” Courtesy of the artist and ArtMedia Gallery.

Jorge Sanchez, Untitled # 4, Photographs from the series “6.9 or Less,” 2011-2014, archival fine art prints, edition of 3 for each size: 19” x 15.7” and 21.6” x 26.1.” Courtesy of the artist and ArtMedia Gallery.

R.C. - What do you want to communicate with these series of works?

J.S. - My goal was to show that despite the transience that exists today, there is beauty to be seen with the possibility of some type of gentrified resurgence.

R.C. - How long has this project been going on? Is this an ongoing project that will expand to other Miami districts?

J.S. - I’ve been working on this project for about two and half years; once the North of Flagler idea started to develop into a more specific concept, I started focusing closely on photographing the buildings that are a common denominator in this district. Now that I live in downtown Miami, and I am involved in some of the new construction, which is shaping the new landscape of the city, I have started to consider the idea of somehow documenting the transformation of the area.

Jorge Sanchez, Untitled #23, Photographs from the series “6.9 or Less,” 2011-2014, archival fine art prints, edition of 3 for each size: 19” x 15.7” and 21.6” x 26.1.” Courtesy of the artist and ArtMedia Gallery.

Jorge Sanchez, Untitled #23, Photographs from the series “6.9 or Less,” 2011-2014, archival fine art prints, edition of 3 for each size: 19” x 15.7” and 21.6” x 26.1.” Courtesy of the artist and ArtMedia Gallery.

R.C. - During the creative process, on what kind of building or scenes did you focus your attention?

J.S. - I focused on describing these buildings as anonymous or generic architectural structures, disregarding any specific activity that can occur behind their façades; therefore, for me, the most important elements of this series were the minimalism of the structures and the relevance of the colors.

R.C. - All these photos are devoid of human presence. Why?

J.S. - As a result of the development of the suburbs in Dade County, this area has suffered a long and painful social isolation. Accordingly, by eliminating the human factor from these photographs, I avoid any visual element that would connect the area to specific social or racial groups.

Jorge Sanchez, Untitled # 2, Photographs from the series “6.9 or Less,” 2011-2014, archival fine art prints, edition of 3 for each size: 19” x 15.7” and 21.6” x 26.1.” Courtesy of the artist and ArtMedia Gallery.

Jorge Sanchez, Untitled # 2, Photographs from the series “6.9 or Less,” 2011-2014, archival fine art prints, edition of 3 for each size: 19” x 15.7” and 21.6” x 26.1.” Courtesy of the artist and ArtMedia Gallery.

R.C. - Most of these photos were taken from a frontal point of view, like portraits of these buildings. What made you choose that approach?

J.S. - I normally see these building from my car’s window while I’m commuting, so in most of the cases I find myself facing them in a frontal and very direct way. This is the way I experience them, therefore this is the best way I believe I would be able to describe them.

R.C. - How do you envision the future of these urban zones of Miami?

J.S. - Since I have been working in this area for more than a decade, it is hard for me to visualize it having a different purpose than what it has always been. However, I believe in a rebirth of our small manufacturing and commercial districts as a better planned mixed-use area.

Jorge Sanchez, Untitled # 16, Photographs from the series “6.9 or Less,” 2011-2014, archival fine art prints, edition of 3 for each size: 19” x 15.7” and 21.6” x 26.1.” Courtesy of the artist and ArtMedia Gallery.

Jorge Sanchez, Untitled # 16, Photographs from the series “6.9 or Less,” 2011-2014, archival fine art prints, edition of 3 for each size: 19” x 15.7” and 21.6” x 26.1.” Courtesy of the artist and ArtMedia Gallery.

R.C. - You have a degree in mechanical engineering, so how did you end up interested in photography?

J.S. - I grew up in Cuba in an era when going to study in the Eastern European communist countries was one of the only ways to travel abroad. So I decided to study mechanical engineering in the Soviet Union. Years later, after working as an engineering drafter in a metal manufacturing company in Opa-Locka, I tried to validate my engineering degree at Florida International University (FIU), but shortly thereafter, I realized that my interest for engineering wasn’t strong enough for a complete commitment. So, I decided to pursue my dream of studying art, a family tradition that skipped a generation. Analog photography was the media that I immediately connected with, since, for me, the camera is a natural extension of myself. With my fine arts degree from FIU, and my now embarking on this, my second solo show, I am in full pursuit of a passion realized.

R.C. - Do you have plans to exhibit these series in other venues?

J.S. - I believe this is a project that deserves a larger audience, so the gallery and I are working together to find the opportunity to display this exhibition in various venues across the state and ultimately the country. The Opa-Locka City Hall or cultural center would be a great place to start.

“The Opa-Locka Effect” is on view through September 7, 2014 at ArtMedia Gallery. 2750 NW 3rd Avenue, Suite 12. The Wynwood Building. Miami, Fla., 33127 / www.artmediaus.com.

Raisa Clavijo is an art historian based in Miami. She is the editor-in-chief of ARTPULSE and ARTDISTRICTS magazines.