Arts and Humanities People and Community

Artist captures the voices of the pandemic in real time

Xavier Cortada leads the Miami Corona Project, an art program presented as part of the University of Miami COVID-19 Rapid Response that records and addresses the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in Miami-Dade County.
Corona Project
"Miami Pronouncements (March 26 - June 15, 2020): 826 Deaths in Miami-Dade," digital art, 2020. By Xavier Cortada.

Twenty years ago, during the AIDS pandemic, Xavier Cortada, University of Miami professor of practice, dedicated his work to amplifying the voices of the victims through a collaborative art process. In 2000, he was invited to share his method at the World AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa, where he would create a massive mural that magnified the stories of what victims endured from a personal to a societal level, and also the stories of those who perished and would otherwise be forgotten. 

“It was my way of capturing that moment in time by using this collaborative art-making process to engage people who felt vulnerable or felt like they didn't have a voice," said Cortada.  "It was also a way to commemorate the millions of African lives that were going to be lost."

Cortada was persistent about archiving the way society responded to the AIDS pandemic because he knew future outbreaks were undeniable and that it would be just a matter of time until another pandemic struck. 

“In the last 20 years since I painted those murals in Africa, all we have done in society is make our species more vulnerable to pandemics,” he said. 

As Cortada explained, this is all a ripple effect caused by the climate crisis.   

“We have exponentially increased our population, polluted our environment, made our planet more deforested, and by pumping carbon into the atmosphere, made it hotter, which problematically brings viruses to us through mosquitoes and other vectors more frequently,” he said. 

“When you mix in traditions of bringing live wild animals into wet markets, where they're stressed in small cages, you have animals that would never be in contact with other animals,’’ he pointed out, “in contact with each other and with humans—who spread diseases to a more interconnected, globalized, polluted, climate-sacrificed world.” 

Now, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Cortada is applying the lessons learned from past experiences to assess and address the coronavirus pandemic in Miami by developing the Miami Corona Project, an extensive socially engaged art program that is now presented in conjunction with the University of Miami COVID-19 Rapid Response effort. 

“We have a University that’s investing to make sure the knowledge we develop internally is applied outside academic circles into problem solving and helping the community,” said Cortada. “We’re addressing everything from a social and mental health perspective to a clinician’s perspective on treatment modalities to a researcher’s focus on what happens at the molecular level to an artist’s perspective on capturing this moment in time for future generations. 

“I thought it was very visionary for our university to fund not just 23 scientists but also an artist to address this issue. Because, through the power of art, we have the ability to engage others and bring them into the conversation,” he noted. 

With the help of his team, Cortada developed a three-pronged art model that serves to inspire, educate, and engage the public while providing a real-time record of the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on Miami-Dade County. 

“Miami Pronouncements,” the first component of the Miami Corona Project is composed of daily videos where Cortada updates the community on current news. Daily drawings and reflections honor the residents of Miami-Dade County who have passed away because of COVID-19

“It's my way as a performative and gestural piece to pause and reflect for a moment about how many of our neighbors have died,” he said. “And it’s also a way to inspire people to reframe the way they think. So, they take more accountability for their everyday actions, through wearing their masks, washing hands, and practicing social distancing. I'm asking you to please sacrifice a little today so that the pain that we're going to endure as a society is lessened.” 

Secondly, through “Miami Corona Project Conversations,” the program aims to educate by engaging local leaders, influencers, elected officials, and personnel from various sectors in informal conversations and interviews that ask questions about how they and their sector have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. 

“It's my way of looking at the leaders in this community, who had their hands on the wheel as we were walking into this pandemic, so they can tell us about how unprepared we were, what lessons we learned, and what we're going to do to face the future,” Cortada said.

The conversations have brought to light many of the different barriers and disparities people face as they navigate through the pandemic—such as unemployment, inaccessibility to food, fears of infection during incarcerations because of legal status and delayed trial times, and the necessity to go out to protest racial injustice. 

“I'm trying to capture this moment in history, have people say what went wrong, so we can chart a course of looking at new systems, new ways of engaging in policy governing, interacting with one another—so that we can come out of this crisis better repaired but also better prepared by not forgetting what happened,” he said.

The final part of Cortada’s Miami Corona Project, “Share Your Voice,” uses the first two components of the project to encourage the broader community to engage and share their individual stories on an interactive online platform. At a time when social distancing is the norm, the web-based project gives a voice to individuals who feel disconnected from society. 

“I want all the individual voices of all community members,” said Cortada. “I want the University of Miami students to tell me what it was like for them to have to leave mid-semester last March, and what it would be like for them to get on a plane in August to start a new semester.” 

The goal of the project, Cortada said, is “to create a space for community engagement, just like we did with the “Breaking the Silence” mural hanging in the Durban Art Gallery in Durban, South Africa.” 

Adam Roberti, a two-time University of Miami alumnus and director of Cortada Projects, is one of the team members who has worked to make the project a reality by developing an innovative website that exhibits all the stories of those who participate. 

Roberti said he is passionate about working on the Miami Corona Project with Cortada because he feels that the pandemic is proving to be an inflection point in the country's history. 

“Transitioning into a ‘new normal’ will require compassionate leadership, and through Miami Corona Project conversations, we are providing a platform for our community's leaders to reflect on the situation and give their perspective on how we should be moving forward,” said Roberti. 

“The conversations paired with the daily Miami pronouncements allow for residents of Miami-Dade County to have a better understanding of the changes happening within the community, at the same time that they function to capture this moment in Miami's history,” he added. 

For Genesis Cosme, School of Communication student and communications associate at Cortada Projects, working on this project has been eye opening and she believes change is extremely powerful at a local level in Miami when communities come together despite their differences. 

“I hope this project helps create a sense of urgency about the pandemic here in Miami,” she said. “It's easy to become disconnected from an issue when it doesn't affect us immediately and personally. But every day we're learning from experts that we are going to be feeling the impacts of coronavirus long after the number of cases decreases and even more so in underprivileged communities.”

Roberti hopes this project helps everyone to better understand the severity of the situation, and by extension, to empathize with those who are suffering the most.

“For our world,” Roberti said, “I hope this project can serve as an artistic model for how to build community, amplify voices, and ultimately save lives.” 

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