When my grandfather was a warehouseman for a counterfeit perfume distributor and I had no school, he would take me along as he ran errands downtown. One of the stops on the way was always 777 International Mall. In my vague memory from the early nineties, the mall was a glassy market of electronics, passport expediters, and maybe shady traffic lawyers. The food court was always a mix of the usual mall-food fair with “authentic” Asian back menus.
Having walked into 777 International Mall a few times over the past several years, not much had changed in appearance. And I noticed that suspicious Miami-specific air you find in a variety of ghosted buildings from the mid-nineties (one thinks of the Ocean Bank building on Ludlam with that never-ending and empty matinee movie theater; or the mall attached to the airport Doubletree with its empty luggage and shoe stores). Your first thoughts are my first thoughts: drug-fronts, perhaps, but more likely complex South American or Chinese tax shelters or more convoluted forms of money laundering.
No doubt Miami Art Week is a more aestheticized opportunity for similar downtown enterprises. (And I don’t mean to be conspiratorial; after all, what else is any trade, really?) As Moishe Mana continues to buy over one-million square feet of building space in downtown Miami, we sit and wait to see what comes of our city center, which is no stranger to bouts of enthusiasm from developers and artists to only return to its usual forlorn state after sundown.
It’s no surprise, then, that MANA Contemporary would keep 777 occupied before initiating its stab at downtown “revitalization” the way we’ve seen happen before in Wynwood, or more recently, in Little Haiti: as Miami combusts with its annual bustle of status-chasing and FOMO, let’s get edgy genteel feet wet in the neighborhood just as it brims with hundreds of thirsty art schoolers for them to “discover.” And considering all the possibilities, I’m glad.
On Thursday, 777 International Mall’s Basel pop-up reincarnation held its opening reception, a word much too frou-frou for the actual fun it was. Each of the three floors of the building had storefronts occupied by a gallery or residency. The third-floor made up of PRISM choices while the second floor included residencies backed by Clocktower, Mana Contemporary, and MECA International Art Fair. The Focus on Puerto Rico exhibit in particular, curated by Marina Reyes Franco and Ysabel Pinyol, highlights recent work of the current Boriqua diaspora.
Downstairs, a bad band played and one gallery was populated by humanoid styrofoam sculptures I did not understand but which I wanted to hug. The highlight of the whole circus, however, were Miami’s own Dalé Zine and Jai-Alai Books. Dalé sat at a kiosk lit in all their usual charm (these are the same guys who create completely under promoted children’s programming) and their selling supremely designed print works that always behold Miami with fun and sympathy. Needless to say, I’m just excited people from around the world will get to know Dalé; they really understand how to translate the best of our local creative life.
But Jai-Alai Books wins best in show with Booktanica. Their tiny little storefront is a true gift from the santos to the local heart. Booktanica is exactly what it sounds like: Jai-Alai Books selling books in the guise of a botanica. The idea came up as a celebration of their most recent title Death Be Gone, which they call “a peek into the world of anointing oils and spiritual culture in Miami” or a “look book” featuring portraits of oil bottles from the Selene Perfumes, a company which distributes spiritual fragrances ranging from “Law Stay Away” to “Seven African Powers.”
The store itself was replete with all the santeria and syncretic Afro-Latino Catholic offshoot paraphernalia you’d find at your neighborhood botanica. A beautiful painted sign perched at the top of the entrance like an artifact from Miami’s artisanal past. With products by Spirit and Beyond––numerous oils, incense, prayer cards, spellbook by Donna Freeman, a medium, Reiki master, and shell and card diviner.
Sure, there’s some confusion about which spiritual tradition the creators are pulling from and maybe some issues with appropriation. But really, who’s to say? After all, this is how I imagine syncretic folk practices always begin (sans consumerism?) And anyway, there were enough small statues of black Lazarus and Barbaras on guard and covered in enough clashing Selene scents to warrant authentically felt presence.
One nice touch I forget to mention: One Jai-Alai Books staffer walked around 777 offering “prosperity” scented strips of lotto tickets to passersby. No doubt this act conjured the saints past of 777 International Mall like my grandfather. I guess you had to see it to believe it.
WORDS BY: Marco Martinez