Derrick Adams

America’s Playground, 2018
Site Specific Installation at Faena Beach

Mixed media installation, painted metal, plastic, wood, rubber, grass and nylon.
Courtesy of the artist and The Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida

Derrick Adams is a Brooklyn–based, multidisciplinary artist whose practice is rooted in deconstructivist philosophies, such as the fragmentation and manipulation of structure and surface, and the marriage of complex and improbable forms.

Through these techniques, Adams examines the force of popular culture and the media on the perception and construction of self-image. Adams received his MFA from Columbia University, BFA from Pratt Institute, and is an alumni of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program.

He is a recipient of the Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize, Louis Comfort Tiffany Award, S.J. Weiler Award, and Agnes Martin Fellowship. He has exhibited and/or performed at MoMA PS1, Brooklyn Museum of Art, PERFORMA, Studio Museum in Harlem, Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Arts and Design, and MCA Denver. Adams’ work is in the permanent collections of Studio Museum in Harlem, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Whitney Museum of American Art, among others.

Derrick Adams is a multi-hyphenate who as a curator, has promoted many of the most important artists working today, as a  professor and mentor is committed to advancing the careers of younger artists, and as painter whose formal considerations of color and geometric form are undeniably in a league of their own.

Adams’s very deep contributions to and dialogue with the Art Historical canon are clear: it’s easy to imagine his portraits of black and brown bodies ‘going places’ (as he once described it to me on a studio visit), moving freely across their canvases, placed in conversation with Alex Katz’s breezy images of Ada taking cover in the rain or paintings of cool sunglass-wearing figures on city streets. But ultimately, Derrick Adams’s work is consistently concerned with representation— mediating, and questioning our perceptions and social constructs, particularly pertaining to the black body and the African-American experience historically and in contemporary culture in the United States. The work is subversive and political in its joy and its embrace of play—black leisure and pleasure—which are through-lines from his paintings of bathers splashing in inner tubes to his large-scale site-specific installation on Faena Beach for “This is Not America.” Referring to rarely published images of Civil Rights activists, Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X at leisure,  Adams was quoted as saying “Martin and Malcolm went to the beach, too.”

Adams’s commission for the inaugural Faena Festival started with his research into the “Green Book,” an unofficial guidebook published from 1936 to 1967 by Victor Hugo Green, a Harlem-based postal worker, who collected and provided travel tips for African-Americans to navigate the United States without fear of discrimination. The 1949 edition included an introductory note that ended with the phrase “there will be a day sometime in  the near future when this guide will  not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal  opportunities and privileges in the  United States. It will be a great  day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever  we please, and without embarrassment.” The research into this guide led to a journey to find the few remaining sites included in this publication in Miami – all located in the neighborhood of Overtown. 

The historic neighborhood, once a culturally thriving, thoroughly middle-class African-American area, was founded by the first black millionaire, D.A. Dorsey. His name still remains enshrined on those streets (NW 2nd Avenue) and at the Dorsey Inn – one of the few hotels included in the Green Book for Florida. Just down the street at the Historic Lyric Theater, the Black Archive is maintained. 

Despite its rich history, Overtown suffered the pains of ‘urban renewal’ and ‘modernism’ when the construction of a freeway was cut through its heart. The impact of this urban scar on the landscape still deeply affects its community today: a story that unfortunately echoes across many American cities. 

A black and white image from the archive, taken in 1967, depicts young African-American children and their families at a playground, underneath a freeway. The image was taken at the inauguration of this playground, which was attended by the Mayor of Miami at the time who declared it to be an example of Miami’s exemplary efforts not to ‘sweep their problems under the rug.’  The racist undertones of this public ‘smoothing-over’ of a city-ordained urban tragedy, its subsequent negative effects on the black community in the neighborhood which has been altered to this day, and the addition of a playground that adds insult to injury, can’t be ignored—the mirrored repetition of this same system in shaping many of America’s cities from North to South is evident.

In his installation for Faena Beach’s “This Is Not America”, Adams draws on the history and urban development of Miami in the Jim Crow era—especially in relation to the inextricable links between race, real estate, ownership, law, and development and urban planning.  By transposing two neighborhoods (Overtown and Mid-Beach), both of which have been transformed by modernism and development, Adams draws parallels that might otherwise be hidden and makes visible an often ignored history of Miami. 

Derrick Adams gives us the playground that, as he described to me, “should have been”—a colorful, beautiful one, right on the beach in front of the water. Referencing Miami’s role and moniker as “The Playground of the Americas”, he doesn’t shy away from the implications of touristic glitz but asks us to question for whom this is a game and who gets the chance to play—and by whose rules. Split down the center by the historic image on one side and Adams’s interpretation of that image on the other, the mediated interface with history prevents a participant from passing easily from one side of the playground to the other—a demand that we question accessibility and the obstacles that prevent free movement. One side of the playground insists on holding space for our dark past, while the other imagines an idyllic future. One side of this playground presents a stark reality and the other asks us to dream of it in Technicolor.

The work does not just honor the complicated history of race and development in Miami—it does not remain in the archive and the record. Adams creates a new vision for what can be—and in the same way much of his work has looked at what it means to move freely, to create community in spite of [and beyond] struggle, to create our own sanctuaries; this piece does just that. It forces a redrawing of the edges that close our communities and our neighborhoods along lines of race. It asks us to question our built environments and the way we move through them. It reminds us not to presume the innocence of urban planning and architecture, nor of our communal narratives. But then he goes one further: he returns to the radical insistence on and celebration of black leisure time and joy, he insists on fun and brings play back into the picture. Just as Martin and Malcolm also went, Adams takes these kids to the beach. 


“Now more than ever, this is the time for the citizens of the creative community to seize every opportunity to define what America was, is, and can be, moving forward. May these efforts cascade towards a more equitable America.”

Derrick Adams