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The African Cemetery, Key West, FL

Dan Paz is an artist, educator, and researcher concerned with documenting, memorializing, and imaging; particularly as they relate to social, political, racial, or geographical histories.  Through processes such as photography, video, and casting, Paz examines the limits of produced image in accurately representing a lived experience or a layered, compacted past. Paz questions the embedded testimonies of sites, objects, and media; working to display, or connect, the divergent histories they uncover. 

The African Cemetery, Key West, FL is part of a larger body of work titled Monument a Surface, which brings together various research around a geographical focal point, South Florida. In particular, Paz surveys what is memorialized in this region—The AIDS Memorial, The African Cemetery, and Pulse Nightclub, site of the June 12, 2016 mass shooting—and gives us a photograph of the facade. The thick film of sand and sun, a tourist oasis covering the rich past; Paz indeed peels this away through her art-research, educating us on the forgotten histories of the site. 
Knight Pier, formerly White Pier, formerly Queer Pier, is the site Paz originally came to research in 2018.  Only when they came across a small memorial at the corner of an unassuming parking lot did they learn that this was a burial site for 294 enslaved Africans. Those who did not survive the trip over the Atlantic, or died shortly after arrival, were buried beneath the sands of Higgs Beach in 1860. The embedded history of joy and tragedy, a place in the words of Paz “...where pleasure and trauma coexist”, carries on beneath the pristine white beach in the photograph. 

Compounded against that tragic event exists the AIDS crisis, in which Key West, Florida was an epicenter. The city was a refuge for those battling HIV/AIDS in the late 1980s, and many crossed state lines to travel to Key West to receive better care. In fact, the AIDS Memorial and The African Cemetery are both located at Higgs Beach, only a minute’s walk apart. South Florida is also the geographical site of the Pulse nightclub shooting in which 49 individuals were killed, adding another layer of grief to the site.
As we look at the bikini-clad woman walking atop the white sands, seemingly ambivalent to the history beneath her feet, Paz encourages us to question the gestures meant to memorialize loss. Ultimately, whom are these memorials meant to honor, and whom do they benefit?

- R. Arp