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Artists add up the history and symbolism of dominoes at Perez Art Museum Miami

On a sunny afternoon in the Marianao neighborhood of Havana, Cuba, two teenage domino players seem confused when they flip over artist Rodolfo Perraza’s wooden domino tiles, each one engraved not with black dots but with the faces of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and other notorious political figures.

In Perraza’s art video “I Don’t Play Dominoes,” the teenagers sit at a white table, surrounded by the boastful racket of middle-aged family members. One player, a girl with cornrows, lays down her first wooden tile and says, “Che Guevara.” Her opponent, a boy wearing a black tank top, prepares to slide his tile across the table: It’s Fidel Castro’s face, which represents double-nine, the highest value in the domino set. He looks conflicted about playing the tile, but slaps it down, anyway.

“It’s a kind of social experiment,” says Perraza, who laser-cut the domino tiles by hand, in a recent phone interview. “I went to a specific part of the city where people play dominoes, and I saw that they related [Fidel’s] personality to the tile. They tried to get rid of him as fast as possible. In Spanish, they said they wanted to ‘cut out the fat’ in their tiles.”

The 55 tiles in Peraza’s domino set will go on display this week at the Perez Art Museum Miami, which is hosting a larger exhibition about the game titled “Spots, Dots, Pips, Tiles.” Opening Thursday, June 29, and subtitled “An Exhibition About Dominoes,” the show features works from 21 artists that trace the origins of dominoes and examine the game’s enduring popularity in South Florida’s Latin neighborhoods, including Little Havana, and its social and political ties to New York, South Africa, Cuba, Puerto Rico and China.

Peraza, 36, immigrated to Miami in 2010 after the Cuban government seized his art supplies and political paintings. When Peraza was younger, his family and neighbors would play dominoes in Havana, usually while socializing about politics, an inescapable topic that turned Peraza off the game.

“There was nothing else to talk about, and they talked more than they organized,” says Peraza, who still visits Cuba on occasion, and doesn’t play dominoes. “So I wanted to use the game to express ideas of power and control.”

Among the largest goals of the show, says Maria Elena Ortiz, the museum’s assistant curator, is to connect the dots between contemporary art and dominoes. The exhibit came together with help from Arden Sherman, director of the Hunter East Harlem Gallery at New York’s Hunter College, who presented a smaller version of the show there in October.

“So many of these artists are using a lighthearted game like dominoes to talk about serious things,” Ortiz says during a recent tour of the exhibition. “It’s a very intimate game, and people from every social class play and gossip around the table, and the conversations feel so vibrant.”

That makes the game ripe for commentaries about race, identity and class, Ortiz says. In Nari Ward’s “Great Expectations,” domino tiles are taped to a mirror with strips from a brown paper bag, a reference to the Brown Paper Bag Test, used in the early 20th century by colleges to admit African-Americans whose skin was no darker than a brown paper bag. Betye Saar’s “Eat Seeds ‘n All,” meanwhile, is an illustration of an African-American child eating watermelon on a makeshift domino table. And Donna Conlon and Jonathan Harker’s video “Domino Effect” features a domino chain of construction bricks in Panama, a statement about the economic ripple effect of colonial architecture being replaced by gleaming new high-rises.

But the exhibit isn’t all serious, Ortiz says. Edra Soto and Dan Sullivan’s artwork “DominoDomino” is an ornate table with four stools, each carved from Brazilian jatoba wood, which visitors can use to play dominoes.

“Spots, Dots, Pips, Tiles: An Exhibition About Dominoes” will open with a reception 5:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday, June 29, at Perez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., in Miami. The exhibit will close Oct. 29. Admission costs $12-$16, but will be free July 8. Call 305-375-3000 or go to PAMM.org.

pvalys@southflorida.com or 954-356-4364

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