Making Protest Art Great Again — South Florida photographer reimagines a Palm Beach landmark
Updated: Jun 26, 2022
MAR-A-LAGO HAS INSPIRED photographers for nearly a century, the sprawling Mediterranean-style mansion, framed by palm trees, a model of Palm Beach grandeur in thousands of images since it opened in 1927.
One day in early June, award-winning Palm Beach County photographer Ates Isildak answered a different kind of siren call.
Tapping his love of the Polaroid camera, he created a bizarre amalgamation of the famous building through digital enhancements that brought his personal vision into focus: Mar-a-Lago engulfed in flames against an ominous backdrop of shadows and gray.
“Hell Is Round The Corner,’’ as the photograph is called, is Isildak’s take on the tension and pressure he has felt living so close to the megaphone of right-wing fervor dividing the country.
Art is supposed to incite personal interpretations and meanings unique to each viewer. But Isildak, in an interview, felt it important to set the record straight about the meaning of the photo’s fiery imagery.
The flames are not a depiction or celebration of Mar-a-Lago on fire, he said. They represent an interpretation of the mansion as a place of “hell,” the home of its polarizing owner, former President Donald Trump, who incited the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. capitol and shaped the Supreme Court that overturned Roe v Wade.
Save for a few purposely-blurred palm trees, his image is completely devoid of the tropical splendor captured in every other exterior shot of Mar-a-Lago over the past 95 years — a reflection of current political events.
“Things are starting to scare me enough that I felt like I needed to say and do something,’’ said Isildak, a visual artist who, like many locals, often passes Mar-a-Lago on his way to and from his West Palm Beach home.
“It represents what I’ve seen driving by (since 2016), the rallies, men with machine guns,’’ he said. “I’m 37 and this is the first time I'm putting a political statement out there. I felt like I couldn't help it.’’
A 13-inch by 14-inch print of the photograph debuted at The Box Gallery in West Palm Beach on June 17 as part of the gallery’s “Florida Showcase 2022” exhibit of photos related to the Sunshine State.
While most of the “Florida Showcase” images offer expressions that don’t blatantly venture into politics, “Hell Is Round The Corner” arguably is the most provocative of the bunch, a visual statement that’s certain to rattle not only the MAGA crowd but admirers of the Palm Beach landmark.
It’s also the timeliest of the “Showcase” photos, making its debut at the exhibit’s opening gala, held a week after the House select committee started holding televised hearings on the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“I love it,’’ multi-media artist Rolando Chang Barrero, owner of the Box Gallery, said last week as he looked at Isildak’s print on the west wall of the Belvedere Road gallery.
“It basically says that we have a little bit of hell brewing about half a mile away from my gallery. I like to believe my gallery represents life and truth and freedom.’’ Gesturing at the Mar-a-Lago print, he said, “That is the antithesis of what I believe the world should be.’’
“Hell Is Round The Corner” is not the first piece of protest art aimed at Trump. But Isildak’s image is one of the few such pieces by an artist living so close to Trump’s neighborhood.
Other versions of anti-Trump art, such as the giant baby Trump inflatable floating over protests from West Palm Beach to London, can be considered propaganda art, Barrero said.
“Ates’ piece is not a propaganda art. I see this as fine art photography,” he said. “The processing of the image is amazing and meticulous.’’
Not long after Isildak, the son of Turkish immigrants, posted the image on his Instagram account, he received a phone call from his father.
“He’s like, ‘You should take that image down. You don't want to put a target on yourself,’’’ he said. “I thought that was a good sign if he's taking notice. It hasn't been seen much yet, but I think it will get a strong reaction from all sides.’’
A Dreyfoos School of the Arts graduate, Isildak never set out to create protest art.
When he graduated from the University of Central Florida in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in English literature, he tapped his passion by playing music. That morphed into making more than 20 music videos, with a focus on direction, color coordination and packaging.
Around 2016, he turned his talents to still photography. Using his tool of choice, a Canon 5D Mark III, he has captured images celebrating marginalized members of society. Many portraits feature LGBTQ friends.
In 2020, he won a $15,000 award from South Florida Cultural Consortium. (He was sole Palm Beach County recipient; Twelve other awards went to artists in Miami-Dade, Broward, Monroe and Martin counties.)
Around the same time, he started experimenting with a 1970s-era Polaroid camera.
“Hell Is Round The Corner” is part of his first offering of digitally-enhanced Polaroids, a series called “Church & State” that features 60 images inspired by the consequences of mixing religion with politics.
The series, which includes depictions of Gov. Ron DeSantis and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg, will be released later this year.
“It makes a statement’’ Isildak said of the Mar-a-Lago print, “but it doesn't capture the totality of the statement that I hope the series itself will convey.''
He borrowed the photo’s title from the song “Hell is Round the Corner” by the British rapper Tricky. Colors in the song’s video inspired the look and feel of the photograph, he said.
“It’s just one piece of combining politics, religion and everyday life,'' he said. "There's good and bad to it, but I can't help notice the bad and the kind of inspiration that it is causing in followers of the religious majority and the politicians who are playing off of religious fervor and fear, even though I think they really don’t believe in it.’’
He’s hoping to find a gallery generous enough to allow him to display the entire series. The Box Gallery might be the perfect place.
The gallery’s owner, Barrero, is president of the Democratic Hispanic Chapter of Palm Beach County. The day before the “Florida Showcase 2022” opening, his gallery hosted Charlie Crist and Nikki Friend at a Democratic gubernatorial forum.
And as a multimedia artist, Barrero is not shy about making provocative statements.
After the Parkland high school massacre in 2018, he created an installation called “School Supplies for the Next Generation.’’ Spread throughout the gallery were body bags in three sizes — pre-school, grade school and high school — with toe tags.
Each subsequent mass shooting since 2018 sparks fresh waves of emotion when visitors to his gallery see a photo display of the installation, he said. And he sees a direct connection between “School Supplies For the Next Generation” and “Hell Is Round The Corner.’’
“There is a combination between the thinking we have in the two pieces,’’ he said, “which is basically that we are living in hell and the center of hell is half a mile away.’’
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years in the newspaper business, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.