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The New Orleans Loving Festival

Will Coviello previews the weeklong art and photography exhibits exploring racism and multiculturalism

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Many of James Edward Bates' photos of Ku Klux Klan members and their activities are straightforward and stark. There are photos of hooded Klansmen lighting giant crosses in rural fields at night. Some photos include unmasked members, their faces illuminated by torches. Other photos show masked Klansmen marching in cities and the main streets of small Southern towns.

  There also are photos of more banal moments and daily life for Klanspeople. A seamstress to Klan groups is captured with a room full of robes and an order form complete with a checklist of available robe embellishments. A Klansman with his mask pushed aside makes a purchase at a convenience store during a rally in a small Mississippi town. A father shows his 3-year-old son how to hold a torch at a cross burning.

  Bates started photographing Klan events in 1998, and over the years, he's been drawn to the perpetuation of racism and more nuanced elements of the lives of Klan members.

  "There are a lot of people who join up and don't stay for very long," Bates says. "It's a mixture of people. I don't think they all have the same beliefs. There are people who join for white pride. There are a lot of people who are racist, who don't like any other race. You have some Klan groups that associate closely with neo-Nazis. And you have people who stay away from them because they think that they're violent.

  "Most of them are everyday people. You could find many of these people serving as your mailman, the guy who works in the photo lab at Walmart, your auto mechanic. You may not know who they are. I think the numbers are way down. There was some increase after 9-11, but I think that's subsided. And some groups (he initially photographed) don't exist anymore, and some groups have gone underground."

  A small selection of his photos (many are posted on his website, www.kkkproject.org), are part of the Mixed Messages.4 show at the fourth annual New Orleans Loving Festival. The festival is named for the couple (Mildred and Richard Loving) behind a lawsuit and Supreme Court decision that nullified state laws barring interracial marriage in 1967. The festival includes art shows, literary readings and discussions about prejudice and multiculturalism.

  Bates worked as a newspaper photographer until two years ago, but he still pursues photojournalistic projects, especially those relating to Southern culture. He has photographed cockfights and is working on a series about moonshine and life inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. He also continues to work on the Klan project. He is trying to revisit the 3-year-old learning how to hold a torch.

  "The child is 16 now," Bates says. "He lives in Mississippi. He's a fifth generation Klansman on both sides of his family. I want to go back and see what his beliefs and his mindset are."

  Bates' interest in the project stems from growing up in McComb, Mississippi, and being aware of racism in his family and community.

  "In McComb, there were 37 fire-bombings of black homes and churches in 1964," he says. "My father was a city councilman. I campaigned with him in black communities. I also experienced racism in my family. When I was 18 or 19, I tried to invite a black friend to go to church with us, but my family did not receive that well at all. I have always said that I would have received forgiveness sooner if I had burnt down the church."

  Bates tries to use his work to start conversations about racism in people's own lives.

  "I have a desire to understand why racism exists," he says. "It's a worldwide problem; it's not a black and white problem. The Klan is just a small, very visible piece of it."

  Bates will attend the opening reception for the show Mixed Messages.4: Race, Racism and the Multiracial Experience at Press Street's Antenna Gallery (5 p.m.-9 p.m. Saturday; 3718 St. Claude Ave.). The show also includes work by Janet Boyd, Bottletree, Luisa Dantas, Jeri Hilt, Soraya Jean-McElroy, Nathan Pietrykowski, Jose Torres-Tama and Jave Yoshimoto. There is a reception June 12 at the gallery for a show featuring portraits of multiracial families. It includes an ice cream social from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

  As a part of the festival, Indivisible, a collection of portraits of multiracial women by Samantha Wall opens at Stella Jones Gallery (6 p.m.-9 p.m. Friday; Place St. Charles, 201 St. Charles Ave., suite 132). Wall lives in Oregon, but she spent a month-long residency at the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans, where she interviewed and photographed subjects for her work.

  Press Street hosts a reading featuring five women of color addressing growing up in the South from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. June 11. It features Addie Citchens, whose work has appeared in the Oxford American and Callaloo; Jeri Hilt, who teaches in New Orleans; Ambata Kazi-Nance, who writes about being Muslim and living in the South; J.R. Ramakrishnan, whose work has been published in Harper's Bazaar, Chicago Tribune, Grazia and Style.com; and Kristina K. Robinson, who has taught at Dillard University.

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