The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp, the title of Prospect.4, the latest iteration of the Prospect New Orleans international art triennial, is as colorfully mysterious as its name implies. Like its predecessors, starting with Prospect founder Dan Cameron's stellar, critically acclaimed Prospect.1 in 2008-09, Prospect.4 makes the city itself part of the show — sometimes to an extent that makes it hard to tell where the art begins and the city recedes. While it also has its share of art stars, Prospect.4's artistic director Trevor Schoonmaker, curator at Duke University's Nasher Museum of Art, saw the city's upcoming 300th birthday as a way to artistically reunite the city with the broader world that made it a global city almost from the start.
"New Orleans is the most European and the most African city in the United States," Schoonmaker said while overseeing installation of works at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC). "It is called the northernmost Caribbean city and is still distinctly of, and in, the American South ... its rich history and culture provide boundless inspiration for artists from all over the world."
Indeed, many of their works were created with this city's tumultuous history in mind. As Mayor Mitch Landrieu notes in his catalog essay, Prospect.4 "connects over three centuries of history through the work of 70-plus contemporary artists who have responded to the city's unique cultural and natural landscape ... Drawing synergistic parallels between New Orleans and other parts of the world, P.4 aims to illuminate the interconnectedness of all things, both seen and unseen."
If such ideas sound idealistic, they also set the stage for a better understanding of what Prospect.4 is all about and what it represents. The triennial opened Nov. 18 and runs through Feb. 25, 2018, and there is much to see. Prospect exhibitions are in museums and galleries and there are installations and sculptures in public spaces and parks, including Crescent Park, Lafitte Greenway and Algiers Point.
With so much work from so many far-flung places, a good starting point is the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, where the familiar and the unfamiliar come together much in the way the Mississippi River connects the muddy waters of Middle America with the exotic Caribbean currents — the loop currents — of the Gulf of Mexico. Because we live with water in every aspect of our daily lives, it is easy to overlook its association with the otherworldly realms of dreams and rebirth. New York-based Katherine Bradford's colorful near-hallucinatory canvases, like her Five Moons painting of a luminous ocean liner buoyantly plying a mythic sea, couldn't be more appropriate for the way they remind us of the intimate connection between nature's watery depths and our own psychic depths.
In a related vein, New Orleans native and longtime New York resident Wayne Gonzales explores the way water's inescapable presence has interacted with our more ephemeral human attempts to live with it. A painter influenced by photography and print media processes, Gonzales took his cues from the Ogden's collection of 19th-century New Orleans paintings, pairing pastoral scenes like vintage maestro George Coulon's picturesque rendition of a stately bayou home with his own, more recent view of an aging trailer home next to a bayou — a scene where Gonzales' hazy, old newsmagazine photo quality complements Coulon's atmospheric evanescence to explore how culture, time and technology influence our perceptions. That sensibility is reinforced in a different way in a nearby gallery filled with John Scott's startlingly expressionistic urban landscapes.
Though only a fraction of the artists in Prospect.4 are local, many of its international artists have connections to the global influences of New Orleans' musical history. Schoonmaker has called jazz "arguably the preeminent art form of the 20th century," so the pervasive presence of musical themes is no surprise. But even many New Orleans natives are hazy about how it all began, so it helps that London-based video artist John Akomfrah has created a beautifully rendered look at the life of the legendary "inventor" of jazz, Buddy Bolden, the tormented genius whose supersonic-wailing cornet blasted him from clubs into the limelight as New Orleans' most popular musician, until the abrupt end of his career in 1907, when he was committed to an asylum. The visual lyricism of Akomfrah's Precarity video gives us a dreamy look into the poignant story a man who forever changed New Orleans — and the world — yet is remembered mainly by music buffs today.
A different take on art and music is provided by the dynamic New Orleans duo Quintron and Miss Pussycat, whose raucous "swamp tech" performances involve space-age garage rock and '80s techno-dance modulated by maracas. On the Ogden Museum's terrace, Quintron's latest iteration of his Weather Warlock electronic invention that translates atmospheric conditions into ambient music now channels the inner electro-biology of common local plants. His partner, Panacea Theriac, aka Miss Pussycat also is known for her colorful handmade puppets that look quite at home in a gallery of their own at the Ogden, a museum known for its insightful collection of Southern crafts.
As the latter 20th-century intellectual fashion of postmodernism continues its slow fade into the annals of art history, a new hybrid aesthetic is emerging. It fuses social awareness with a more meditative or even celebratory exploration of the broader and deeper meanings of the cultures of the former European colonies that, along with Latin America, comprise what is now called the Global South — places like New Orleans, where deeply rooted local traditions were often taken for granted, but never really died. Prospect.4's abundant assortment of artworks based on those communities' cultural reawakenings is prevalent throughout its venues, and epitomized by the works occupying all available exhibition spaces at the CAC. Often vividly quirky, many reveal an unexpected kinship with New Orleans' longstanding traditions. Kolkata, India, native Rina Banerjee's colorful sculptural concoctions seem eerily familiar for their suggestion of an Indian variation on our Carnival culture, which should come as no surprise considering that India's traditional Hindu processions can look remarkably like Mardi Gras parades. Similarly, Colombian artist Maria Berrio's gorgeous collage paintings combine the dreamy wildness of Colombian jungles and her own colorful mythologies into new psychic geographies where wild women and wild animals come together in a vivid new ecology of the imagination.
Carnival culture is implicit in the work of London-based Afro-Caribbean artist Sonia Boyce, whose two-channel color video Crop Over focuses on a mythic figure named Moko Jumbie, a towering character associated with the Crop Over festival in Barbados. In the video, Moko Jumbie is represented by a costumed character on stilts who wanders around the Harewood House, a historic estate near Leeds, England, originally built with a fortune derived from colonial sugar plantations and the transatlantic slave trade. Here, bizarrely colorful figures from indigenous Barbados mythology reclaim Harewood House as their own in a scene that, despite its symbolic sociopolitical judo, actually looks not so different from a Mardi Gras costume party in the Garden District. It's in yet another example of how scenes from faraway places associated with the Global South can seem oddly familiar to anyone who has come to know New Orleans.
Well-known California-born, Chicago-based artist Cauleen Smith was inspired by a residency on Captiva Island, Florida, where the remnants of Native American ritual shell mounds were all that remains of the Calusa tribe, the island's original inhabitants. Those shells struck her as a lingering ghostly reminder of a tribe that seemed to have much in common with the Yoruba people of Nigeria, which inspired her to make her film Egungun, in which an imposingly mysterious mythic figure known by that name appears in elaborate layers of cloth embellished with shells. In West Africa, costumed dancers inspired by the legend of Egungun are said to be possessed by the ancestors, and in Smith's film, Egungun emerges from the ocean in a carnivalesque meditation on places like West Africa, Captiva Island and New Orleans that all share complicated histories with the sea.
Our own Carnival mythology is addressed directly at the Old U.S. Mint Jazz Museum in the richly beaded suits and feathered ritual paraphernalia of Mardi Gras Indian Darryl Montana, long-time Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe, which rose to prominence as the "modernist" Mardi Gras Indian movement that stressed aesthetic excellence under the long reign of his father, legendary Big Chief Allison "Tootie" Montana. Originally inspired by the Native Americans who gave sanctuary to runaway slaves in antebellum Louisiana, Mardi Gras Indians need no introduction to most New Orleans residents, but their presence at the Mint reminds us that their traditional chants, such as "Iko Iko" or "Hey Pocky Way," are inseparable from the musical feedstock that gave us jazz, rhythm and blues and, ultimately, rock music.
The most surprising, if not startling, music-related art offering at the Mint is the little-known collages by Louis Armstrong who, arising from humble origins and a troubled home, eventually led jazz's conquest of America and the world. His collages are modest, homey concoctions he created to embellish the lids of the boxes that housed his massive collection of reel-to-reel tapes and photographs, but in their own unpretentious way they reflect something of Armstrong's legendary improvisational genius. Other intriguing music-related artworks at the Mint include Berlin-based, British-Jamaican artist Satch Hoyt's sculptural pyramid made of cymbals, each representing musical luminaries such as Jelly Roll Morton, Sun Ra, Prince and Alice Coltrane.
Music and movement, time and space, set the tone at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) where the late Barkley L. Hendricks' monumental portraits line the walls of the Great Hall. His intense colors and pop-culture sensibilities led to his first retrospective (curated by Schoonmaker at Duke's Nasher Museum) being titled Birth of the Cool, but underlying all that sensory and somatic vivacity is an extraordinary technical precision that has caused him to be compared to northern Renaissance masters. Unfortunately, Hendricks died while working on a commission specific to Prospect.4, but his paintings live on, extending a lively personal greeting to visitors passing through the museum's atrium.
NOMA's upper galleries feature works based on local history by well-known American mixed-media artist Xaviera Simmons, as well as some engagingly innovative and eerily psychological domestic interiors by Nigerian-Los Angeles artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby and a colorful array of poetic visual explorations by Alexis Esquivel, Dewit Petros and the graphical duo Gauri Gill and Rajesh Vangad.
If the colorful variety and sheer abundance of Prospect.4's varied offerings can seem overwhelming at first, it should be noted that this is the largest exhibition exploring the Global South to be staged in North America, and while it might be tempting to think of it as an unusually lively take on multiculturalism, it is really something far bolder and more pioneering than that. Multiculturalism mostly viewed ethnic identities as a sociological problem to be "solved," but that rather dour clinical approach stands in stark contrast to the Creole traditions of New Orleans, Latin America and the Caribbean that took the most appealing and joyous aspects of European, African, Native American and Asian cultures and assimilated them into diverse communities where common ground was found in broadly shared cultures of celebration.
The power of that process, known as "Creolization," was vividly on view during south Louisiana's cultural renaissance of the 1970s, as the rousing Afro-Creole sounds of once marginalized Mardi Gras Indians, zydeco musicians and formerly forgotten pioneers of local rhythm and blues like Professor Longhair provided a lively soundtrack for the civil rights and architectural preservation movements that arose from our shared cultural gumbo of wildly diverse ethnic traditions.
Although most of the work in Prospect.4 reflects a varied range of views and approaches, it is hard to ignore its ebbing and flowing, yet pervasive, emphasis on the transformational power of music and the celebratory masking and carnivalesque traditions of cultures that, while different from most of Europe and North America, have much to offer anyone willing to take the time to look and listen.
The great outdoors: Prospect.4's outdoor works
A look at the event's easily accessible art in public spaces.