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Review: Cities of Ys and The Classic Works of Emory Douglas

D. Eric Bookhardt on new shows at two local museums



Though visually spare, this New Orleans Museum of Art exposition goes straight to the heart of the paradoxes that define coastal Louisiana. French artist and Venice Biennale award-winner Camille Henrot uses videos and symbolic objects to portray Louisiana's receding coast and the people it supports. By implicitly comparing it to Brittany's mythic city of Ys — which was lost to the sea after the devil seduced the king's daughter into giving him the key to the dike that protected it — Henrot evokes Louisiana's Faustian bargain with the oil industry, which over decades ravaged vast expanses of marshes that once protected our cities, indirectly causing them to flood. Her subplot is the plight of the Houma Indians, the modest yet resilient inhabitants of Louisiana's coast whose own Faustian bargain involved adopting the language of their Cajun neighbors, with whom they sometimes intermarried. Their flair for cultural camouflage enabled them to blend in effectively, but it also caused the federal government to routinely deny their appeals for official tribal status. Henrot records the Houmas' travails as they try to deal with modern America and the powerful oil industry (multi-media image pictured) as their ancestral lands continue to wash out from under them.

  Issues involving identity are illustrated in Emory Douglas' classic poster graphics at The George & Leah McKenna Museum of African American Art. As the Black Panther Party's minister of culture during the group's 1960s and '70s heyday, Douglas produced many posters illustrating its concerns. Its Louisiana ties (beyond Baton Rouge-born co-founder Huey Newton) are most poignantly illustrated in his Free All the Angola 3 poster focused on three Black Panther activists imprisoned at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, who spent decades in solitary confinement for murdering a guard in a case so flawed that even the guard's widow said they were innocent. In October, one of them, Herman Wallace, was freed only to die days later of liver cancer. Their concerns clearly live on today. — D. ERIC BOOKHARDT

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