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Review: New Orleans Free People of Color and Indivisible

D. Eric Bookhardt on new work by Jose Torres-Tama and Samantha Wall



Two art shows focusing on the contributions of mixed-race people have been extended and will remain on view for most of July. Artist/activist Jose Torres-Tama became intrigued by New Orleans' free people of color after moving here in 1984. Their story is so little known that it can seem surprising they once comprised nearly half of this city's population, built much of the French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny and Treme, and created much of what we think of as New Orleans culture. Torres-Tama's interest evolved into a series of portraits and a book published by the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and this exhibition at Le Musee de F.P.C. sponsored by the Joan Mitchell Foundation. Here we see remarkable figures like legendary voodoo queen Marie Laveau (pictured), innovative inventor Norbert Rillieux, composer/conductor Edmond Dede, coffeeshop pioneer Rose Nicaud, publisher Dr. Louis Roudanez and feminist poet Alice Dunbar Nelson, among others.

  In January 2012, Dr. Dwight and Beverly McKenna opened Le Musee de F.P.C. in a gorgeously restored 1859 Greek Revival manse on Esplanade Avenue to make their Creole history collection more accessible. Within is the little-known legacy of this accomplished and creative class that nimbly if quietly blended black and white New Orleans while artfully influencing both. No other large biracial society emerged anywhere else in America, but ours strongly reflects the Caribbean-Creole cultures from which it evolved. Even as this forgotten history is coming to light, America's occluded mixed-race people are starting to be recognized elsewhere thanks to artists like Portland, Oregon's Samantha Wall, whose eloquent mixed-media portraits at Stella Jones Gallery probe their complex inner lives. Her work is a reminder that America is only now beginning to reflect the kind of society that emerged in New Orleans more than two centuries ago. — D. ERIC BOOKHARDT

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