A few years ago, the CubaNOLA Arts Collective and the Rebirth Brass Band collaborated with La Conga de los Hoyos, the most popular street music ensemble in Santiago de Cuba during that city's Carnival celebration. Among the results of that 2002 encounter are these photographs illustrating some striking parallels between this city's second-line traditions and Santiago de Cuba's conga parades. Focusing on that place and its people, these works in this McKenna Museum expo comprise a freewheeling mosaic of life in Cuba's second-largest city, a place that, if anything, seems even further removed from the 21st century than Havana. Whatever it lacks in modernity is more than made up for in authenticity, as we see in these oddly familiar images of earthy musicians plying the gritty streets in a kind of undulating collective epiphany more like a mass voodoo trance than pop entertainment.
While there are no Mardi Gras Indians in evidence, the vibe around the drummers evokes the escalating call and response of Mardi Gras Indian chants hypnotically uttered in the cryptic tongues of long departed ancestors. Drums, of course, can also invoke serious spirits as we see in a photo by L. J. Goldstein of a portly, grizzled gent seemingly about to swoon in a drummer's equivalent of hyperspace, or maybe the transmigration of souls. While Goldstein and Diana Sanchez zero in on the dynamics of the marching musicians, Nancy Collins, Gayle Shearer and M. Delos Reyes provide lots of background views of the city's colorful denizens, and Libby Nevinger, Frank Stewart and Chris Porche West focus on the spirit of Santiago's carnival expressed in the kinetics of cute kids and dusky tropical beauties as well as the lives of ordinary folks in this seemingly timeless place. Although most of these images are straight documentary shots, something of this poetic sensibility comes through in Frank Stewart's cinematic Inside Out at La Conga, a view of a tall, raw-boned man and a girl with haunted eyes exchanging fraught glances through the smoky glass of an ancient door " one of those mysteriously evocative images that comes across like a portal into the soul of a people, a view through the looking glass of some parallel Caribbean reality. If these images suggest a strikingly familiar Cuban version of New Orleans street culture, that's not so surprising when you consider that the Haitians who emigrated to New Orleans in vast numbers some 200 years ago were mostly from Santiago, where they fled in the aftermath of Haiti's bloody revolution. So we really are twin cities, and now, thanks to CubaNOLA and the McKenna Museum, we may finally begin to understand what that means.
If you are interested in the parallels between New Orleans and Caribbean culture but have never been to the George & Leah McKenna Museum of African-American Art, then you are overdue for a visit. Located in a massive, three-story antebellum edifice that was once the abode of legendary steamboat captain Thomas Leathers, the museum seems to be an extension of the personal collection of its founder, Dr. Dwight McKenna, which may account for the unusually personal aura of the place. The art on view is also unusual, a blend of vintage and contemporary work including canvases by local Haitians such as Ulrick Jean-Pierre and Vidho Lorville, as well as some colorfully sequined voodoo flags. Vintage pieces include some Clementine Hunter paintings, but the biggest surprise is a rare pair of medical lithographs by Jules Lion, a free man of color and former student of Louis Daguerre who opened one of the first photographic studios in America in antebellum New Orleans. The McKenna Museum will formally reintroduce itself to the public with a grand reopening ceremony on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 22-23.
- The streets of Santiago, seen in this photograph by Libby Nevinger, are home to creative forces that have much in common with New Orleans' own cultural traditions.