Writing: Letter From New Orleans
WRITING: | LETTER FROM | NEW ORLEANS
Sunday School #1
‘Letter From New Orleans’
Sunday 30 November 2014
Welcome. Welcome to A_SPACE, the home of our collaborators Anomalous Visuals. Wel- come to DAM PROJECTS, an experimental curatorial collective founded by Daniella Rose King, Amanprit Sandhu and Morgan Quaintance. Welcome to Sunday School, DAM’s inaugural programme. And finally, welcome to Letter from New Orleans, an exhibition, film, conversation, text, image and performance of a city that was our home for two weeks in October 2014.
New Orleans: the multi-cultural cauldron, the birthplace of Jazz, the southern state that straddles the Mississippi river; has exerted a magnetic pull on each of us since we met five years ago. That was a few years after Hurricane Katrina (nicknamed ‘the Storm’ in New Orleans) had turned the city and much of the state of Louisiana upside down and inside out. A biennial, named Prospect, was born out of this tragedy as a way of galvanis- ing the artistic and creative community to rebuild and regenerate the city. Two (and a half) iterations later this preeminent American biennial of contemporary visual art was an alibi for us to pack our notepads, post-its, laptops, video cameras and audio recorders and head to NOLA*, the most exotic, abject, historical, decadent, contrary, spiritual place in America.
What we encountered was a city, in many ways, like any other. The old French Quarter, the historic, colonial heart of the city overflowed with music, booze and beauty. But it was colonised by tourists (ourselves included), and was void of New Orleanians. The shotgun houses that border on the ’Quarter’ and further out, once the dwellings of poorer residents, are now populated by the upwardly-mobile. Gentrification is at work across the city. It is burdened by the uneven development of any modern capitalist society. But that is where the similarities end. Our film documents many of the events we witnessed that defied our expectations (think snake-walkers, ladies’ motorcycle clubs, transgender hip hop MCs, Halloween revelry). There is something remarkable and ineffable about the place. Culture is present in everyone’s everyday lives. From Second Lines; (traditionally a funerary procession, but not only) where all communities collide and brush up against one another, dance, sing, drink and march alongside each other, wear their Sunday bests, or cruise in their suped-up Cadillacs; to Halloween, considered an adult’s holiday for smart and serious costumes (our favourites were Wolverine, an Ebola patient, Laura Palmer and Hunter S Thompson), these public displays of creativity, community and hedonism are at complete odds with the individualistic, conservative, corporatised and controlled public spheres we call home in north America and western Europe.
‘Prospect.3 Notes from Now’ is a sprawling citywide exhibition that is loosely based around a novel, Walker Percy’s 1961 The Moviegoer. The novel’s protagonist Binx Bollings is obsessed with the ‘search’; for meaning, knowledge, purpose in his life. ‘Prospect.3’ artistic director Franklin Sirmans likens this search to that of an artist, who is always seeking answers to questions through their work. One such question, presented by a number of artists including: Chandra McCormick, Keith Calhoun, Herbert Singleton, Mohamed Bourouissa and Antonio Vega Macotela (all but the last two artists live and work in New Orleans), was that of the prison industrial complex’s efficacy. Does incarceration do more harm than good? Louisiana State Penitentiary – commonly known as Angola, after the plantation it was built upon – has a terrifying, and rightly earned, reputation of ‘slavery with a penal alibi’. Nestled a two-hour drive upstate from New Orleans, it is the largest maximum security prison in the US famed for incarcerating the Angola Three – young black panther supporters who were convicted of murdering a prison guard during a frenzied riot and sentenced to life in solitary confinement, in a case marked by injustices and embroiled in racism. Robert King was released after 29 years, Herman Wallace was pardoned and released on his deathbed, and Albert Woodfox is awaiting release after 40 years in solitary. More recently, it has gained a reputation for its bi-annual ‘bread and circus’ that is the Angola Rodeo, where inmates take part in a southern rodeo for the tick- et-buying public.
But there are magnificent oppositional pulls at work in New Orleans and ‘Pros- pect.3’. The question of punishment, clouded as it is (in the US most evidently) by no- tions of morality and dogma/religion is opposed by the idea of praise, worship and celebration. Many works in ‘Prospect.3’ fall into this camp, particularly those of Douglas Bourgeois, whose paintings capture in marvellous detail the ecstatic moment in religion, music and self-expression. This ecstasy is expressed through the Second Lines, through Mardi Gras, as well as visual and aural works and traditions connected to the city. Artist Sophie T Lvoff searches also for the unutterable, sacred quality of New Orleans through her photographic series Hells Bells / Sulphur / Honey, inspired directly by her reading of Percy’s The Moviegoer. Her photographs capture the almost supernatural atmosphere and aura of New Orleans, as Percy does so sensuously.
The first thing you’ll see when entering the exhibition Letter from New Orleans is the first thing we saw when landing at Louis Armstrong International Airport: The Fleur-de-lis. As an icon of French heraldry it is simultaneously religious, political, dynastic, artistic, emblematic, symbolic and the logo of the New Orleans Saints – the local American football team. It is even represented within a font: . In New Orleans it is displayed absolutely everywhere. From bumper stickers to buses to place mats to jerseys to street signs to cufflinks to tattoos. It is impossible to count the sheer number of one sees while moving around the city. A reminder of a distant relationship with France, it more recently became a mark of solidarity with efforts to rebuild the city after the Storm. The flags displayed at Sunday School are relics and icons of New Orleans, an attempt to reconstitute the subliminal force of this ubiquitous image, far removed from its normal surroundings, in all its ambiguous and duplicitous symbolism.
Viewing New Orleans as outsiders, as enraptured as we were and still are, our one- day exhibition Letter from New Orleans is part homage, collection, survey and intervention. What our eyes captured in October 2014 we are relaying to you with some degree of uncertainty, with all the lapses in memory and the conflation of experiences that come with the act of remembering or re-presenting. We were shown an extreme level of (southern) hospitality during our stay, which is best represented by the artists we met, including Nina Schwanse, Brittan Rosendahl and Dylan Thaemert, and Bradford Willingham who have kindly lent works for our exhibition and shared formative insights into the city. These, shown alongside our own notes, ephemera and found objects portray the spirit of New Orleans, as a city and as an emerging, or re-emerging art scene. The exhibition is a means of communicating the coming together of all of these aspects, conversions and sights; re-imagining this private space in the mould of the spaces of public display we witnessed, a Letter reporting back on the unbridled joy and collision of all forces, great and ugly, that compounded our collective experience.
So welcome, finally, New Orleans, to our leafy corner of London. We hope this isn’t the last we’ll see of you.
Daniella Rose King
*List of New Orleans nomenclature: The City that Care Forgot, The Paris of America, The liveliest and freest city in the Land, The Big Easy, the most wicked city of its day, The Crescent City, The Gateway to the Mississippi Valley, Among cities, the most feminine of women, Nawlins, NOLA.
Letter From New Orleans was a one day exhibition that took place on 30 November, looking at culture and contemporary art in New Orleans.
It featured works by New Orleans-based artists Bradford Willingham, Brittan Rosendahl & Dylan Thaemert and Nina Schwanse, while Sophie T. Lvoff, an artist who featured in the city’s 2014 Biennial Prospect.3 Notes For Now, travelled to London to be in conversation with DAM PROJECTS, and the group premiered their documentary film of the city.
The exhibition also featured the premiere of DAM PROJECTS’ documentary film shot in New Orleans during the group’s two-week stay. The film features interviews with Prospect.3 Artistic Director Franklin Sirmans, Prospect.3 artist Douglas Bourgeois, Bounce MC Katey Red, artists, creatives and more.