For 133 years, he stood there, arms crossed, eyes hollow, moustache dusted with green patina. Then, last May, they hauled him away. The bronze statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, perched on a 60-foot column in downtown New Orleans, was one of many monuments erected in the Antebellum South enshrining the white supremacist, pro-slavery rebellion. Facing death threats, Mayor Mitch Landrieu declared it a ‘public nuisance’ and ordered an armour-clad crew to take it down. The gesture was one of respect for the city’s majority black population, and an acknowledgment of the violent history whose scars are still very raw.
Lee’s denuded column is visible from the Contemporary Art Center, New Orleans, the main venue for the fourth Prospect triennial. There, a series of photographs by Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda recall the statue’s removal. Redefining the Power (2011-12) depicts the plinths of Portuguese colonial monuments in Luanda, both empty and repopulated by the artist’s friends. In one image, a man with a golden crown belt buckle holds a staff topped with Prince’s Love Symbol #2, where documentation shows the original statue (Pedro Alexandrino, colonial Governor-General of Angola) bore a sabre. In another, a bearded man in a white gown made of Chinese house wrap paper poses, hand on his hip. This queering of colonial history reclaims the power of self-representation and self-determination for the Angolese people.
Many of the several hundred works by 73 artists in this lively exhibition, which spans 16 venues across New Orleans, examine how power can be renegotiated from the social margins. Curated by Trevor Schoonmaker, the Chief Curator at the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham and an expert in contemporary African art, the exhibition includes a large share of artists from the African diaspora, whose work frames New Orleans as a diasporic crossroads, a creole polyglot of the formerly displaced or enslaved. The show’s title, ‘The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp’, is taken from saxophonist Archie Shepp’s characterization of jazz as an expression of black creativity and resilience. (Shepp called jazz a ‘lily’; in catalogue essay, Schoonmaker explains that he chose the lotus for its Buddhist connotation of spiritual redemption, though in practice the reference seems tenuous.)
Within view of Henda’s photographs, colourfully-clad men on stilts wander the grounds of an English country manor in Sonia Boyce’s video Crop Over (2007), parading the regal finery of Barbadian carnival on an estate underwritten by Caribbean sugar plantations. During Mardi Gras, everyone’s a king, or so the saying goes – a topsy-turvy reversal of race and class that Boyce frames as utopian. Mardi Gras might be the world’s greatest work of performance art, and its wildest costumes are wearable sculptures. At the Mint, a drab neoclassical building, an entire gallery has been filled with the extravagant suits of ‘Big Chief’ Darryl Montana, which are covered with hypnotic, mandala-like beadwork and neon plumage. Up close, they reveal complex substructures that allow the wearer’s body to expand as much as three times its size. Like his fellow members of the ‘Yellow Pocahontas’ tribe, Montana is black; the unique Mardi Gras Indian tradition he celebrates, with its headdresses and traditional Native American chants meant to honour the indigenous people who sheltered runaway slaves, complicate contemporary conversations about cultural appropriation. In any case, the suits are some of the most impressive works in Prospect 4. Quieter, yet equally mesmerizing is Rivane Neuenschwander and Cao Guimaraes’s video Ash Wednesday/Epilogue (2006), in which a colony of fire ants scuttle over the roots of trees carrying multi-coloured sequins, the sparkling detritus of Brazil’s famous Carnaval.
The ‘Big Chiefs’ and kings of Mardi Gras put their differences on parade, but the proud performance of identity is not always quite so raucous. Prospect.4’s most elegant moment comes in the stately neoclassical foyer of the New Orleans Museum of Art, where a suite of paintings by the late Barkley L. Hendricks have been hung in its Ionic colonnade. Hendricks’s subjects meet our gaze with cool self-confidence. The paintings’ background colours are matched to the hues of their modish clothing, as if they had turned them by sheer force of will. Upstairs, in Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s painting I Still Face You (2015), a poised woman in a yellow dress leans against a credenza as she looks into the eyes of a man – her husband or fiancée, perhaps – in the company of their parents. In Crosby’s signature style, the mothers’ traditional Nigerian gowns are a patchwork of photocopied and overpainted newspapers, postcards and snapshots of life in Lagos – a striking analogue to the psychic patchwork of diaspora.
Collage makes a surprising and delightful return at the old US Mint, where the New Orleans Jazz Museum has filled vitrines with Louis Armstrong LPs decorated with cuttings from newspapers, magazines and print advertisements by Satchmo himself. Most of these clippings concern the legendary trumpeter – a cartoon announcing ‘Armstrong Wows at Cotton Club’ beneath which he scrawled the name of Martin Luther King – while others are more whimsical, such as one labelled ‘BRUSSELLS BELGIUM’, featuring several naked women, a man holding a flying bowler hat by a rope tether, and a flock of predatory birds.
Outside, jazz spills from open doorways. On warm evenings, it floods the French Quarter, where bronze statues on street corners commemorate famous jazz musicians. (Louis Armstrong Park is one of P.4’s principal venues.) This exhibition does much to acknowledge that heritage, the ‘lotus’ that bloomed at the turn of the twentieth century in the swamp of Louisiana’s racism. John Akomfrah’s newly commissioned film, Precarity (2017) – on view at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art – considers the roots of that efflorescence in four meditative chapters about the life of Charles ‘Buddy’ Bolden, a popular New Orleans cornet player credited with the first jazz-style improvisation. In 1907, ‘King Bolden’ struck his mother with a tea kettle and was committed to a mental asylum for the rest of his life. Akomfrah’s period tableaux – men and women in Victorian garb, posed stiffly in leaky Southern Gothic interiors – seem culled from Bolden’s disturbed subconscious. The sheen of Hollywood melodrama distracts from the usual power of Akomfrah’s images, though a strand from his meditative voiceover has lodged in my mind: ‘Under the sunlight, I am the only object between water and sky.’ Like 11th century philosopher Ibn Sina’s floating man, Akomfrah’s Bolden is trapped in, and by, his own mind – an isolation only amplified by his genius, and his total social marginalization.
In 2004, in the days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, the streets of New Orleans were filled with floating men: the bloated corpses of mostly poor, black residents left behind by rescue services. Prospect was founded in the storm’s wake in response to its social and economic effects. P.4 is more celebratory than political, but a number of works reference the fragile ecological condition of New Orleans, and what seems its certain watery fate. In a scrappy greenbelt along the bank of the Mississippi River, two stacks of antique tables by Jennifer Odem (Rising Tables, 2017) refer bluntly to the rising water table, and the stacked furniture that served as makeshift rafts and saved many from drowning. ‘Batture’ (2017), a striking series of photographs by Jeff Whetstone on view at UNO St. Claude Gallery, documents the makeshift economies that thrive at the water’s edge, in the eponymous, unowned tidal lands. Precarity is endemic to the batture’s marshy soil, but freed from public and private property law, it is also an open frontier, a space for collective exploration.
All of New Orleans may be a batture within our lifetimes, vanishing with the tide. On this, Prospect.4 makes no conclusions and proposes no solutions. But, in the shadow of Lee’s empty column, these artists show what resilience looks like in an increasingly volatile age. It will take all their creativity to keep us afloat.
PROSPECT.4, New Orleans, ‘The Lotust in Spite of the Swamp’, runs until 25 February.
Main image: installation view of Barkley L. Hendricks at the New Orleans Museum of Art, USA. Courtesy: Prospect.4 Triennial, New Orleans