Cultural Militancy: New Orleans Art After Katrina

This feature was originally published in ART PAPERS March/April 2006, Vol. 30, issue 2.

Rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated. By mid-September 2005, two weeks after hurricane Katrina roared ashore, New Orleans was all but written off by national news media. In fact, the city handily survived the store to succumb to the subsequent collapse of the federally designed and constructed floodwall system, which led to the inundation of eighty percent of New Orleans by some at gunpoint. Those who evaded expulsion wandered a post-apocalyptic landscape, often armed and under cover of darkness. By the end of the month the floodwaters had been dispatched ahead of schedule, but potable water and electricity were still scarce, and access was still restricted by the National Guard. In a mostly empty city under martial law, few would celebrate the start of the new art season.

Yet, four months later, on the evening of Saturday, January 7, the traditional Arts District openings resumed with the participation of all but two of the major galleries. Thousands packed the streets before descending on the newly reopened Contemporary Arts Center, where jazz concerts went on well into the night. At first blush it might seem that one of America’s more vibrant art scenes had picked up where it left off, barely missing a beat. Appearances can however be deceiving. While the New Orleans art community remains vital, many artists lost homes and studios, and the city faces challenges that will take years to resolve. Anyone who travels a few miles beyond the Arts District will encounter vast stretches of ghostly, flood ravaged neighborhoods, the legacy of the largest urban diaspora in American history.

So why, with more than half the population still elsewhere, would galleries be in any rush to reopen their door? The rebirth of the art scene, like the resurrection of Mardi Gras, may reflect spirit rather than logic. Yet, spirit and tenacity have served the city well, ensuring its survival, and sometimes prosperity, for nearly three hundred years. Something of this spirit may have reinvigorated gallery dealers and artists alike. As New York Times correspondent Jere Longman wrote last December,

The hurricane inspired visual art everywhere here, be it on canvas, discarded refrigerators or tattooed arms and legs. By turns whimsical, angry and hopeful, the art explores themes of loss, impermanence and rebirth as it seeks to sculpt a kind of coherence from emotional and physical wreckage.1

Much of this was the work of artists who never left. Jeffery Holmes and Andrea Garland produced the RIP Lower 9 trash art installation along St. Claude Avenue, with its Field of Silent Screams– rows of dark Styrofoam heads on stakes meant as reminders of the Lower 9th Ward residents left stranded on their roofs. Installed on September 26, it was promptly dismantled by National Guardsmen who found it offensive. Another holdout, Jonathan Traviesa, plied the floodwaters photographing helicopter rescues in his neighborhood, which had become indistinguishable from the bayou that run through it. He later had the images transformed into plastic signs, like the printed plastics placards that appeared everywhere advertising reopened businesses. Last November, each sign was placed at the site it documented as part of his Deliverance on Bayou St. John project. Almost all local artists were affected in ways that will resonate in their work for years to come. A pink dress with Kleenex billowing from built-in pouches at a wearable art show turned out to be designer Julie Pieri’s response to being stranded at the Superdome during the flood, which she says left her with an intense desire for a clean dress and an endless supply of tissues to cry into.

The storm itself made its mark beyond the obvious destruction, leaving surreal brown bands like bathtub rings on homes, cars, and Virgin Mary lawn statues about town. No less omnipresent were the cryptic cross diagrams painted on houses by the National Guard to signify when they had been searched and whether bodies were found. Their similarity to veves, the sacred diagrams of the voodoo spirits, was not lost on the locals, who called them “National Guard voodoo symbols.” Their presence soon spread to post-Katrina artworks as well. Most mysterious of all were the elaborately handcrafted Mardi Gras Indian outfits- a St. Joseph’s Day tradition- that appeared nailed to the front of flooded homes. This outbreak of beaded and feathered attire on the facades of flood-ravaged houses added to the visual enigmas left in Katrina’s wake.

Despite such anthropological interest, the wrecked and deserted New Orleans of late September was far from fertile ground for art dealers. Displaying scant regard for the obvious, Barrister’s Gallery director Andy Antippas skirted the checkpoints as soon as the floodwaters receded, and reopened, sans electricity. Consequently, his was the sole gallery to premier a show at the start of the new art season on October 1, appropriately perhaps, with a series of canvases by well-known local painter and voodoo priestess, Sallie Ann Glassman. Serendipitously, the power was restored just before the opening, which drew a crowd of over one hundred despite the gallery’s location in an impoverished and, at the time, deserted neighborhood.

The Arthur Roger, LeMieux and Cole Pratt galleries soon followed suit, as did the Ogden Museum of Southern Art a few weeks later. The New Orleans Museum of Art Sculpture Garden reopened in December, although the Museum itself, which survived the encroaching floodwaters only to lose much of its staff to the city’s post-Katrina budget cuts, is scheduled to reopen this spring. Most other galleries, as well as the Contemporary Arts Center which suffered serious damage, reopened in early January. That, in brief, is how an American art community, written off for dead in September, came roaring back to life over the following months.

This may not be so surprising under the circumstances. Feeling betrayed by a federal government that gave us defective floodwalls and now refuses to fully repair the damage that they caused, we have become culturally militant. Visual expression is part of the mix. Banners with fleurs-de-lys, including the official horizontal tricolor city flag, are now more prevalent than the Stars and Stripes, and many art events draw larger crowds now than they did before, despite the diminished population. It is all part of a renewed dedication to a unique urban culture where all of the arts seem to bubble up from the streets rather than descending from on high. This unprecedented surge of community spirit comes from the knowledge of how close we came to losing this culture. If Washington appears less than enthusiastic about rebuilding a city sometimes regarded as an artwork in its own right, there is an increasing sense that, with a little help from our friends, that spirit may yet prevail.


References   [ + ]

1. Jere Longman, “Art Captures a City’s Tumult and Renewal,” The New York Times, 5 December 2005.