Prospect New Orleans: Carpetbagging the Crescent City

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, it killed more than 1,800 people and wreaked havoc to the tune of $ 155 billion. The storm has also ripped the scabs from America’s historic wounds to expose dire inequalities. Since then, the infamous Louisiana Superdome – where up to 30,000 residents were forced to shelter for days in appalling conditions – has been renamed by Mercedes-Benz, then Caesars Entertainment; gentrification is rapidly taking hold in the traditionally working-class neighborhoods of Bywater and Tremé (although potholes remain empty and schools closed long before Katrina); and the decimated Lower Ninth Ward lies fallow, its overgrown grounds mired in paperwork as much as in vines. Many deed holders are nowhere to be found, and where the owners prefer not to undergo due process, they sell to the city for a pittance. So hard not to feel the beards in the title of the local art triennial, launched shortly after Katrina in 2008: Prospect. A signal of hope, yes, but also a word to survey real estate and financial speculation. Is Crescent City increasing or decreasing? And who will emerge victorious?

Beverley Buchanan, No door, no window, 1988, wood, sheet metal and acrylic, 37 × 23 × 19 cm. Courtesy of: © Prospect New Orleans; photograph: Jonathan Traviesa

As artistic booster blockbusters proliferate around the world, Prospect could be unique in naming tourism as an explicit goal in an attempt to boost the city’s economy. The Prospect website indicates that each edition attracts 100,000 visitors and generates US $ 10 million in “economic impact”, of which “US $ 800,000 in municipal and state tax revenues.” (For comparison, the tourism industry as a whole brings in US $ 10.5 billion a year to New Orleans.) However, if stopping by Venice for the Biennale is one thing, washing up with a sculpture in the Lower Ninth Ward before retreating to one of the country’s other two countries. ribs is quite another. As a result, in Prospect, the usual guilt that arises from the “parachuting” of artists for a group show is particularly palpable. To be fair, many have made efforts to improve the lives of NOLA residents in more tangible ways than art permits. For example, according to the Prospect.5 website, Houston-based artist Adriana Corral dropped her original proposal to “work directly with the communities” affected by Hurricane Ida – the Gulf Coast’s most recent mega-storm – in presumably channeling its order costs directly to the base.

With the lessons learned from Prospect. 1 (Art Director Dan Cameron’s original roster of world-class talent was duly criticized for including only 11 out of 80 Louisiana-based artists), subsequent editions have all winked. eye to local spaces and “satellite” broadcasts. In this regard, the runted Prospect.1.5 – a city-wide celebration imagined to bridge the gap between Prospect.1 and Prospect.2 by Cameron, who has largely outsourced curation to galleries and collectives. premises – was a surprising success. Likewise, Franklin Sirmans and Trevor Schoonmaker, who respectively took the reins of Prospect.3 and Prospect.4, sought to deepen the Triennale’s relationship with its host city, beyond economic improvement and local signifiers. evident from Mardi Gras and Gothic decline, in an attempt to update Prospect purpose.

Mark Bradford, Mithra, 2008
Marc Bradford, Mithras, 2008, installation view, Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans. Courtesy of: © the artist and Prospect New Orleans; photograph: John d’Addario

Now, rocked and delayed by COVID-19 and Hurricane Ida, there is Prospect. 5. The show, curated by Naima J. Keith and Diana Nawi, is titled “Yesterday, We Said Tomorrow” and comes with a sense of deferred payment, not to say justice. (Demographics watchers will notice that Prospect.5 is the first female-hosted iteration.) After all, yesterday’s tomorrow is today. The political vector of this edition feels concerned not only by the revival of New Orleans but by the city as a metaphor for the country as a whole. The most pressing issues of the day – conservative backlash, racial justice and climate change – are shown here in bold. The city has been a major port for centuries, collapsing all the time in the Mississippi Delta, which of course means New Orleans was a hub during the slave trade. Today, the city’s class disparity and racial segregation seem to be perfectly pronounced metaphors for the whole of the United States, as the engulfed Lower Ninth Ward has come to represent the plight of vulnerable and weak neighborhoods. returned to a time of wild climate.

Dawoud Bey, 'Canne à sucre I', 2019
Dawoud Bey, Sugar cane I, 2019, gelatin silver print, 1.2 × 1.5 m. Courtesy of: © the artist and Prospect New Orleans; photograph: José Cotto

Good intentions abound, but what can be, for example, Oyster readings (2021), from London duo Cooking Sections (Alon Schwabe and Daniel Fernández Pascual), tells us about the warming seas when punters from the art world at the 2019 Venice Biennale strolled through restaurants awash in slippers for use. unique? At the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the colorful little houses of the late Beverly Buchanan, built with leftovers and tongue depressors, had more of an impact, especially the stilts Low country house (2010) and the dead end No door, no window (1988). Also at the Ogden Museum, Celeste Dupuy-Spencer’s nightmarish modern history paintings, including one of last year’s attacks on the United States Capitol (Can’t you see that I’m burning, 2021), and the lyrical HD of Daywoud Bey drifts through the plantations of Louisiana (Evergreen, 2021), occupy an equally satisfying ground between sharp curation and hazy formalism. There’s also Kevin Beasley’s plan to buy property in the Ninth Ward, represented at the Contemporary Arts Center by a suite of lush graphite drawings of depopulated lots (The Lower 9th Quarter I – V, all 2021).

Paul Stephen Benjamin 'Sanctuary' 2021
Paul Stephen Benjamin, Sanctuary, 2021, metallic black bricks and light, 4 × 5 m. Courtesy of: © the artist and Prospect New Orleans; photograph: José Cotto

The most encouraging are therefore a handful of projects, both from art stars and regional luminaries, which address the city directly, with interventions specific to sites which seemed less intended to visit enthusiasts like me. only to residents who rub shoulders with them on a daily basis and can guess their context. These include Paul Stephen Benjamin Sanctuary (2021), a black brick and purple neon monument within the precincts of the former living quarters of the Tremé slaves, and Sharon Hayes’ video portraits of New Orleans homosexuals walking through town (If we had had, 2021), housed in a renovated but not rented bar in Bywater – the two quarters of the gentrification cambium zone.

The other savvy trend in Keith and Nawi’s vision is self-reflection: Prospect.5 includes projects from five alumni of Prospect.1. Mark Bradford is back: his effort here is wiser, and perhaps more honest, than Mithras (2008) – his remarkably muted sculptural intervention of a “bow,” consisting of his signature plywood and steel shipping containers, at the site of a former funeral home in the Lower Ninth Ward – though just as globalist and over-brand. During COVID-19 closures, Bradford kept his studio assistants on the payroll and had them mold basketballs into lumpy globes: a grid of 112 of them adorns a wall in the Center for Contemporary Art (Mallus Crates, 2021). Dave McKenzie – who, in his original project for Prospect.1, I’ll be back (2008), vowed to return to New Orleans every year for 10 years – undertook another subtle project, to bury his father’s ashes in a local mausoleum (831-195-G Hope, 2021).

Sharon Hayes,
Sharon Hayes, If we had had, 2021, 7-channel HD color video, variable dimensions. Courtesy of: © the artist and Prospect New Orleans; photograph: José Cotto

Nari Ward’s contribution, in particular, illustrates the change in tone since the first Prospect. This time around he remixed the sound collage he made for P.1 as Battlefield Beacon (2021), a cosmic cacophony of black chants, ragas and affirmations emitted every hour from a mobile searchlight tower of the type typically used by police to monitor residents of low-income areas, converted into loudspeakers. The play did not seem very risky in the closed parking lot of the UNO gallery, softly audible from the street. However, it will move to other sites. More importantly, I was thankfully excluded from the work’s main audience – the New Orleans people, for whom the purring masts injecting daylight into their second-story windows and gasoline fumes in their cobbled streets are a daily reality. Like any well-meaning tourist, I’ll be heading north soon, my bag of rugs a few dollars less, while the city of New Orleans rolls around.

Prospect. 5 is on view through January 23 at various locations in New Orleans, US.

Main picture: Céleste Dupuy-Spencer, Can’t you see that I’m burning, 2021, oil on canvas, 2.2 × 2.2 m. Courtesy of: © the artist and Prospect New Orleans; photograph: Jonathan Traviesa

About Margaret L. Portillo

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