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Issue 137

Prospect.4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp
by Sylvie Fortin

Curated by Trevor Schoonmaker, The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp – the latest edition of the New Orleans Triennial – assembled works by 73 artists. While the works were presented in 17 venues around the city and across the Mississippi River in Algiers, the majority were concentrated in New Orleans’s three predominant art institutions. Such institutional dependency significantly impacts Prospect.4’s approach to display, with two strategies dominating: tightly confined solo presentations sequentially organized and easy juxtapositions relying on material resonance, formal play or thematic connections. The selection of artists, more diverse than prior editions of Prospect, was very promising yet the exhibition failed to mobilize the full meaning and potential of diversity. Too often, we are served up orthodoxies that arrest the potency of the works. This is all the more surprising in New Orleans, where cultures of display reign supreme.

Gracing the walls of the New Orleans Museum of Art’s Great Hall, Barkley L. Hendricks’ 11 portraits– black, beautiful, confident and in control – welcome viewers. Half of these works are from the mid-1970s, and half from the 2010s, confining Hendricks’ five decades of practice to a familiar narrative arc that is also a current market favourite. The curator clearly intended to celebrate community and redress historical omissions with cool, matter-of-fact understatement, but the dynamics of the space trumped curatorial intention. Tightly squeezed between pilasters and often visually bisected by Ionic columns, the portraits are arrested, isolated and at times amputated. This great white-marble edifice of culture prevents the subjects from coming together – and with us – to issue a challenge. In addition, NOMA’s Great Hall is a highly sought-after entertainment space. This means that Hendricks’ works will unforgivably serve as a “cool” background for many weddings and corporate events. Elsewhere, Hendricks’ still-life Innocence and Friend (1977) is installed amongst 15th-century works. While this type of intervention was once provocative and playfully critical, it has now devolved into curatorial fashion – an easy, convenient way to feign institutional self-reflexivity or innovative scholarship.

Ambivalent engagement with the collection continues upstairs, where we traverse permanent collection galleries to get to Dawit L. Petros’ extraordinary The Stranger’s Notebook (2016). Here, the juxtaposition is startling: after strolling through works by late-19th-century painters – paeans to modernity and industry, and portrayals of women in elaborate interiors tinged with orientalist fantasies – we arrive at Petros’ photographs of contemporary migration. Petros’ images displace the gaze – and the crisis – from the shores of the Mediterranean to the multiplicity and complexities of African departures. His figures look away, to unknowable distant shores. Some hold up a mirror on their shoulder, stressing both the burden and the need to deflect our gaze. They leave behind the wrecks of our modernity.

In Historical Rupture (2016), 12 prints of various sizes are clustered on two adjoining walls, from floor to ceiling. Water, sparkling, everywhere: opaque and transparent, in and out of focus, tranquil or agitated, viewed from the shore, from above, in the wake of a boat or meeting the horizon line. The work evokes the migrant’s experience of the journey at sea: the dizzying succession of views and impressions, the loss of stable references, the indeterminacy of arrival, the slowing of time. Two small silver images “bracket” the work: close-ups of silver emergency blankets, barely different from the shimmering sea. Nearby, the collaborative work of Gauri Gill and Rajesh Vangad, exquisite black-ink drawings over black-and-white pigment prints similarly recast the relationship between two modes of image- and world-making. Leaving this gallery, one traverses a gallery of post-impressionist French and American works, drawing on photography and the science of vision. And so, one way or the other, the works of Petros, Gill and Vangad are framed by the fantasies of Western modernity, squeezed between orientalism and affirmative science.

In Prospect.4, the unease of institutional collaboration is most acutely felt at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, where the institution’s welcome is, at best, lukewarm. Here, Prospect.4 is given the top-floor space and a handful of small galleries two floors down, amidst – and barely discernible from – the museum’s collection. The Contemporary Art Center (CAC) remains Prospect.4’s main partner, with two floors dedicated to 26 participating artists. Visible from the street, Rina Banerjee’s fantastic new work * Viola… (2017) entices walkers-by, connecting city and gallery, as the work unearths a fascinating connection between Bengal and Louisiana, casting both communities in a new light. Walking into the lobby, the soundtrack of Evan Ifekoya’s Disco Breakdown (2014) welcomes viewers.

The ground-floor space cramps together all of Prospect.4’s large-scale sculptural works. Next to Banerjee’s sprawling, evanescent sculpture, Rebecca Belmore’s Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother (1991) is shoehorned into the space, reduced to an object, with little room for either audience participation or amplification.

In the second-floor space, Kader Attia’s Halam Tawaaf (2008) greets viewers with a large, circular floor installation of 2,978 bent, empty beer cans installed around an empty square – a critical commentary on consumption, spirituality and religion, which also animates Brad Kahlhamer’s Super Catcher, Relay Catchers (2017) and Jillian Mayer’s video You’ll Be Okay (2014). Here, however, and much like on the ground floor, material and motif overdetermine and limit the reading of the works: Kahlhamer’s bells and wire, Attia’s beer cans, and the found objects of Penny Siopis’ World of Zulu (2017); Minerva Cuevas’ Hershey labels versus Attia’s beer cans; and so on. Uneasily reduced to such homology, the works of Abbas Akhavan, Zineb Sedira and Cauleen Smith get short-changed. By contrast, the work of Alfredo Jaar is allocated disproportionate space.

Many of the strongest works in Prospect.4 are found outside of institutions. In Kahlil Joseph’s three-channel installation, Wildcat (Aunt Jane) (2016), presented at Prospect.4’s welcome centre, three transparent screens suspended in a triangle create haunting image and sound overlays, reminding us of the now-little-known quest to make Oklahoma a free Black state, and pointing to the rich community-constituting interplay of Indigenous and African cultures in New Orleans, historically and today. Other standouts include Hồng-Ân Trương’s installation To Speak a Language (2012), which amplifies New Orleans’ multiple connections to Vietnam in Crescent Park, a new park along the Mississippi River, where Jennifer Odem’s and Radcliffe Bailey’s standout public sculptures are also found.

Odili Donald Odita’s exemplary project Indivisible and Invincible: Monument to Black Liberation and Celebration in the City of New Orleans (2017) truly engages the city, drawing an alternative map by connecting 20 sites with boldly coloured abstract flags. Odita’s project reminds us of our debt to New Orleans’s African American community, to its resilience, fierce openness and hospitality, celebrating places and events with the ever-changing fluttering and flapping of cloth in the wind, instead of the burdensome vulgarity of monuments.

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