[Spiegel-Wilks Seminar student Isaac Kaplan reflects on a class research trip to New Orleans to prepare for co-curating the current ICA exhibition Do/Tell.]
Last winter, from the window of my skyscraper hotel room in New Orleans, I saw the deep purple glow of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. I wondered how such luxurious branding served the thirteen-acre sports arena, a place synonymous with the colossal failure of government after the emergency evacuation of Hurricane Katrina victims from it in 2005. A decade after the crisis, I was in New Orleans with Penn’s Spiegel-Wilks Seminar in Contemporary Art to see Prospect 3 (P.3), an art biennial hosted by museums and galleries scattered across the city. Our task was to generate ideas for Do/Tell, an exhibition the class co-curated, now open at ICA.
It was tempting, initially, to relate everything I saw to Katrina. Over time, I began to see a city struggling to articulate an identity large enough to acknowledge the continued impact of the hurricane without being subsumed by it. At its best, P.3 probed these complex feelings—the biennial imagined a city that neither denies the past nor hopelessly fixates on the ruin and neglect of Katrina’s aftermath. Instead, P.3 engaged in an open, critical dialogue with a malleable past, suggesting that art itself can empower us to renegotiate our relationship to tragedy and to forge alternative futures.
In this spirit, P.3 presented us with a prompt, not an answer—seen most clearly in its centerpiece, Tavares Strachan’s You Belong Here (2015), a giant, pink-purple neon text installation that floats down the Mississippi each evening. Its color closely matched the Superdome’s illumination. Not a statement of truth, power, or straightforward regeneration, however, the work instigates thought: “Where is the ‘here’ to which ‘you’ belong?” “Define your terms,” it demands, beseeching us to reconsider our relationship with the urban landscape.
This demand required a search—and what a beautiful search artistic director Fraklin Sirmans mounted. A quote from The Moviegoer (1961), the novel by Walker Percy that influenced the biennial, sums up Sirmans’s quest:
“The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”
Ironically, despair and loss often spur us to search. We saw artist Akosua Adoma Owusu’s film Kwaku Ananse (2013) projected at Joan Mitchell Center Studios, a two-hundred-year-old Creole plantation house in the historic Faubourg Tremé neighborhood. In the film, a young American woman journeys to Ghana to attend her estranged father’s funeral. An outsider there, she confronts her familial history and the fantastical myths that imbue it with meaning. Leaving the ceremonial site, she wanders alone into a labyrinthine, calm forest, and encountering her late father, who hands her a gourd—said to contain all of the earth’s wisdom—reenacts the Ghanaian parable Kwaku Ananse. The woman sets her gourd afloat down a bubbling creek, where it bobs with a multitude of similar forms to be reclaimed by the ocean.
This moving work inspired our ICA exhibition, Do/Tell, in the way that it deals with storytelling as constructing ideas of home, family, and identity. Kwaku Ananse screens twice a week on a porch installation at ICA made by artist Heather Hart, which also houses oral histories from West Philadelphia collected with public historian Erin Bernard.
We were also impressed by the ways in which P.3 implicitly related work by international artists to the history and culture of New Orleans, while also moving with the city’s complex texture. The biennial doubled as a tour of the city and so we discovered Tulane University’s Newcombe Gallery, the warm clutter of the Carrie Mae Weems exhibit at the George and Lea Kenna Museum (the Spiegel-Wilks Seminar researched Carrie Mae Weems’s ICA exhibition to prepare for Do/Tell), and the gentrification prompted by white-cube-style galleries like UNO St. Claude. At UNO, we saw The Living Need Light and the Dead Need Music by the Propeller Group collective.
This highly aestheticized video drew parallels between New Orleans and Vietnam, revealing the interrelation of performance and death in both funerary practices and carnivalesque spaces. Rapid jump cuts intertwined fantastical, surreal close-ups of Vietnamese sword swallowers with slow, unbroken tracking shots of mourners floating a coffin down a jungle river, and views of famed New Orleans funeral marches, which memorialize death through brassy, highly orchestrated music. The film reveals two geographically disparate locations united by, among other things, a search for meaning through spectacle.
By making the city visible and by connecting New Orleans to other places though the universality of “the search,” P.3 proved generative in ways that many established international exhibitions aren’t. As it continues to evolve, this biennial is for New Orleans and her people. They are the ones who will look at the images that surround them and imagine a future for their city. It is their search.
By Isaac Kaplan and Kimberly Schreiber