At Prospect New Orleans, Artists Reckon with the Past to Address Crises of the Present

Tori Bush
Nov 17, 2021 11:04PM

Keni Anwar, installation view of Untitled (i am…), 2021, in Prospect.5 at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans, 2021. Photo by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee. Courtesy of Prospect New Orleans.

The first edition of Prospect New Orleans opened in November 2008, just three years after Hurricane Katrina forever marked the city, highlighting the systemic injustices faced by communities of color across the Gulf Coast. That inheritance lives loudly in Prospect’s fifth iteration, “Yesterday we said tomorrow,” curated by Naima J. Keith and Diana Nawi. This year’s exhibition sees 51 artists across 16 different venues bringing together themes of violence from enslavement, Indigenous genocide, and more recent subjugations such as the invisibility of migrants and environmental degradation. The wake of history lingers forcefully in how these artists think through their artwork today.

Just as the first Prospect launched during the long recovery phase of an emergency, so, too, has Prospect.5. Though the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the destruction caused across Louisiana by Hurricane Ida this past August have dampened the opening of this exhibition, in some ways, these crises have made this year’s edition all the more relevant and needed in the city. While previous iterations of the triennial have opened with a bang, this fall, Prospect.5 opened relatively quietly, launching a few venues at a time over the course of the past month, and moving its official gala to January 2022.

Ron Bechet, Transformation, 2021. Photo by Jeffery Johnston. Courtesy of the Newcomb Art Museum and Prospect New Orleans.

Barbara Chase-Riboud, Little Gold Flag, 2007. Photo by Jeffery Johnston. Courtesy of the Newcomb Art Museum and Prospect New Orleans.


At Tulane University’s Newcomb Art Museum, Ron Bechet’s large-scale charcoal drawing For My Fathers (2014) hints at one of the major themes of Prospect.5—the complex and inextricable systems connecting our uncertain futures to our troubling pasts. His work depicts undulating, interconnected organic material so densely combined that it is impossible to extricate one form from another. These entangled forms bring to mind the way the dense pipes seen in oil and gas facilities today are located on top of the sugar and cotton plantations that once dotted the Mississippi River. In this way, Bechet illustrates quite literally how the roots of the past are inextricably bound up in the very energy we use to power tomorrow.

Complementing Bechet’s works are visual artist and poet Barbara Chase-Riboud’s bronze and silk sculptures. While Bechet’s entangled roots are grounded, Chase-Riboud’s forms seem as if they’re gearing up for flight. In Mao’s Organ (2007), thick strands of silk cascade from polished bronze, embracing the tension between weighty metal and the quicksilver complexity of fiber. “That is a good description of my poetry: tension and gravitational pull, balance and counterbalance, flights of levitation out of the burden of contradictions, description, ambiguity, devious construction, and constructivism,” said Chase-Riboud in an interview with Callaloo.

Elliot Hundley, installation view of The Balcony, 2020–21, in Prospect.5 at Newcomb Gallery, New Orleans, 2021. Photo by Jeffery Johnston. Courtesy of the artist and Prospect New Orleans.

Elliott Hundley’s epic collage and encaustic work Balcony (2020–21) completes the rhizomatic collection. The massive work intricately layers paper cutouts of historical and contemporary figures, body parts, numbers, and objects such as guns, plants, and animals. Each of the collage’s panels reimagines ideas, themes, or imagery from Jean Genet’s 1956 play The Balcony, which takes place in a brothel during a revolution. Hundley’s interpretation ties together threads of history, materiality, the body, and the life of individuals to describe complicated, multifaceted realities.

Outside of the Newcomb Art Museum, video installations populate sites across the city. In Rodney McMillian’s God is in The Whip (2017–20), the artist reads from Barry Goldwater’s Republican manifesto “The Conscience of a Conservative” while wearing a Ronald Reagan mask and a red smoking jacket, and carrying a whip. Unlike many of the other video installations in Prospect.5, McMillian’s work feels like a recording of a performance for an audience. By contrast, Dawoud Bey’s multimedia video installation Evergreen (2021) in the Historic New Orleans Collection takes a somewhat more documentarian approach and aims to underscore the formal, three-dimensional qualities of the medium.

Rodney McMillian, God is in The Whip, 2017–20. Photo by Jose Cotto. Courtesy of the artist and Prospect New Orleans.

In Bey’s work, lush images of the slave quarters of Louisiana plantations haunt the screen while composer Imani Uzuri’s vocalizations call back to Black spirituals and operatic performances. Using three screens, Bey’s installation contemplates the same object from different angles, effectively making a large oak tree—its branches so heavy they hang near the ground—an object observed through multiple times and spaces, effectively connecting a horrific past with our present. Elsewhere in the exhibition, on the second floor of the Contemporary Art Center, Sky Hopinka’s The Island Weights and Keni Anwar’s Untitled (i am…) (both 2021) present riveting videos highlighting how violence inflicted upon the land is often replicated onto Black and Indigenous bodies.

Also at the Contemporary Art Center is Eric-Paul Riege’s installation + [pronounced t’] (2021). Made up of four llamas hanging between woven floor-to-ceiling curtains of fiber and white and black exclamation-like forms, the work forces viewers to move around and through the installation in order to see it from all sides, interacting with the llamas as if they were playful sentinels pointing to the four corners of the world.

Keni Anwar, installation view of Untitled (i am…), 2021, in Prospect.5 at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans, 2021. Photo by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee. Courtesy of Prospect New Orleans.

Across the street, the Neighborhood Story Project presents the work Called to Spirit: Women and Healing Arts of New Orleans (2020), a deeply researched historic and ethnographic account of how Voudou and other spiritual groups offered space and empowerment to women throughout history, as well as today. Brightly decorated altars are filled with flowers and offerings to past leaders such as Marie Laveau and Sister Catherine Seals. Photos of current practitioners are accompanied by stories of how they came to their spiritual practices, enveloping the rooms with an aura of deep traditions passed down through generations.

Another artist exploring the cultural communities of New Orleans through material is Candice Lin. Her installation Swamp Fat (2021), at U.N.O. Gallery, uses lard sourced from Louisiana butchers mixed with clay from Saint Malo, Louisiana, the first known Asian American settlement in the U.S. The installation feels like a geographic model of the waterways of Louisiana—marbleized sculptures and defiled animals populate the shores, recalling the mid-19th-century problem of slaughterhouse runoff in the Mississippi River.

The Neighborhood Story Project (Rachel Breunlin and Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes), installation view of “Called to Spirit: Women and Healing Arts of New Orleans” at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans, 2021. Photo by Jonathan Traviesa. Courtesy of Prospect New Orleans.

The pollution became so rampant that it led to a series of Supreme Court litigations known as the Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873. “The use of lard comes from historical descriptions of the Mississippi River being so polluted with animal carcasses and offal that it became gelatinous,” explained Lin in an interview with BOMB magazine. “The state tried to structure how slaughterhouses were allowed to operate, and that led to the Slaughterhouse Cases, marking the first use of the 14th Amendment—which was designed to protect emancipated slaves. But here it was misused by white butchers objecting to having to share space with Black butchers and butchers of other races.” The artist’s use of animal fat highlights how communities of color and their citizenship rights are deeply entwined with animality and who is perceived as human.

A final theme permeating throughout the exhibition is representation and the body’s ability to carry the past. Katrina Andry’s gorgeous woodcut prints use the artist’s own corporeality to explore how colorism persists in society’s beauty standards. Meanwhile, Sharon Hayes’s video installations follow Queer people as they pass through New Orleans, their walks highlighting how they are seen or not seen in the landscape.

George Dureau, installation view in Prospect.5 at the Historic New Orleans Collection, New Orleans, 2021. Photo by Jose Cotto. Courtesy of Prospect New Orleans.

At the Historic New Orleans Collection, George Dureau’s photographs of nude men and women—a precursor to Robert Mapplethorpe’s images—ask the viewer to engage with the sexuality of his subjects, questioning which bodies are traditionally viewed as sexual. Malcolm Peacock’s We Served (2021) is an intimate performance centered around serving food and sitting together in silence to eat. The work invites one audience member at a time to sit silently with Peacock over a serving of rice and red beans. Throughout the performance, the artist plays an audio recording of himself running while reciting words that muse on the myriad forms of touch, both pleasurable and abusive. As his breath gets heavy and then quiet, the tension of his words and his body fills the room.

The body, the breath, history, and the troubled ecologies in which we coexist are all interconnected throughout the various venues of Prospect.5. Only by walking between the spaces and through New Orleans do these ideas enact themselves on the street and echo into the future of the city itself.

Tori Bush
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019