Changing Course for the Tricentennial
NOMA awarded Museum Exhibition of the Year
2018, New Orleans’ tricentennial year, was one of celebration, commemoration, and reflection. Cultural institutions and community groups, along with audiences both public and private, marked the occasion with panel discussions, radio podcasts, published anthologies, speeches, ceremonies, performances, and exhibitions. For the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), the tricentennial offered an opportunity to explore marginalized and underrepresented histories through the work of seven contemporary artists or artist collectives. The resulting exhibition, Changing Course: Reflections on New Orleans Histories, is the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities choice for 2019 Museum Exhibition of the Year.
Changing Course, on view at NOMA June 29–September 16, 2018, challenged visitors to consider fundamental questions of authority and prompted discussions on the role of cultural institutions in shaping artistic and historical narratives. What makes an event worthy of historical inquiry? Whose stories are told? Whose are suppressed? Can the everyday lives of everyday people be worthy of artistic and historical examination? These were guiding questions for exhibition curators Russell Lord, Katie Pfohl, Brian Piper, and Allison Young in their selection of Katrina Andry, Willie Birch, Lesley Dill, The Everyday Projects, Skylar Fein, L. Kasimu Harris, and The Propeller Group as the artists and artist collectives whose work was included in the show. Together, the artists addressed discrete moments and figures in the city’s history as well as longer chronologies, especially those centered on explorations of race and uneven access to resources.
Skylar Fein: Remember the UpStairs Lounge
Coinciding with the forty-fifth anniversary of the UpStairs Lounge fire that claimed the lives of thirty-two people in 1973, artist Skylar Fein’s installation Remember the UpStairs Lounge looks back at the tragedy that took place at the popular French Quarter gay bar, while also continuing the conversation around ongoing violence against LGBTQ communities. Fein’s installation, which debuted in New Orleans as part of the first iteration of the international art biennial Prospect.1 in 2008, has been part of NOMA’s permanent collection since 2013.
Lesley Dill: Hell Hell Hell / Heaven Heaven Heaven, 2010
In Hell Hell Hell / Heaven Heaven Heaven: Encountering Sister Gertrude Morgan and Revelation, New York–based artist Lesley Dill pays tribute to the New Orleans artist, preacher, musician, and poet Sister Gertrude Morgan. Dill, through her intricately-wrought paper and textile works, channeled the power of Morgan’s religious—and sometimes apocalyptic—visions to create an immersive environment. Acquired by NOMA in 2014, Hell Hell Hell / Heaven Heaven Heaven first wowed Louisiana audiences at Arthur Roger Gallery in 2010.
L. Kasimu Harris: War on the Benighted #1, 2015
In NOMA’s Great Hall—an imposing classical space marked by white tile floors, massive columns, and a central marble stairway—L. Kasimu Harris’s photographic series War on the Benighted provided a striking contrast. In large-format photoprints Harris chronicles his work with New Orleans schoolchildren, most of whom attend public charter schools, which have come to dominate the city’s educational landscape. His photos place African American history at the center of a visual narrative that confronts stereotypes of youth and race and questions the history of public education in New Orleans.
Katrina Andry: Diverge Divest Deny (repeat), 2018
Created specifically for Changing Course, Katrina Andry’s installation Diverge Divest Deny (repeat) considers how large-scale infrastructure projects, including the construction of Interstate 10 through the Tremé neighborhood in the 1970s, have impacted historically black communities. Andry took the Interstate 10 controversy as a starting point for further reflection on how racial and economic disparities were evident in the uneven rebuilding of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
The Propeller Group: The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music, 2014
A collaboration between Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Phunam Thuc Ha, and Matt Lucero, The Propeller Group has one foot in America and the other in Vietnam. Their film The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music offers a powerful meditation on the cyclical nature of time and history, drawing points of connection between the musical and funerary traditions of New Orleans and those of south Vietnam. Acquired by NOMA in 2015, the film debuted as part of Prospect.3 in 2014.
Willie Birch: Waiting for a Serious Conversation About the History of New Orleans, 2017
Willie Birch’s multimedia installation includes hand-pieced quilts, gilded beef bones (donated sans gilding by Birch’s friend and neighbor Leah Chase), woven sweetgrass creations, and his signature acrylic and charcoal works on paper. In a dedicated gallery, Birch addressed the longest sweep of the city’s past, speaking simultaneously to specific historical events, such as the 1811 German Coast Slave Revolt, and the artist’s present-day efforts to develop a contemporary-art–centered community in New Orleans’ Seventh Ward.
#EverydayNewOrleans: Joshua, a student at Esperanza Charter School, captured this photo during an #EverydayNewOrleans workshop in 2018.
NOMA embraced the power of community-driven art through the #EverydayNewOrleans project, an educational outreach initiative that encourages everyday people to turn the photographic lens—usually in the form of a smartphone—on themselves, their friends, and their communities. In partnership with the New Orleans Photo Alliance and The Everyday Projects, NOMA facilitated a series of workshops across the metro area that leveraged The Everyday Projects curriculum, which uses social media to combat clichéd representations of communities worldwide, to build a more representative understanding of New Orleans. Photos from the workshops were included in Changing Course, accompanied by prompts asking visitors to reflect on their own #EverydayNewOrleans.
Celebrate the New Orleans Museum of Art and all of the 2019 Humanities Award winners on April 4 at the Bright Lights Awards Dinner in Lafayette. For more information and tickets, visit www.leh.org/brightlights.