These are divisive times, and therefore challenging ones in which to organize a large thematic group exhibition that strives for interconnection, but artistic director Trevor Schoonmaker pulled it off with the fourth edition of the New Orleans art festival Prospect. The exhibited artists embraced the empowerment of claiming visibility and space, while imbuing their work with a sense of urgency for resistance and social change. Without retreating into denial or escapism, the gathering, true to its title, “The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp,” was a dose of optimism in dark times.
Schoonmaker steered well clear of the pitfalls that plague many biennials and festivals, like regurgitating familiar artist lists dominated by commercially successful, white, male practitioners; representing multiplicity with a disjointed jumble of miscellany; or treating the host city as incidental. His curation was purposeful, thoughtful, and edifying—more than half of the 73 artists in Prospect.4 (or P.4 for short), whose works were installed in 17 locations throughout the city, are little-known in the United States. And for the most part, their work linked with remarkable clarity to the exhibition’s curatorial themes, which connected in different ways to the history, demographics, and hybrid culture of New Orleans: diasporic people, with an emphasis on African-American and Afro-Caribbean cultures; the legacies of colonialism; carnival culture; music, especially jazz; and the impact of climate change.
Many works focused on dispersed peoples, including refugees and immigrants, and seemed to be the result of cross-cultural fusion. Dawit L. Petros, born in Eritrea and raised in Canada, explored migration in The Stranger’s Notebook, a conceptually complex installation of photographs, video, and sound grounded in a journey the artist took from Nigeria to Amsterdam. A handful of works represented the perspective of indigenous populations, including Rebecca Belmore’s striking seven-foot-long sculpture of birch bark and wood that doubles as a megaphone; Brad Kahlhamer’s oversize dreamcatchers of intricately twisted metal wire and bells that appear to shimmer and pulsate with energy; and Darryl Montana’s sumptuous Mardi Gras costumes that envelop the body in a colorful cocoon of feathers and beads.
Colonialism and its aftermath was a theme throughout P.4. Among the most moving works were Kiluanji Kia Henda’s photographs of fellow Angolan countrymen and -women posing atop vacant pedestals that once held statues glorifying European colonizers. Schoonmaker wanted P.4 to draw parallels between the American South and the global South, and nowhere did it do so more forcefully than in the placement of Henda’s photographs one block away from a traffic circle anchored by an empty base that, until recently, elevated the likeness of Robert E. Lee.
Several P.4 artists took on the history of New Orleans, which is currently celebrating its tricentennial. Xaviera Simmons mined Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s infamous 2017 speech for a video about why the Confederate monuments needed to go; during the opening weekend, she gave an impassioned gallery talk in which her frustration over racial inequity in America brought her to the verge of tears. Several works directly or obliquely referenced the city’s past as the site of the nation’s largest antebellum slave market. Whether or not they were created with that intention, Katherine Bradford’s paintings of otherworldly ships here took on the weight of the triangle trade. Within a dark gallery, Alfredo Jaar projected a serene still photograph of the Atlantic Ocean, its surface dappled with light. Only when informed that the image was shot on the coast of Angola facing in the direction of Brazil does one realize that One Million Points of Light refers to the millions violently forced into the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Appropriately for New Orleans, music was one of P.4’s most persistent thematic threads. The Jazz Museum at the Old Mint held a sampling of the sometimes naughty, little-known collages that jazz great Louis Armstrong made in the final two decades of his life, as well as Satch Hoyt’s tambourines linked into chains attached to mirrors to form endless columns, or halved and assembled into crosses reminiscent of the city’s famous ironwork; and there were two installations by Dario Robleto, one featuring preserved, mounted butterflies with antennae made of audio tape delicately perched on the edges of the fossilized inner-ear bones of whales, and the other a collaboration with the record label Dust-to-Digital to preserve early gospel music.
Elsewhere, the musical theme continued with one of P.4’s commissioned works, John Akomfrah’s multichannel video work Precarity, which dramatizes the life and times of a legendary early twentieth-century musician named Charles “Buddy” Boden. Boden’s unusual music stylings predate the form that became known as jazz, but his innovations were cut short when he was committed to a Louisiana insane asylum in 1907. Despite its fascinating subject and seductive cinematography, Akomfrah’s work ultimately disappointed, relying too heavily on romantic cinematic tropes like slow-motion pans, period clothing, and lingering shots of actors gazing into the distance. The lack of dialogue, music, or narrative is reportedly deliberate, but Precarity frustrated as an extended, dreamy backdrop for a drama that never actualizes.
Climate change and pollution continue to be direct threats to New Orleans. Of the many works that touched on the subject, the most immediately relevant were those that reference the Mississippi and the Gulf. Jeff Whetstone’s photographs and videos document Vietnamese immigrants who depend on the river’s natural resources for their livelihood. Local artist Jennifer Odem fashions elegant sculptures through the simple gesture of stacking furniture into Brancusi-like towers on the banks of the river, mimicking coastal homeowners’ habit of placing treasured possessions atop their houses’ highest reaches when flooding occurs.
P.4 was so tightly curated, the head scratching inclusions were few and far between. Yoko Ono was represented by a text piece installed in two locations asking, “Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?” It feels curmudgeonly to contest the presence of such a wise elder stateswoman, but how that sentence connected to the themes of P.4 struck this viewer as opaque. Hank Willis Thomas’s contribution was especially perplexing: instead of his usual deft and pointed appropriations of media images, he gave us a one-ton bronze statue of an armored boy riding an enormous snail into battle. Apparently based on a seventeenth-century sculpture by German artist Jeremias Ritter in which the snail’s rider is intended to be North African, the piece has shades of storybook fantasy, but also calls to mind a cheesy collectible.
The biggest misstep in P.4 was Taiyo Kimura’s set of seven identical sculptures placed throughout the Contemporary Art Center galleries, ostensibly to be used as stools by security guards. The stool takes the form of a child, face buried in bent arms, crouching as if bracing for a crash or experiencing a trauma. Inviting people to sit on the neck and shoulders of a seemingly imperiled child felt insensitive, and the photos of people gleefully doing so posted to social media made matters worse.
Organizing a citywide festival of this scale is no easy task, and Prospect operates with a relatively small staff and budget, making imperfections forgivable. A calliope commissioned from Kara Walker that was to have gone on view when P.4 opened was delayed and will go on view this weekend for the show’s closing festivities. (This may have been a blessing in disguise for the other exhibiting artists, who likely would have fallen under the shadow of a large, complex project by one of the country’s most celebrated talents.) Even finding some of the artworks was challenging, due to inadequate signage. I ferried across the Mississippi to Algiers Point to see Mark Dion’s installation but failed to find it. I did locate the beautifully sited and subtle sound pieces by Radcliffe Bailey and Hong-An Truong, and the aforementioned sculptures by Odem in Crescent Park, but only after getting help from people who’d already managed to do so.
Too often, international biennials plop down the work of artists from around the world with little regard to the location in which the work is being exhibited. Prospect, by contrast, has a strong record of including local artists (though arguably not quite enough of them). Married New Orleans artists Quintron and Miss Pussycat injected welcome quirkiness into P.4, with their jury-rigged inventions and handmade puppets begging to be activated. Among the best works installed in public places was Israeli artist Naama Tsabar’s performance in Washington Park that followed P.4’s opening-day ribbon cutting. Tsabar arranged amplifiers and speakers in the center of the park’s lawn, placing on each a local female musician singing and playing instruments. It was entirely delightful.
Since it started in 2008, Prospect has been the American festival-type exhibition (setting aside the more established, museum-based ones like the Whitney Biennial and the Carnegie International), but that may soon change. Two new biennials will debut in 2018, in Cleveland and Kansas City (the latter organized by Prospect founder Dan Cameron). It remains to be seen how relevant and impactful they will be to local, regional, and wider audiences. One hopes they will take a cue from Prospect and concentrate on being focused, attentive, and responsive, and not merely an exertion of outside forces that might do more to widen divides than to bridge them.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of ARTnews on page 98 under the title “Prospect.4.”