Sunday, November 3, 2013

Camille Henrot at NOMA; Emory Douglas at McKenna

This exhibition is visually spare, but goes straight to the heart of the paradoxes that define coastal Louisiana. French artist and Venice Biennale award winner Camille Henrot uses videos and symbolic objects to portray Louisiana's receding coast and the people it supports. By implicitly comparing it to Brittany's mythic city of Ys--which was lost to the sea after the devil seduced the king's daughter into giving him the key to the dyke that protected it--Henrot evokes Louisiana's Faustian bargain with the oil industry, which over decades ravaged vast expanses of marshes that once protected our cities, indirectly causing them to flood. Her subplot is the plight of the Houma Indians, those modest yet resilient inhabitants of Louisiana's coast whose own Faustian bargain involved adopting the language of their Cajun neighbors, with whom they sometimes intermarried. Their flair for cultural camouflage enabled them to effectively blend in, but it also caused the federal Department of Indian Affairs to routinely deny their appeals for official tribal status. Henrot records their travails as they try to deal with modern America and its powerful oil industry as their ancestral lands continue to wash out from under them.

Issues involving identity are illustrated in Emory Douglas' classic poster graphics at McKenna. As the Black Panther Party's Minister of Culture during its 1960s and 1970s heyday, Douglas produced many posters illustrating its concerns. Its Louisiana ties (beyond Baton Rouge-born co-founder Huey Newton) are most poignantly illustrated in his Free the Angola Three poster based on three Black Panther activists at Angola prison who spent decades in solitary confinement for murdering a guard in a case so flawed that even the guard's widow said they were innocent. In October, one of them, Herman Wallace, was freed only to die a few days later of liver cancer. Their concerns clearly live on today. ~D. Eric Bookhardt

 Cities of Ys: Mixed Media by Camille Henrot, Through Feb. 23, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100; The Classic Works of Emory Douglas: Black Panther and Civil Rights Posters, Through Nov. 23, McKenna Museum of African American Art, 2003 Carondelet St., 586-7432