Sunday, July 6, 2014

New Orleans' Free People of Color Rediscovered

It is in many ways a secret history. In antebellum New Orleans, the gens de couleur libres, or free people of color (FPC), experienced a golden age of influence and creativity unknown outside Louisiana. It was almost forgotten even here after segregation became the law in the 1890s, so it may come as a surprise that they were once nearly half of this city's population. By 1810, much of Haiti's Afro-Creole professional class had fled the devastation of the Haitian revolution. Here their skills were soon seen in the building of Marigny, Treme and parts of the French Quarter where they helped to create much of we think of as New Orleans culture. 

Artist-activist Jose Torres Tama, an Ecuador native who grew up in New Jersey,  became intrigued by their legacy after moving here in 1984. Over the years his interest evolved into a series of portraits and a book, both commissioned by the Ogden Museum, and now this exhibit at Le Musee de FPC sponsored by the Joan Mitchell Foundation. Here we see remarkable figures like legendary beautician/ voodoo queen Marie Laveau (above), inventor Norbert Rillieux who revolutionized sugar refining, Edmond Dede, a violinist and composer who became the conductor of a prominent French symphony orchestra, ex-slave Rose Nicaud who 200 years ago opened our first coffee shop, influential newspaper publisher Dr. Louis Roudanez, and feminist poet Alice Dunbar Nelson, among numerous noteworthy others.
In January of 2012, Dr. Dwight and Beverly McKenna opened Le Musee de FPC in a gorgeously restored 1859 Greek Revival manse on Esplanade Avenue to make their Creole collection more widely accessible. Within we find the secret history of this very accomplished and creative class that nimbly if quietly blended New Orleans' black and white cultures while artfully influencing both. No other large, biracial society existed anywhere else in America, but ours trongly reflects the Caribbean Creole cultures from which it evolved. In that sense, this Free People of Color expo is a perfect complement to Richard Sexton's excellent Creole World: Photographs of New Orleans and the Latin Caribbean Sphere book and exhibition at the Historic New Orleans Collections. 

Even as our forgotten history is finally coming to light, America's mixed race people are starting to be more recognized elsewhere thanks to artists like Portland's Samantha Wall. Her eloquent portraits at Stella Jones probe their inner lives, using the female body as "a site of struggle" to explore emotions such as "shame and pride" as paths to self awareness. The South's horrific history is well known, but even Oregon had racist laws that remained on the books well into the 20th century, placing Wall's work in a perhaps surprising context. America is only now in the early stages of reflecting the kind of variegated society that emerged here over two centuries ago. ~Bookhardt

New Orleans Free People of Color and Their Legacy: Portraits by Jose Torres Tama, through July 20, Le Musee de FPC, 2336 Esplanade Ave., 914-5401; Indivisible: Mixed Media Portraits of Mixed Race People by Samantha Wall, through July 31, Stella Jones Gallery, 201 St. Charles Ave., Suite 132, 568-9050. Left: Portrait of a Lady by J.H. (possibly Julien Hudson, 1811--1844) at Le Musee de FPC.