Sunday, February 18, 2018

John Akomfrah: Precarity at the Ogden Museum; Odili Donald Odita: 15 Flag Installations (P.4)



New Orleans is often described as “mysterious,” but much of that may have to do with the mystery surrounding some of its most influential figures. The sudden rise to fame of Charles “Buddy” Bolden, the legendary “inventor” of jazz, whose supersonic wailing cornet blasted him out of the Storeyville bordellos and into the limelight as Nola's most popular musician was even more suddenly cut short in 1907 when he was, at age 30, institutionalized for schizophrenia.


He left only a few old photos and many vivid legends as his legacy. Despite that dearth of detail, John Akomfrah’s Precarity three-screen video is often cited as one of P.4's most emblematic works for the way it evokes Bolden's brief presence among us by immersing us in the sights and sounds of his New Orleans as he wanders amid vivid figures in period garb in scenes interwoven with vintage images of his old riverside haunts and modern views of the city. Accompanied by a ghostly voice-over based on his fragmented ruminations, Precarity functions as an extraordinary example of intuitive time travel by Akomfrah, the Ghana-born, London-based winner of Britain's 2017 Artes Mundi Prize.
  

Those of us who are New Orleans natives grew up amid the legacy of the Anglo-American South's attempts to redefine our Creole heritage via laws and monuments, but Creole sensibilities were always more welcoming. In Prospect.4, Nigeria native Odili Donald Odita articulates that inclusive sensibility in the form of flags where interwoven bands of color reflect the intermingling of gravitas and buoyancy that characterize Creole values here and elsewhere. Located at 15 historically fraught sites like the spot where Homer Plessy was arrested, the school first integrated by Ruby Bridges, and the ferry to Algiers, where African slaves were held before being sold, they reflect Odita's expansive philosophy of social aesthetics –  a vision of a world where flags celebrate the contributions of all ethnicities rather than simply marking off national boundaries in an endlessly futile game of defense and conquest. ~Bookhardt / Precarity: 3-Channel Video on the Life of Buddy Bolden by John Akomfrah, Through Feb. 25, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600; Indivisible and Invincible: 15 Installations of Flags Designed by Odili Donald Odita, Through Feb 25
15 New Orleans Sites, Prospect.4, 689.6091.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Genevieve Gaignard at Ace Hotel (Prospect.4), Queer Tropics at Gallery X



“Identity” has been a hot topic in much of America since at least the 1960s. Los Angeles-based artist Genevieve Gaignard's exploration of her bi-racial identity was inspired by her Creole father and white mother. Her two room installation in the Ace Hotel lobby is inviting and accessible: you can walk in and make yourself at home. One room, top, reflects her father’s family roots in Nola via a tidy vintage living room adorned with family photos, bowling trophies and a classic 1960s dual portrait of president John F. Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King flanking three modern photo portraits of Creole women wearing tignons, the once mandatory colonial-era head coverings that black women subversively transformed into chic fashion statements. Here the three women appear as icons of cultural memory, timeless observers whose wary gazes remind us that history is never entirely past, but lives on in an endless variety of ways. Another space with church pews, mirrors and Gaignard's self portraits as characters reflecting a range of racial, regional and cultural variations suggests an old time chapel reborn as a space for pondering the fluid, situational nature of identity, a theme Gaignard renders with a colorful mix of irony, humor and pathos.
    
Queer Tropics, curated by Charlie Tatum, illustrates how the way the Western world romanticizes  the tropics in many ways parallels how LGBT people have long been portrayed as “exotic” in the fever dreams of the Western imagination. Here the mythology of the tropics as a realm of abandon, lassitude and “southern decadence” infuses an array of works by eight artists including some intriguing videos by Carlos Motta examining the legacy of early the Spanish missionaries' encounters with indigenous peoples, as well as some strategically surreal graphical works by Joiri Minaya, Adrienne Elise Tarver and Victoria Martinez, whose colorful floor to ceiling tapestry inspired by her Mexican neighborhood in Chicago conveys something of America's own new found exoticism. ~Bookhardt / Grassroots: Photographs Exploring Biracial Identity by Genevieve Gaignard (Prospect.4), Through February 24, Ace Hotel, 600 Carondelet St., 900-1180; Queer Tropics: Group Exhibition Exploring Identity and the Tropics, Through Feb. 25, Gallery X, 1612 O.C. Haley Blvd., 252-0136.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Bror Anders Wikstrom at NOMA


Dragon by Bror Anders Wikstrom, Proteus, 1904

When I was an art student at the University of New Orleans, I would stare at the name Wikstrom on the frieze of the New Orleans Museum of Art and mutter, “what the...” I had never seen that name in any art history book. Only later, when researching Mardi Gras, did it become clear he was a float designer. That seemed weird, but when I later saw some of his wilder imagery I realized his name belonged there – as a father of surrealism. His design for a 1907 Proteus parade float bedecked with humanoid sea creatures in a kind of kelp forest initially seemed like a deja-vu. Why? Then one day I noticed its similarity to one of my favorite Max Ernst paintings at NOMA, his circa 1943 Everyone Here Speaks Latin, which was considered radical at the time. Who was this guy?

Proteus Parade Float, 1907

Proteus Costume 1907
Bror Anders Wikstrom was a Swedish émigré painter active in Paris and New Orleans, where he eventually became a chief designer for Rex and Proteus. What stands out is the extent to which his designs paralleled the avant garde imagery of the Parisian symbolist painters such as Gustave Moreau or Odilon Redon. His 1904 Proteus Dragon float design, top, looks fairy tale-ish at first, but look again and all the diabolical terrors of Moreau, Redon and Ernst -- not to mention Dorothea Tanning and Remedios Varo -- are quivering in the details.

Max Ernst: The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1945
Likewise, his 1898 Proteus float, Devil's Basket features renaissance bon vivants and a fair-faced version of the devil himself. All seem to be having a nice time, recalling Mark Twain's admonition: “Go to heaven for the climate, hell for the company.” It's all par for the course for an expo that includes twenty float plates from the 1904 Krewe of Proteus parade and a bound set of float designs for the 1910 Rex "Freaks of Fable" parade. While Wikstrom's legacy as the all time king of carnival designers is well deserved, some of his contemporaries were often equally surreal and sophisticated in ways that are, with notable exceptions, somewhat less prevalent today. ~Bookhardt/ Bror Anders Wikstrom: Bringing Fantasy to Carnival, Through April 1, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100. More>>