Prospect.4 September Preview

Wildflowers by Maria Berrio
Prospect.4, the latest iteration of Prospect New Orleans' international art triennial, opens November 18th on the cusp of a very auspicious event: the 300th anniversary of the city's founding. As befits America's most culturally Creole city, it promises to be its most exotic triennial art event in any number of ways. The title, The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp, sets the tone. Most of us know about swamps, but the lotus flower evokes a whiff of mystery as an ancient Hindu and Buddhist icon of enlightenment. Prospect.4's artistic director, Duke University's Nasher Museum of Art curator Trevor Schoonmaker, calls it “a beautiful bloom flourishing untainted above the murky water” that he says is a fitting symbol for our natural environment as well as for the resilience of our city, for the way it reminds us that “redemption exists in ruin, and creativity in destruction.” He also likes the way the great jazz sax player Archie Shepp used it as a metaphor for the origins of jazz itself as it evolved through slavery and African drumming on Congo Square while absorbing European brass band extravagance and the "Cuban tinge" that influenced generations of epochal New Orleans musicians from Jelly Roll Morton to Professor Longhair and Allen Toussaint.

Act of Recovery by Dawit Petros
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Trevor Schoonmaker
P.4 features work by seventy-three artists from all over the world, presented in seventeen venues across the city. Beyond art stars like Yoko Ono and Kara Walker -- whose massive sphinx-like Sugar Baby sculpture in an abandoned Brooklyn sugar mill was New York's mega art magnet of 2014 – it also features figures like Kiluanji Kia Henda, who commandeers empty pedestals once topped by colonial monuments in his native Angola, or Monique Verdin, whose multimedia focus on Louisiana's unique coastal ecology draws from her tribal Houma Native American heritage, or Eritrea native Dawit Petros, who explores the interrelated patterning of African migration and European modernism. This emphasis on art and artists who, as Schoonmaker puts it, “engage with the American South and the Global South” – the emerging cultures of Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean – reflects a strategic choice to emphasize art that resonates within New Orleans' unique carnivalesque culture, its customs, architecture, food, music, language, and spirituality. Beyond all that, its focus on the Global South may also reflect a realization that those long overlooked cultures represent the art world's new frontier as places where innovative ideas and new visionary possibilities are emerging at a time when mainstream American and European art can sometimes seem a tad less dynamic than in the past.

Egungun by Cauleen Smith
For New Orleans, the timing is serendipitous for the way it aligns America's exotic misfit city with those overlooked Global South places with which we share so much in common. As an embodiment of urban "otherness," New Orleans has long remained a place apart, and in some ways Prospect.4's artist roster harks the city's 18th century Creole roots when it was originally a sister colony of the French West Indies, and then a Spanish colony governed out of Havana. So many refugees from the Haitian revolution found it so culturally simpatico that their numbers eventually doubled the size of the city. But when French speaking New Orleans unexpectedly found itself part of the United States in 1803 as a result of the Louisiana Purchase, it found itself in a clash of cultures that lingers to this day. Although the nascent United States was a dynamic society, for most of New Orleans' original citizenry it was an alien culture filled with les Américains -- puritanical Anglo Saxon workaholics who worshiped money, had no rhythm and couldn't make a roux. New Orleans remained very much a place apart until hurricane Katrina in 2005 suddenly gave it and America a new found appreciation for each other. In 2008, Prospect.1, the critically acclaimed exposition conceived and directed by well known curator Dan Cameron, was an early product of that epochal transformation. Now, as Prospect.4 ushers in the city's 300th birthday, we are entering a new phase of what has become an inspiring collaborative experiment in civic and cultural engagement. ~Bookhardt