Biennial Contemporary art Features USA

A better Prospect for African-American artists

In reflecting New Orleans’s racial mix, the biennial is breaking the mould

Still image from Tameka Norris’s feature-length film installation, Meka Jean: How She Got Good, 2014. Photo: courtesy the artist

Prospect 3, which opens in New Orleans, Louisiana, this month, is the most racially diverse US biennial in recent history. The exhibition features work by more African-American artists than the most recent Carnegie International, Whitney, Hammer Museum and Site Santa Fe biennials combined. Of Prospect’s 58 participating artists and collectives, 22 are African-American. Forty-four—around 76%—are artists of colour.

You will not hear about this from the biennial’s organisers, who say they hardly noticed that they might be making history. “We didn’t talk about it,” says Brooke Anderson, Prospect’s executive director. For Anderson and Franklin Sirmans, the biennial’s artistic director, it was only natural to feature diverse artists in a city where 63% of the population is African-American. “For these kinds of exhibitions to be successful, they have to have some relationship to where they are,” Sirmans says.

This principle also led the organisers to select work that confronts controversial issues, such as the prison-industrial complex, racism and gentrification. Louisiana is often described as the prison capital of the world. Racial tension has never been far from the surface, especially since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which disproportionately affected low-income, African-American residents. To fill Prospect with art about art would have seemed hopelessly out of touch. In the catalogue, Sirmans quotes the critic Holland Cotter, who writes: “In much of the world, making art about art, as opposed to art about life, is an unaffordable luxury.”

The biennial comes at a time when conversations about race and representation are preoccupying the US and the art world alike. The fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in August prompted a national debate about race. And last year’s Whitney Biennial may be best remembered for the controversy over the inclusion of Donelle Woolford, a fictional black female artist invented by the white Princeton University professor Joe Scanlan. (One collective withdrew its work in protest.)

Sirmans has made some striking choices, notably rehanging a handful of permanent galleries in New Orleans’s museums to make them more inclusive—an act that could be read as a subtle jab at the city’s art establishment. The diplomatic head of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is unlikely to see it in such terms, saying only: “I love working with permanent collections—that’s been a base for me institutionally.”

Making space

A contemporary gallery at the New Orleans Museum of Art will pay homage to significant but under-appreciated African-American and female painters: Ed Clark, Alma Thomas and Joan Mitchell. One work by Thomas was already in the museum’s permanent collection; the rest are borrowed or on long-term loan.

At the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Sirmans has turned over the entire exhibition space to African-American artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, the New Orleans-based self-taught artist Herbert Singleton and the husband-and-wife photographers Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun, who founded a project space in the Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina. McCormick points out that in New Orleans, as well as in the wider US, “the opportunity for African-American artists to show is not always available”.

Although the inclusion of African-American artists in Prospect may help, the couple acknowledge the limited ability of a four-month biennial to break down barriers that have existed for generations. “We have to create institutions of our own—you can’t wait around,” McCormick says. “You have to want it enough to do it yourself.”

A closer look at the biennial

Some of the works that are likely to prompt conversation in New Orleans this month

Tavares Strachan: For the duration of Prospect, the Bahamian artist will float a 50ft-long, 10ft-high neon sign blaring a deceptively simple phrase—“you belong here”—down the Mississippi River on a 140ft-long barge. “The idea evolved from an overall sense of all of us trying to figure out how we fit in,” Strachan says. But the artist knows that a true sense of belonging can be difficult to achieve anywhere, and particularly in New Orleans, which he visits frequently. Vulnerable to floods and hurricanes, the city is inhospitable. It also remains one of the top 15 most segregated US cities, according to 2010 census data. “The work is a critique of itself as a statement,” Strachan says.

Glenn Kaino: When the US military began to dump decommissioned tanks in the ocean more than a decade ago, researchers were surprised to find that the machines were a fertile breeding ground for coral. For the past five years, the Los Angeles-based artist Glenn Kaino has been collaborating with oceanographers to study the phenomenon. “Although they look poetic and peaceful, the coral are actually at war—they’re in a violent struggle for space,” Kaino says. “As they grow, the coral are fighting each other. It creates swathes of colour that look very similar to nation states.” This struggle is due to play out live at Prospect, where Kaino has built aquariums filled with coral and resin casts of an armoured tank. The artist hopes that the installation, Tank, 2014, will challenge viewers to rethink how they relate to one another, particularly in a rapidly gentrifying city like New Orleans, where space is highly politicised. He asks: “If these animals that have no brains are functioning on a microscopic level in the same way we function en masse, where does our humanity lie?”

Liu Ding: On a visit to New Orleans last year, the Chinese artist was struck by the city’s “no loitering” signs, which have historically targeted African-American men. (The same signs inspired Banksy to create a mural featuring a man sitting in a lawn chair beneath the words “no loitering” in 2008.) “As an outsider, I feel that ‘loitering’ is a form of gathering and socialising, yet… it also suggests the potential for danger and violence,” Liu says. To prohibit loitering struck him as unjust. “I believe in the significance and value of freedom of movement for a society,” he says. At Prospect, the artist plans to hire actors and choreograph acts of loitering in four New Orleans neighbourhoods, from the affluent uptown to the more impoverished city centre, for Crossroads: Days and Nights, 2014. “I felt that I must address the issue of race, as it was just so present and visible [here],” Liu says.

Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun: Since the 1980s, the New Orleans-based husband-and-wife team Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun have been photographing life in Louisiana State Penitentiary (known as Angola), the largest maximum-security prison in the US. They also follow inmates such as Henry James, who was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2011 after spending 30 years in prison, as they readjust to life outside. And they turn their cameras on the Angola Rodeo, a 49-year-old tradition that draws thousands of spectators to the prison. The incarceration rate in Louisiana, which is five times that of Iran and 13 times that of China, disproportionately affects black men. “Louisiana is still a plantation—prisons are its biggest industry. The whole town depends on incarceration,” Calhoun says. The couple hope their images, on show at Prospect alongside furniture made by James, will humanise the prisoners. “These go beyond cell-block pictures,” Calhoun says.

Andrea Fraser: The Los Angeles-based artist plans to create a new performance based on the historic New Orleans city council hearings in 1991 over an ordinance to ban discrimination in Mardi Gras groups. The carnival was dominated by segregated “krewes” (groups that organise parades and balls), and racial tension in the city hit a new peak with the bitter debate over integration. In her search for a recording or text to perform, Fraser found that “there are a lot of conversations about race and race relations, but most are initiated by people of colour, and… it seems like white people… participate in them when they are pressed to do so. In that context, one of the most prevalent forms of racism in America today is probably the denial of racism.”

Tameka Norris with Garrett Bradley: The New Orleans-based artist Tameka Norris’s first feature-length film installation, Meka Jean: How She Got Good, 2014, follows a rising art star named Meka Jean—Norris’s alter ego—as she readjusts to life in the city after finishing graduate school. Made with fellow artist Bradley and featuring amateur actors, including members of Norris’s family, the four-channel film captures Jean’s ambivalence as a young, educated, African-American female artist living in New Orleans. For the real-life Norris, the film is milestone: she raised $27,000 on Kickstarter to fund the project and employed 15 people, 10 of whom were students of colour at the city’s Dillard University, for the 10-day shoot. Jean and Norris share a complex relationship with New Orleans, where they feel at home yet like outsiders. “When I walk around this city, no one sees me as an Ivy League-educated woman,” Norris says. “I believe I am viewed simply as a black person who lives here.” Her family is from New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast area, but “in some ways, I am a gentrifier as much as anyone else, which can be painfully humorous and complicated at times”.

Prospect 3, various venues, New Orleans, 25 October-25 January 2015. For more, visit www.prospectneworleans.org


Andrea Fraser in her film Official Welcome, 2003. Photo: © Andrea Fraser
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