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Corrective Lenses 

On the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a historic look at New Orleans

Wednesday, Aug 30 2006
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"While sitting upon the ruins of your remains, I pondered the course of history." Carrie Mae Weems' prophetic text about New Orleans was written in 2003 for "The Louisiana Project," now on display at the Museum of the African Diaspora. The exhibition, commissioned by Tulane University to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase, eerily and emotionally coincides with the first anniversary of the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. The historical issues of power and prejudice that Weems addresses in her elegant and austere photos are still very much at work in the world today.

Weems is a photographer and poet, with an archivist's bent for unearthing trenchant historical documents. Her complex multipart exhibition, dealing with racial, sexual, and social roles in historic New Orleans, includes an original film with voice-over, a wall-to-wall installation of related film stills on large canvases, and three series of photographic narratives. In all the narratives she puts herself into the picture, and, like a poet, uses recurring rhythms and repetition to make her points. Each photograph acts as a stanza; the combined whole creates visual poems.

In the long series of photographs entitled "The Witness," Weems appears in different landscapes, clad in the same vintage dress and always with her back to the viewer. Through her eyes, with her eyes, we gaze across an expanse of lawn at an antebellum mansion and study the interior of a drawing room. We scrutinize the facade of a desolate brick tenement. We appraise oil storage tanks and a refinery. We consider a cemetery jammed with above-ground mausoleums, necessary in a city built below sea level. In a particularly poignant shot, the artist faces a billboard mounted on the wall of a shantytown liquor store. A caricatured band of young African-American men in gang attire, the "board of directors," flashes their hand signs, advertising liquor. In a city full of advertising, this was the only public image of black Americans the artist found.

For the series of self-portraits called "The Missing Link," Weems, like the photographer Cindy Sherman, dresses up to recreate historical moments. She appears in cutaway and top hat, her face hidden by various animal masks — a donkey, an elephant, a zebra, a gorilla. Obvious political puns aside, the work reprises and comments on a float mounted by the prestigious Comus club for the Mardi Gras parade of 1873, during the height of Reconstruction. Darwin's The Origin of Species was published that year, and the Comus float featured "gorillas" in tuxedos, insinuating that (as the wall text, a quote from The Daily Picayune, reads) "the broader-mouthed varieties of our own citizens, so Ethiopian ... " constituted the link between humans and monkeys.

In "I Looked and Looked and Failed to See What So Terrified You," Weems creates a series of prints pairing herself, dressed in a gown of patchwork, with sitters of different ages and races. In each photo, the two sitters, entwined on the floor, gaze together into a single mirror. We see what the artist sees — their common humanity and not their surface differences.

"The Shadowplay: Meaning and Landscape" features two pieces that employ silhouettes. The first, two long walls installed with a frieze of shadowy film stills printed on 6-foot-by-7-foot canvases, addresses the subject of lust and double standards for proper womanly behavior. Weems casts herself as a dominatrix and reveals yet another level of human relations.

The second piece in that series, a slow-motion film, fuses grainy 8 mm footage of a recent Mardi Gras ball with dreamlike reenactments of domestic scenes taking place behind a gridded scrim. Silhouetted actors in 19th-century dress tend their coiffures and drink tea. The master and his maid cavort in boudoir scenes, and the viewer becomes a willing voyeur. The slow cadences of Weems' quiet voice-over parse the signs and symbols of Mardi Gras, with its secret and pseudo-royal clubs, called krewes, the traditional barometer of social status for the white aristocracy of New Orleans.

The rhythm of the film recalls the work of theater artist Robert Wilson, and the use of silhouettes parallels the cut paper and painted silhouettes of Kara Walker's signature large-scale wall installations. Walker's view of Southern history, with its high-octane pigtailed heroines and lecherous old men, is wittier and far more savage than the stylized scenes created by Weems. But the device of the silhouette, for both artists, provides a template of flat, monochromatic images in which all protagonists are the same color, in which race, sex, and social station are delineated by details of profile and costume. The human drama is reduced to fixed, decorative designs, holding the viewer at a distance.

An excellent catalog with illustrations of the works is unavailable: Most of the copies printed were damaged or destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. This is a shame, because its two excellent essays — one by Susan Cahan contextualizing Weems' work, and the other a lengthy examination of the legal definition of race in the history of Louisiana by Pamela Metzger — shed valuable light on topics treated in the show. It should be reprinted.

In "The Louisiana Project," Weems has created a template for a story that should be told and retold. Her gifts for poetic narrative and historic reconstruction create different, questioning ways of looking at our common past. Ideally the artist will be commissioned to return to New Orleans to ponder at length, and in greater depth, the course of history.

About The Author

Lea Feinstein

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