Above: Cauleen Smith, Egungun, 2017 production still. Image courtesy of the artist, Corbett v Dempsey, Chicago and Kate Werble Gallery New York.
“They’ll let you die, they’ll let you wash away, but you swim as well as you fly.” – SZA
“I’ve known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers” – Langston Hughes
Like the lotus, a flower that thrives in unfathomable environments, seventy-three artists offer critical and whimsical explorations on the present and historical instances of resilience and imagined futures for communities in the American South, Global South and beyond. The fourth iteration of its triennial art review, Prospect.4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp is fifteen venues off the coast of the Mississippi and a host of satellite locations at smaller galleries around the city. As the title suggests, Prospect riffs on mythologies associated with the city and considers water as an environmental element and a signifier for reflection, transit, and transformation. Water and associated themes like Maafa, globalization, colonization, and climate change also recur as significant points of inquiry.
A wise woman once told me that the veil that separates the worlds between the living and the dead is thinner in New Orleans due to its proximity to the Mississippi River, thus making magical manifestation more pronounced and accessible. The Mississippi River, the largest drainage basin in the United States, collects and funnels watersheds from all over the country into the Gulf of Mexico. Like the Mississippi, New Orleans, a city that Prospect.4’s artistic Director, Trevor Schoonmaker, describes as “the most European and the most African city in the United States”, is its own kind of cultural tributary, a legendary insulator, and distributor of Black creative genius. But one cannot ignore the conditions that established New Orleans fame and fortune: African slave labor.
I kept the words of the wise woman in mind as I traveled through the city to view Prospect.4’s sprawling exhibitions and site-specific installations. It is difficult to encompass the vastness of the collection in one review. I found myself most drawn to works that, like the lotus, focalized adaption, self-definition, and black liberation. Contributions by Njideka Akunyli Crosby, Rashid Johnson, and Larry Achiampong presented particularly resonant, transformative interventions, or revisionist explorations about the murky intersections of history, commodity, spirituality, and the black body. Each of their works, and many other contributions from featured artists like Hank Willis Thomas, Derrick Adams, Zina Saro-Wiwa, John Akomfrah, Xaviera Simmons, Sonia Boyce, Michael Armitage, Horace Ove, Evan Ifekoya, and Peter Williams, among others, unpack the legacy and residual presence of colonization on the psychic and physical landscape of people of color in American and around the world.
Above: Njideka Akunyli Crosby Mother and Child. Currently on view at Prospect. 4.
Njideka Akunyli Crosby combines Nigerian Igbo textiles, family photographs and print materials from popular culture with a wide assortment of mixed media to map the myriad influences, nationalities, and traditions that found her identity. I liken Crosby’s immense paper works to cartographies, living archives that mark and situate her memories and associated ephemera in dialog with the contemporary moment. In “Mother and Child,” featured at the New Orleans Museum of Art, viewers peer into a living room where the artist sits on a couch turned away for the viewers gaze and towards a large portrait of a mother and her child hanging on the wall. Crosby has mastered the art of pairing intricate patterns with complimentary colors that simultaneously camouflage and illuminate black skin tones against their backdrops. Her portraits and the way she formally constructs the frame buck against Western portraiture traditions, and replace gaudy European ornamentation with African culturally specific references. The domestic and familial spaces Crosby depicts are hodge-podge environmental constructions rendered with material fragments from her lived experiences. Her photo-transfer technique juxtaposes dense collage aesthetics against vibrant Igbo textiles to create new tapestries, historically situated dreamscapes composed with documented excerpts from the artists personal, cultural and national archival memory. The resultant imagery induces a simultaneously surreal and hyperreal world in which interiors and the characters that inhabit them are historicized specters, the influences that inform their formations undergird their skin, clothes, the walls, and furniture. The density of content, archival imagery, portraiture and architecture force the viewer to toggle between the imagined and real, grapple with the historic and contemporary impressions depicted. Crosby’s works facilitate a continuum, a revelatory saturation that encapsulates memory but also eludes to the complexity of transnational identities. The artist tugs at the subtle influences of colonialism, as well as how assimilation is often in flux and conditional for transnational bodies.
Rashid Johnson’s interactive mixed media installation “Fiend,” exhibited in The New Orleans Jazz Museum at the Old U.S. Mint also considers the ways material culture, literature and musical traditions created by African-Americans inform Black identity. Graffiti tags, record sleeves, lush house plants, shea butter mounds, and stacks of the books “The Sell Out” by Paul Beatty and “The End of Blackness: Returning the Souls of Black Folks to Their Rightful Owners” by Debra J. Dickerson are assembled within and alongside black steel and microphone mesh cubes. The resultant structure forms a functional multidirectional microphone that can be activated by visitors. Johnson’s work is playful and critical of hardline racialized definitions. Representation, whose voice is heard and whose voice remains unheard are blaring queries within “Fiend” and many other creations in the artist’s catalog. Johnson’s installations and interventions satirize and venerate the oddity of racial signification. By erecting towering installations, laden with material culture associated with Black identity, Johnson calls attention to the ways the commodification of culture influences identity. “Fiend” considers the ways we are addicted to culture, the ways we adopt popular definitions as our own, without question. Cultural production and consumption by black masculine identities and precepts about authentic representations of black identity are examined and rearticulated with the participatory installation. As I walked around the work, whispered into it and observed the items Johnson placed in conversation with one another; I appreciated the artists attempts to use commodity to critique race, complicate racialized definitions, and refuse to sit comfortably within the confines of someone else’s definitions for his identity. At the core of the work is an immense appreciation for the dynamic influence of Black creative genius on popular American art forms and a call for self-defining models.
Above:Larry Achiampong, Sunday Best. Currently on view at Prospect. 4.
What are the implications of worshipping a reflection of God whose image is not in the likeness of your kindred, but rather, is a rendering of your colonizer? “Sunday’s Best,” a visual poem by Larry Achiampong, examines the indoctrinating impact that Christian imagery; “White Jesus,” and related religious motifs, have on Ghanaian history and the artist’s identity. The film begins with a black screen that quickly shifts to a jarring montage of found footage clips; Christ on the cross, the transatlantic slave trade, protest signs, singing. “I was always so curious about the many gods and deities that we celebrated,” Achiampong narrates as the camera pans across gold filigree, statues of white saints and soaring altars, “I would draw lines between these beings and the superheroes in Marvel comic books.” Throughout the film, Achiampong shares contemplative ruminations about his complex relationship to Christianity while the frame is overwhelmed with long shots of immaculate Christian iconography and scenes of an African woman in the throes of worship within the church. Colonization is not confined to the physical pains or oppressions of enslavement or limitation inflicted upon colonized bodies, it is also psychological, an imposing conditioning, a defining script that dictates standards for beauty, salvation, intelligence, and/or culture. “Sunday’s Best,” examines the lasting impact of Abrahamic traditions on indigenous belief systems and ideologies, and invites viewers to ponder, as the artist ponders, the role religion has played in shaping the contemporary world.
Prospect.4: The Lotus in Spite of The Swamp presents a diverse and global collection of artists who offer timely reflections about the resilience of small things, the strength of isolated and Othered peoples, and collective hopes for the future. Prospect.4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp is on view November 18, 2017 – February 25, 2018.