The History of Louisiana ,Told Through Art
ED GORDON, host:
Hurricane Katrina may have destroyed much of what New Orleans was. But before the destruction, Carrie Mae Weems captured the history and culture of the city in photographs, narration, and multimedia. Now an exhibit of her work has opened at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco.
Nancy Mullane reports.
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Ms. CARRIE MAE WEEMS (Artist): (In video clip) I saw it in the magnificently mounted masquerades of metaphor…
NANCY MULLANE reporting:
There's nothing simple about the work of Carrie Mae Weems. In her traveling exhibition - the Louisiana Project at San Francisco's Museum of African Diaspora - Weems gently pulls you in with black and white photographs, narrative text, and a captivating video. In each, Weems disrobes the not-so-hidden social contradictions of race, class, and sex.
In Louisiana's complex society…
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Ms. WEEMS: (In video clip) I saw it in the thin blue veins of bluebloods forever limiting the game of chance.
MULLANE: Originally commissioned by Tulane University to commemorate the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase, the exhibition has the distinction of documenting a world, a society that no longer exists.
One of the first to climb the museum's flights of stairs and enter the third floor exhibit on opening night is Sandra Wilson. Two years ago, as Hurricane Katrina was approaching, she and her family fled New Orleans for San Francisco. She says this exhibit tells the truth about her culture and society, and that can be hard to take.
Ms. SANDRA WILSON (Former New Orleans Resident): You know when they say sucker punched?
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Ms. WILSON: Well, she brings you in, and it's very subtle. It's a seduction, which - this is very seductive.
MULLANE: Moving slowly through the darkly lit gallery, Wilson says one area of the exhibit is particularly provocative. It's a video, a shadow play depicting a sexually powerful relationship of control between a white man and a black woman.
Ms. WILSON: I noticed that when people were watching the film, that when she got to the most suggestive part of the film, they walked away. Well, that's part of the story, that's part of the history. That's why those of us in Louisiana that are colored peoples are colored the way that we are, and why our families look the way that they are. And you can't walk away from it.
MULLANE: Carrie Mae Weems says the exhibition juxtaposes the cultural and social structures of New Orleans - the historical and contemporary, the rich and growing number of poor, the plantation system and those who worked it. According to Weems, one of the most shocking parallel realities of New Orleans society was the plusage(ph).
Ms. WEEMS: Mothers would introduce their daughters to white men that might be able to take care of them. Not marry them, but they would have kind of a, you know, like a leg up on everybody else.
MULLANE: Weems is fascinated with the early 19th century New Orleans ball culture, where white men were paired with emancipated black women. In black and white photographs that appear in one area of the gallery, Weems dresses as a man in cotillion clothing - wearing animal masks, ready for the masquerade.
Professor LOUIS CHUDE-SOKEI (Literature, University of California Santa Cruz): Her work succeeds on so many levels, but one of the ways it succeeds is that it brings you into it.
MULLANE: Louis Chude-Sokei is professor of literature at the University of California in Santa Cruz. He says what Carrie Mae Weems is doing in this exhibition is celebrating a faded glory and holding up a mirror for us all.
Prof. CHUDE-SOKEI: What she's doing is layering and layering and layering things so that all of these categories - Black/White, male/female, top/bottom, strong/weak - because there's some interesting moments when power is reversed. She's asking questions that are broader than just racial ones.
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MULLANE: Back in the gallery, Katrina survivor Sandra Wilson says she finds it difficult to look at one photograph in particular. In the large black and white framed print, a woman is standing, looking out a window. Wilson says it looks just like her former home, but that is gone forever.
Ms. WILSON: And it's ironic that this, she was putting together this exhibit, and simultaneously the city and that culture was destroyed. And just, it's gone. This is record of things as they were, but it's not the future. This is what was.
MULLANE: Carrie Mae Weems says she doesn't plan to change the exhibit to incorporate the effects of Hurricane Katrina, but she will visit Louisiana soon. The Louisiana Project by Carrie Mae Weems will be exhibited at the Museum of the African Diaspora through early October.
For NPR News, I'm Nancy Mullane in San Francisco.
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GORDON: That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.
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GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS AND NOTES.
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