NEW ORLEANS — Biennials, triennials, and other, similarly grand periodic art exhibitions are a funny thing; both local and global, they must balance an engagement with their home places alongside a broader artistic conversation. “For these kinds of exhibitions to be successful, they have to have some relationship to where they are,” Franklin Sirmans, artistic director of the current and third iteration of Prospect New Orleans, told The Art Newspaper last fall. How Sirmans has gone about achieving that relationship in his show, Prospect.3 (P3 for short), as well as how successfully, is open to debate; a good chunk of the triennial consists of static work arranged in ways that don’t feel particularly enlightening inside established artistic institutions, where its connection to the larger world feels minimal. (Comparisons to Prospect.1 are inevitable, if not entirely fair — like pitting a current partner against a first love.) Among the exceptions, however, are two exhibitions at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.
The Ogden is also a funny thing: a proper institution devoted largely to those dubbed “outsiders” by the art establishment. Nearly every artist whose work is presently on view in the museum is or was self-taught. That includes Jean-Michael Basquiat, whose exhibition critic John D’Addario called “the crown on top of the Prospect.3 pile” in a review for this site. The Basquiat show is indeed a small stunner, but I found myself lingering in two other exhibitions, both also part of P3, longer.
The first was a too-small (eight pieces) selection of work by Herbert Singleton, a lifelong resident of Algiers, the 15th ward of New Orleans. Singleton, who earned his living as a carpenter, carved sculptures and bas relief panels from wood — brightly painted pieces that burst with the raw energy one often sees in the best self-taught art, but that deal with distinctly more political themes. Singleton learned to carve, the P3 catalogue says, sometime during his 13 years imprisoned in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, and he translated his experiences with violence and drugs, the hardship and injustice he saw around him, into his art. One incredible piece at the Ogden, “Angola” (1990s), is a sweeping indictment of the US justice system: in a multipaneled, comics-like layout, several black men are tried and executed by white overseers while their loved ones look on. A poem about a possum — an animal bound up in racist stereotypes — runs down the center bottom, topped by a white prison guard on horseback flanked by two dogs; along the right edge flows a column of cotton bolls. The juxtaposition of simple, almost childlike colors and forms with such weighty subject matter gives “Angola” an immense power.
The presence of the cotton bolls underlines two parallels between the present-day US legal system and slavery: a reminder that the system we’re meant to trust grew out of racist institutions, and an assertion that it functions essentially as a contemporary form of slavery. The latter may sound extreme, but Singleton is hardly the first to posit it — and so it’s appropriate that in a corner of his gallery at the Ogden hang three photographs by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick. The pictures are a teaser of sorts for the pair’s own single-gallery show one floor below, which adopts a far more direct approach to spelling out the associations under discussion here, beginning with its title: Slavery, The Prison-Industrial Complex.
A husband-and-wife team, Calhoun and McCormick have been photographing African-American communities in and around New Orleans for 30 years. The series on view at the Ogden focuses on Angola, the prison where Singleton spent more than a decade. Angola is the largest maximum-security prison in the United States; it is in a state, Louisiana, that incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other in the union (a rate “nearly five times that of Iran, thirteen times that of China, and twenty times that of Germany,” Sirmans writes in the P3 catalogue). And as Calhoun and McCormick point out in their wall text, Angola is called a “prison farm,” but because slavery actually remains legal as a form of punishment in the US, it effectively functions as a “modern-day plantation.”
Their photographs bear out this idea — three in particular, all black and white, hung in a row. The images show prisoners, mostly men of color, working in fields. In one, a white prison guard sits astride a horse in the foreground and watches them, holding a gun. But for a different hat, he looks remarkably like the white prison guard astride a horse in Singleton’s “Angola”; but for some of the modern day accoutrements and clothing, these scenes look terrifyingly similar to the ones we know of slavery, of black bodies picking cotton.
Calhoun and McCormick’s expressed aim is “to restore visibility and humanity to a population marginalized from the national conversation.” As such, their images are not subtle, venturing sometimes into the unabashedly sentimental, an approach that can feel heavy-handed despite its admirable intentions. But one of the most successful elucidations of their project comes in a video, an interview with former prisoner Henry James. James served 30 years at Angola before being exonerated and released. In the video, which focuses tightly on his face, his skin seeming to glow against his bright white T-shirt as he speaks, James discusses the “slavery” of Angola, how badly prisoners are treated, how they must navigate an unjust system as well and as wisely as possible in order to survive. James, like Singleton before him, found his survival in wood — working with it “kept me positive, kept me struggling,” he says. At the Odgen, a bench he carved is placed in front of the video screen. To sit on it and watch him talk about Angola is a profound experience.
Much as the exhibition moved me, I can’t help but wonder how much more vital P3 might feel had Sirmans chosen not just to curate Calhoun and McCormick into a major art world happening, but to bring that happening to them by organizing an installation at L9 Center for the Arts, the center founded and run by the couple in the still-recovering Lower 9th Ward (or by inviting them to do so). The lack of that level of engagement feels like a missed opportunity. Nonetheless, the hanging of their work alongside Singleton’s represents some of P3’s most crucial engagement with its home, and with an overlooked community residing there.
What’s more, because the prison industrial complex is an issue that’s both deeply local and disturbingly global, the shows at the Ogden provide a starting point for the looking outward that big art exhibitions so often attempt to do. One of the most resonant connections in P3 happens between the work of Singleton, Calhoun, and McCormick and that of José Antonio Vega Macotela, on view at Longue Vue House and Gardens. For his Time Divisa series (2006–10), Macotela arranged 365 “time exchanges” with inmates at Santa Martha Acatitla prison in La Paz, Mexico, agreeing to perform a task for a prisoner while he or she completed one for him. Macotela’s consisted of interactions with people on the outside — serenading an inmate’s mother or spying on an ex-lover; the prisoners, in turn, took stock of and transformed their surroundings, one by drawing a map of all the sounds he could hear from inside his cell, another by creating a board game from strands of his own and his lovers’ hair.
Macotela recorded his acts of exchange but gave the videos to the prisoners, while they gave him what they made. This leaves us only with a room full of curious prison creations that are compelling both visually — cigarette butts arranged geometrically in plastic cases — and for the idiosyncratic way they assign value. In this respect, Macotela’s project is quite different from either Singleton’s or Calhoun and McCormick’s; his interests are resolutely more existential than political. Yet the echoes between them are strong. Sound maps and tattoo drawings may not quite be the artistic expressions of Singleton or Henry James, but they do render the prisoners — as well as their prison — visible through the act of creative making. And while Macotela’s approach is more conceptual than Calhoun and McCormick’s, he reaffirms the inmates’ humanity by granting their wishes. The placement of his work at Longue Vue feels random at best, but the inclusion of it at all is a major strength of P3. It turns out, there are many ways to have a relationship to where you are.