NEW ORLEANS — It’s astonishing that in 2015 a group exhibition of nine artists of color can still be impressive based on statistics and context alone. It is still rare that we see marginalized voices like these situated inside a contemporary art institution without also being used as a foil to the canonized arc of North American and Western European art history. EN MAS’: Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean, curated by Claire Tancons and Krista Thompson at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) New Orleans, aims to begin to correct this imbalance by placing the practices of the featured artists within a history of slavery, colonialism, and diaspora, instead of strictly in relation to a Eurocentric lineage of avant-gardes.
Tancons and Thompson commissioned nine artists to create new performances during the 2014 Caribbean Carnival season, and these works took place across the world: Nassau, Santiago de los Treinta Cabelleros, Port of Spain, Kingston, Fort-de-France, Brooklyn, London, and here in New Orleans. (John Beadle’s performance in Nassau, Bahamas, was pushed back to May 2015.) With the exceptions of Brooklyn and London, these cities are not traditionally thought of as art capitals, and the artists often used this to their advantage by bringing their work into the streets. For instance, Lorraine O’Grady’s “Looking for a Headdress” took the West Indian Day parade in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, as a subject and location. In a video, the artist narrates her search for an authentically Caribbean carnival headdress over shaky documentary footage from the parade and a slideshow of historical prints and documentation. O’Grady’s search ultimately remains unresolved.
Conversely, Hew Locke’s “Give and Take” brought the streets into Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in the form of phalanx of performers who drummed and charged violently at predominantly white museumgoers. The performers carried shields emblazoned with photographs of townhouses in the London neighborhood of Notting Hill, whose Caribbean population has been rapidly pushed out over the past 25 years; its ongoing Carnival traditions have become heavily policed and regulated to maintain a perceived sense of order in this now majority-white area. By imitating the increased police presence in Notting Hill, Locke’s performance suggests a connection between the aggressive whiteness of museum spaces and the destructive whitewashing of neighborhoods as a result of gentrification.
At the CAC, Locke’s piece is presented through a display of the shields and masks worn by performers along with accompanying video documentation; this focus on costume carries through much of the show. Gia Wolff — who collaborated with Tancons on the canopy for the Tate Modern’s Up Hill Down Hall performance series last year — also designed the gallery for EN MAS’, using walls to create a space for each artist. Wolff’s design helps by pushing the viewer around the gallery, from installation to installation, creating a circular procession through the show.
EN MAS’ doesn’t include any actual performances during its run, which is odd for an exhibition that “considers a history of performance that does not take place on the stage or in the gallery but rather in the streets, addressing not the few but the many,” and this seems like a missed opportunity both to reach new audiences in New Orleans. The show instead focuses on more academic methods of documenting and presenting performance in exhibition spaces. Fortunately, it’s the alternating failures and successes of (re)presentation — on the part of both the curators and the artists — that make the exhibition exciting.
EN MAS’ excels when it departs from traditional photo and video documentation, favoring sculptures and multichannel video installations. Several of the artists successfully transform documentation into art objects themselves. Nicolás Dumit Estévez created “C Room” in his hometown of Santiago de los Treinta Caballeros, Dominican Republic, using a room at the Museu Folklórico Don Tomás Morel to help visitors indulge in the queerness of adornment, while enacting their fears, desires, and fantasies. The artist stockpiled local dollar-store finds and Carnival decorations and helped dress each visitor during private conversations. His installation at the CAC presents photographs and videos from the project inside of a booth, shrouded in glittering red streamers — a physical escape from the rest of the gallery.
Estévez’s “C Room” proposes ornamentation as a process of reassembling and reimagining identity, and the biggest thread connecting the performances in EN MAS’ is a dialogue between masquerade and otherness, whether that comes in the form of race, class, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality.
In “Positions + Power,” Marlon Griffith addressed the policing of middle- and working-class communities by reenvisioning a police watchtower — often omnipresent in communities of color during Carnival season — as an androgynous cyborg leading a procession through the streets of Port of Spain, Trinidad. Griffith’s “Overseer” was dressed in all black, stripped of the luscious celebratory color we usually associate with Carnival, and its flood light eyes swept back and forth, actively projecting a sense of fear into the streets. The artist used the form and tactics of the police to draw attention instead to a larger cultural fear of bodies that cannot easily be defined by gender, race, or class. At the CAC, the video documentation of Griffith’s performance is overshadowed by the sharply lit display of the costumes created for it, as well as a series of works Jamaican photographer Marlon James. Without knowing the details, these images seem to document a sci-fi invasion of the city and give the entire presentation an otherworldly quality.
Ebony G. Patterson similarly took back the streets by orchestrating a “bling funeral” — a tradition among urban working-class communities in Kingston, Jamaica, of a funeral procession involving heavily ornamented coffins — in the midst of the city’s largely middle- and upper-class Carnival celebrations. The guerrilla funeral served to memorialize the deaths of 72 people killed during a government raid on the largely poor Kingston neighborhood of Tivoli Gardens in 2010. Patterson’s colorful, oversized coffins tower over a multi-channel video installation at the CAC, suggesting that they could be paraded around at any moment. Like Griffith’s piece, the power of Patterson’s work is in its forceful reclamation of public space, echoed in both of their installations, which give the viewer a sense of the scale of the actual performances.
This connection to the original works is vital for making sense of what’s on display at the CAC. John Beadle’s delicate costumes cut from cardboard represent a performance that hadn’t yet occurred when the exhibition opened in March. The pieces are stunning, but there’s little information to contextualize how they relate to his performance or the cityscape of Nassau. They would have benefited from documentation of how they’re worn and activated.
The one local work, Cauleen Smith’s “H-E-L-L-O (Infra-Sound/Structure),” translates the famous musical sequence from Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind into a greeting for sites around New Orleans loaded with the histories of music and procession. Unfortunately, the film feels dry and distant, and fails to capture the energy of Mardi Gras or even the myriad festivals, Second Line parades, and jazz funerals that fill the city streets on a daily basis, indicating the ways in which EN MAS’ is limited by the walls of the CAC.
Still, New Orleans — a city largely ignored by the contemporary art world, save for during the triennial iterations of Prospect New Orleans — is perhaps the best site for an exhibition like this, free as it is from the white-washed expectations or historical baggage of a major museum in New York or Los Angeles. New Orleans’s colonial histories are much more evident throughout the city, and it is, of course, the center of Carnival celebrations in the United States. It seems a shame, though, that the exhibition didn’t open a few weeks earlier, during the revelry of Mardi Gras, in order to channel or to respond to that vibrancy. EN MAS’ does not and cannot capture the overwhelming energy of participation and community in the streets during Carnival, but it does serve as a moment to reflect on how artists, curators, and viewers can make sense of performance inside and outside of museum walls.
EN MAS’: Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean continues at the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans through June 7. The exhibition will travel with Independent Curators International to several venues which have not yet been announced.