Whose art is Katrina art?

In hurricane’s wake, local artists found themselves competing with outsiders to record the event.

By MARK GUARINO | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

New Orleans — Four weeks after the levees broke, submerging her city under 10 feet of water, Susan Gisleson sneaked back into the city to rebuild her house. The New Orleans native waited for her neighbors to show up and do the same. But at the end of each day, she and her family were still alone.

“Nobody came back. Nobody came back for weeks. It was looking for a while that nobody wanted to come back and rebuild the city. We felt the shock of thinking, ‘What would happen if the city should not come back?’ ” Ms. Gisleson says. “That’s why we had the impetus to start creating things.”

Under the collective name Antenna, she and other artists staged art shows and literary events, published books, and hosted free workshops, all in the spirit of breathing new life into New Orleans, a city that many in the wake of hurricane Katrina, had left for dead.

The embers of those early endeavors helped launch a full-fledged artistic renaissance in New Orleans, embodied by a new arts district of storefront galleries in the city’s Bywater and St. Roch neighborhoods, increased enrollment in the local university art programs, and the arrival of artists from all over the world.

The amplified activity is building a body of work that addresses Katrina from both the inside and from many states away.

As a source of recorded history, the art offers dimensions much more complex than those of photography or video. But there are those who say artwork involving the flood is in danger of becoming “emotional pornography,” says Gisleson. Like many things in New Orleans – pictures of cemetery tombs, bus tours of the devastated Lower Ninth Ward – the city’s moribund charm is inevitably tagged with a price.

“It’s annoying,” says Bob Shaffer, a longtime sculptor and painter known for his “Be Nice or Leave” signs assigned to every bar in town. “There’s a lot of carpetbaggers and scalawags coming down here and playing on the art scene. If someone comes down here [to capitalize on Katrina], they better be giving it back.”

Prospect One, an international art exhibition, was staged in the city’s most devastated areas in November 2008. It offered artists from across the world a chance to showcase work that explored Katrina in images and performance pieces.

Chris Saucedo, a sculptor whose home was inundated by 10 feet of water and who still sleeps in a FEMA trailer, says that while the 10-day exhibition “literally put us on the map as a destination of contemporary art,” for local artists it presented “complicated feelings of being appreciative [that outside artists] were here but [feeling] overlooked at the same time.”

“I didn’t need artists from Brazil and London to make Katrina art. That’s my story,” says Mr. Saucedo. “On the other hand, a lot of it was so good and so powerful, I just loved it.”

For some artists, being hyped on Katrina art added to “a sense of fatigue,” an inevitable condition for most residents who returned to rebuild. “We lived so much with Katrina, and for people to come in and want to experience it for themselves made it go on longer,” says Lawrence Jenkins, chairman of the University of New Orleans fine arts department. “It wasn’t hostile, but you did feel a disconnect with people who are still doing that art or exploring the disaster after you lived with [it] for 3-1/2 years.”

David Houston, chief curator of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, says that when the museum reopened the October following Katrina, it ran exhibitions related to the disaster for a full year in an effort to examine what happened and to open a debate to provide possible solutions.

But he said that after a while, Katrina became a genre that “for New Orleans, is over.”

“I don’t think it has gone away at all, but I think it almost has been trivialized,” says Mr. Houston. There’s still serious bodies of work being made, but people have really tried to move on.”

That includes moving on from the assumptions that only those who lived through the disaster on New Orleans soil are capable of expressing what it meant in their work.

When television, newspapers, and Internet images showed New Orleans drowning, David Bates, like most people watching, felt he was witnessing an event of horrible national importance. In his Dallas home were two television sets – one for recording one channel, the other to watch in real time.

Mr. Bates felt he “wanted all the information” on what was happening. But as the week wore on and the event grew in magnitude, that news tracking turned into a yearning he could not shake. “I just felt I needed to do something,” he says.

So he painted.

Bates, an artist whose work is collected in major institutions, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, has long had an affinity for New Orleans. His television viewing exposed him to faces that now live as still lifes in more than 50 paintings and drawings he created over the course of two years. Bates says he used, as a reference, “Guernica,” the Picasso painting from 1937 of faces stricken by a bombing raid in the Spanish Civil War.

“The faces that told those stories [on television] were like the faces Picasso painted, so filled with hopelessness, fear, and so much anger,” Bates says.

Houston says that although Bates was not in New Orleans at the time, he possessed the facility to document the suffering in a way that resonated. “He somehow channeled the range of emotions,” says Houston, who displays his work at the Ogden. “You see everything from stoic denial to despair to everything in between. He really brings out this human suffering and intensity.”

Collectors have also moved on from Katrina art, but in the process have become more interested in New Orleans than before. Arthur Roger, owner of the commercial gallery that bears his name, says that before the disaster, New Orleans artists often worked disconnected from the outside art world.

That has “changed dramatically,” Mr. Rogers says. “It was quite surprising that we were busier and there was more interest in what we were doing than before.”

For artists living in New Orleans, the destruction is seen as a rare opportunity to shift what New Orleans art was known for to one more in line with the international community.

Saucedo, whose life’s work was mostly destroyed after he evacuated, says the rebuilding allowed for creative people “to raise the bar and intensify the subject matter” in their work.

“If you erase someone’s history,” he says, “maybe they will be free to make something else.”

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