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Redefining New Orleans: Sirmans’ Prospect.3 Shines


Tavares Strachan, You Belong Here, 2014. Courtesy of Prospect New Orleans.
Although only in its infancy, Prospect New Orleans has garnered worldwide attention as an innovative and important contemporary art biennial with its latest rendition. Prospect.3: Notes for Now opened this past weekend, and will take over eighteen venues across New Orleans until January 25th of next year. Under the curatorial eye of LACMA’s Franklin Sirmans, the biennial has brought in 58 world class artists to NOLA, with programming and events free of charge – fostering the belief that art engenders social progress. Entrancing locals and visitors for the next 13 weeks, a mesh of events, site-specific artworks, public art and satellite exhibits under the name P.3+ kicked off with the appropriate welcoming piece, Tavares Strachan’s 120-foot neon “You Belong Here” that will light up the Mississippi River during the biennial.
Hailed as the most anticipated biennial yet, Prospect New Orleans seems to have hit their stride, celebrated with a completely sold out opening benefit party, cheekily named Miss Vesta’s Swamp Galaxy Gala. Art world leaders from New York, Los Angeles and Europe turned their attention to the Deep South, flocking to Louisiana for last week’s opening event. Spread across the city, the biennial has infused itself into cultural centers like Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans, New Orleans Museum of Art, Tulane University’s Newcomb Art Gallery and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, as well as its P.3+ satellite events, incorporating 70 contemporary art exhibitions that will present 300 emerging and established New Orleans and regional artists. The all-encompassing three-plus months of activities will draw art-lovers to the city and unify the community through contemporary art, bolstering New Orleans pride by celebrating the rich creativity alive in the city almost ten years after it was defined by Hurricane Katrina.
Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled (Ella on Silk), 2014. Courtesy of Prospect New Orleans and Carolina Nitsch.
Sirmans has used his experience as Head Curator of Contemporary Art at LACMA to bring Prospect.3 to a higher echelon, inviting cutting edge artists at various levels in their career, including a heavy presence of both black and female artists. This includes a special limited edition print created specifically for Prospect by artist Carrie Mae Weems called Untitled (Ella on Silk), which portrays iconic jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald printed onto silk fabric. The print, which is an edition of 20 with 5 artist proofs, will be sold to directly generate funds for Prospect.3, offering collectors a unique collectible from the biennial while also supporting its programs.
Sirmans has gathered together a cast of artists whose work illustrate a laundry list of curatorial themes loosely categorized under the phrase “All Together Now,”  and inspired by Walker Percy’s 1961 novel The Moviegoer. The new works in the biennial address themes such as “The New Orleans Experience,” “Seeing Oneself in the Other,” “The South,” “Crime and Punishment,” “Movie Going,” “The Carnivalesque,” “Abstraction and Visual Sound.” With these themes, Sirmans hopes to present New Orleans as being on the forefront for contemporary contemplation, searching for a new identity for the city post-Katrina, seen through the lens of contemporary art.
Strachan’s barge cruises the Mississippi River. Courtesy of Prospect New Orleans.
​Will Ryman, Icon, 2011. Courtesy of the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery.
Cruising up and down the Mississippi River mounted on a barge, Strachan’s glowing neon sculpture ties together several of these themes, both making a welcoming statement while also asking visitors to contemplate their own sense of self and their placement in both New Orleans and the world. As the words “You Belong Here” are shuttled around the city, juxtaposing the phrase with different vantage points and local landmarks. Along with Strachan, Sirmans has chosen other outdoor works, such as Will Ryman’s Icon, a massive tangle of red thorny roses that soar three stories high at City Park, creating an oversized caricature of the flora found in the park’s gardens.
Andrea Fraser, Um Monumento às Fantasias Descartadas (A Monument to Discarded Fantasies), 2003. Courtesy of  the artist and Museum Ludwig Cologne. Photo by Rheinisches Bildarchiv Cologne and Britta Schlier.
The Newcomb Art Gallery is a major hub of Sirmans’ vision, including Andrea Fraser’s massive installation Um Monumento às Fantasias Descartadas (A Monument to Discarded Fantasies). Appearing like a rainbow mountain, the mesh of Brazilian carnival costumes were found abandoned on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, cast off and left by celebrators to be trampled like trash. Relating to the long tradition of Mardi Gras, the volcanic pile takes residence in the museum’s auditorium, reminding viewers of the forgotten aftermath of celebration, while hinting at the fantasy that comes with the glitter and sequins of costume.
Paul Gaugin, Under the Pandanus (I Raro te Oviri), 1891 Courtesy of Dallas Museum of Art.
At the New Orleans Museum of Art, Sirmans pulls from the past to reexamine the present with several works by Paul Gaugin, whose Impressionist paintings questioned cultural identity and origin, namely with his piece Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?.
Beans performs in front of Gary Simmons Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark. Courtesy of Prospect New Orleans.
Fully interacting with the musical flavor of the city is Gary Simmons’ Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark, an interactive sculptural installation at the abandoned Treme Market Branch bank. This stack of speakers calls on musicians to activate the sculpture, which was inaugurated with a late-night performance by hip-hop artist Beans opening weekend. In between performances, the sculptural installation remains as a reminder of events past.
Entang WIharso, Double Happiness #1, 2013. Courtesy of Marc Straus New York.
At the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans, Entang Wiharso’s intricate Double Happiness #1evokes modern Indonesian pop iconography and political history, rendered in vibrant aluminum. Using a traditional method of working in thin metals, his pieces create a dialogue between modernity and tradition, in an attempt to balance the present and past.
Pieter Hugo, Escort Kama. Enugu, Nigeria, 2008. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg.
Also at CACNO is Pieter Hugo’s Escort Kama. Enugu, Nigeria, from his Nollywood series which pursue the expression of Nigerian “self- consciousness.” Based off of films made cheaply by native Nigerians without any financial or creative influence from the west, the images bring attention to the stereotypical interpretation of the Western gaze with their removal from local context. Akin to Nollywood films made in Nigeria, Hugo relies on the art-viewing public’s international origins, assuming his images will portray a certain exoticism about Nigeria that viewers will read as real.
Prospect.3: Notes for Now Catalog. Courtesy of Prospect New Orleans.
Basquiat and the Bayou Catalog. Courtesy of Prospect New Orleans.
In addition to the exemplary exhibitions around the city, the biennial has also released a publication, also titled Prospect.3 Notes for Now, a grandiose collection of essays related to the biennial, as well as Basquiat and the Bayou, a catalogue which accompanies a complete exhibition at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art that explores Basquiat’s references of the South in his body of work.
At once inspirational and overwhelming, the all-encompassing, Prospect.3 under Sirmans’ influence has helped a new New Orleans emerge post-Katrina. Looking forward and looking within, the biennial has redefined the role of art in the region, bringing New Orleans under the nose of the international art market while introducing the city into a new creative era.


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