On the afternoon in 1884 that New Orleans erected its principal monument to Robert E. Lee, the heavens let loose a deluge. It was February 22—George Washington’s birthday—and thousands had gathered at a circle on the edge of downtown. A band played the “Grand March” from Rienzi, an early opera by Richard Wagner about a valiant battle hopelessly lost. Milling among the various New Orleans civic leaders was Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, the former Confederate general (from neighboring St. Bernard Parish) who kicked off the Civil War by attacking Fort Sumter, helped popularize the use of the Confederate battle flag, and, following his defeat, did his part to buttress the cult of the lost cause. Also in attendance were two of Lee’s daughters, Mary and Mildred; Lee had died of a stroke fourteen years before.
The torrent sent the crowd running but didn’t dampen the spirits of the event’s organizers. According to an account published in The Times-Democrat the following day, they simply repaired to a nearby artillery hall. The paper printed in full the planned speech by Charles E. Fenner, a local judge who served as the president of the R.E. Lee Monumental Association, the organization that saw the monument to completion. The speech was spectacularly obsequious, hailing Lee as endowed with “exceptional gifts of physical beauty” and as a “chivalric chieftain of the lost cause.”
Like the oratory, the monument to Lee was hyperbolic—in this case, in scale. It was composed of a towering sixteen-foot bronze atop a sixty-foot Doric column of Tennessee marble on a base of Georgia granite—all of which emerged from an earthen berm at the heart of a well-trafficked roundabout. It showed the general in his Confederate service uniform, arms crossed, as though “overlooking the field of battle,” according to a newspaper report of the era. The statue, one of the earliest and most prominent of the Jim Crow–era Confederate monuments, stood in this place for 133 years.
In 2015, after the mass murder of nine Black parishioners by a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina, and much public debate about the purpose of Confederate monuments, the New Orleans City Council voted six to one to remove four monuments, including the one to Lee and a statue of Beauregard that stood at the entrance to City Park. Lee didn’t actually come down for another year and a half—after protests, lawsuits, threats of violence, and actual violence. (The contractor who had been hired to remove the monuments woke up one morning to find that his sports car had been incinerated.) On May 19, 2017, the general’s bronze likeness was finally plucked off by a crane, then carted to a warehouse. “The Civil War is over,” said then mayor Mitch Landrieu on the occasion; “the Confederacy lost and we are better for it.”
Left behind at the roundabout were the granite base and the sixty-foot column. Lee remains, however, as a ghost. Though the circle has been stripped of all reference to him, it has yet to be officially renamed. “Lee Circle,” therefore, still appears as a destination on Google Maps.
Late in January, a new monument materialized at the roundabout—one that is as much a monument to the removal of monuments as it is to the histories that Confederate monuments attempt to obscure. Sentinel (Mami Wata), by the New York artist Simone Leigh, is the final public art installation from “Prospect.5: Yesterday we said tomorrow,” the fifth edition of New Orleans’s citywide art triennial, which has been held at semi-regular intervals since 2008. (Originally scheduled for the fall of 2020, the show finally opened—in stages—last October and concluded in January, though Leigh’s monument will remain on view until late July.)
Sentinel is a twelve-foot bronze inspired by the anthropomorphic qualities of Zulu ceremonial spoons, in which an elongated representation of the human body serves as handle, while the circular head functions as ladle. It is the body as a literal vessel, something Leigh—who is representing the US at the 59th Venice Biennale this spring—has long explored in her work. In the case of New Orleans, her figure is a highly stylized representation of Mami Wata, a female water deity with deep roots in African lore who also appears among the cultures of the Caribbean and the Atlantic coast of South America under various guises, including Yemanja in Brazil, Lasirèn in Haiti, and Oshun in Cuba. (Beyoncé, in her video for “Hold Up,” from 2016, pays visual tribute to Oshun by dressing in the deity’s customary yellow and emerging from a building amid a gush of water.)
Mami Wata invokes water’s life-giving qualities and its calamitous powers, themes resonant in New Orleans, a city shaped by African and Caribbean migrations and spiritual practices and by the bodies of water that surround it. Water has given the city its shape and rained destruction upon it, in ways both natural and man-made. Some of Prospect.5’s programs, indeed, were delayed as a result of the widespread damage caused by Hurricane Ida, a deadly Category 4 storm that tore through the region in August 2021. As the New Orleans essayist and curator Kristina Kay Robinson writes in the show’s catalog, “Nothing happens here without consideration, deference, and, ultimately, submission to what the water may bring.”
Lee Circle had until the 1880s been known as Tivoli Circle, in honor of the centuries-old gardens in Italy. Before that, it had been a cypress swamp, a colonial plantation site, and an open plot that once housed a circus. During the Civil War, the circle served as a campground for Union troops. After Hurricane Katrina, the area, which stood on higher ground and therefore wasn’t flooded, became an informal day labor site where workers—many of Latin American origin—could gather to find jobs in the reconstruction efforts.
Over the years, countless local personalities have been pitched as possible replacements for Lee at Lee Circle, including the civil rights leader Avery Alexander; the Creole chef Leah Chase; the musicians Fats Domino, Louis Armstrong, and Ellis Marsalis (father of Wynton); as well as Tom Benson, the late owner of the New Orleans Saints. In 2019 a sci-fi-inspired Mardi Gras crew created a replica monument with a Wookiee from Star Wars occupying Lee’s place. Last year a city commission issued a recommendation to rename the roundabout Egalité Circle, inspired by eighteenth-century liberation movements in Haiti and France, but that appellation has yet to be made official by the city council. In the meantime, some (including the organizers of Prospect) have simply taken to calling it Tivoli Circle once again.
Interestingly, Leigh’s Mami Wata doesn’t stand atop the column that held Lee aloft. Instead, its sinuous feminine form resides on the earth—“at the level of the people,” as Nick Stillman, the executive director of Prospect, told Doug MacCash of The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate upon its installation. The empty column remains as a tribute to the act of removal and to the activists who worked for years to make that possible. It also stands as a marker of the ongoing debates about how we remember history in the United States.
The name “Prospect.5: Yesterday we said tomorrow” was inspired by a 2010 album by the New Orleans trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Yesterday You Said Tomorrow, a recording whose pointed track titles—“K.K.P.D.,” “Angola, LA & the 13th Amendment”—refer to police brutality and the carceral state. With its promise of a moment that never arrives, the phrase is an apt description of our pandemic stasis and the pledges of equality that succumb to the politics of not-the-right-time. In the triennial, it took on a barbed quality. Tomorrow has landed, this show seemed to tell us, and it is today.
This came to vivid life in an installation around the corner from Leigh’s Mami Wata, inside a restored Romanesque-style library from the nineteenth century that functions as an ancillary space for the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. To access the library, viewers must enter through the Ogden’s main door up the block, then double back through a long, ground-level tunnel before ascending into the library up a flight of spiral stairs. That’s because the museum and the library buildings do not border each other; standing between them is the Confederate Memorial Hall Museum, a wholly separate institution. The historic hall, where Confederate president Jefferson Davis’s body once lay in state, now functions as a museum of Confederate artifacts. (As the Southern Poverty Law Center noted in a report on Confederate symbols released in early February, while many monuments have come down, more than two thousand memorials remain in place across the US—not counting shrines such as Memorial Hall.)
The journey underneath Memorial Hall made the Prospect.5 installation within the library even more meaningful. There, six neon signs bearing six calendar dates between 2017 and 2020 were hung in the arched reading room—a work by Glenn Ligon that marked the days on which Confederate monuments were removed from sites around New Orleans, including Tivoli Circle. The installation, writes Prospect.5 co-curator Naima J. Keith in the exhibition catalog, “celebrates the era when New Orleans dared to redefine its past, condemning long-tired tropes celebrating allegiances and services to the Confederacy.”
Accompanying Ligon’s work was a stirring sound loop by Jennie C. Jones that explored the idea of the crescendo in Black musical traditions. One portion of it featured three choirs performing “A City Called Heaven,” a soaring spiritual popularized by Mahalia Jackson. Another was more abstract and melancholy, sampling a fragment of a composition for viola by Alvin Singleton and fusing it with chimes and electronic tones. Spatially, these made for an installation in which past and future chafed against each other in an uneasy present—an incisive use of architecture and the histories embedded within it. Spiritually, the ascendant audio made it feel as if that history was being exorcised—though the circular nature of the sonic loops, along with the circular layout of the room, indicated a process that remains ongoing.
Prospect.5 was organized by Keith and Diana Nawi, who served as artistic directors, in collaboration with associate curator Grace Deveney and curatorial associate Lucia Olubunmi Momoh. In addition to museums and galleries, the triennial featured installations in plazas, parks, a lakeside airport, and a dour urban island tucked into an on-ramp of Interstate 10. That last site featured Nari Ward’s Battle Ground Beacon, a portable police floodlight, which instead of projecting light emitted a rousing, eleven-minute sound piece once an hour.
Beacon blared Buddhist chants by Tina Turner punctuated by fragments of speeches and spoken-word pieces on race and justice by James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., and the poet Amanda Gorman. It felt like a call to prayer and to resistance—“nourishment for soul, for meaning, for purpose,” as Cornel West says in one clip. The audio is hypnotic (and worth finding on the Prospect.5 website) and the location poignant: in historically Black Tremé, at a site where the neighborhood has been sundered by an elevated freeway. On the weekday afternoon I visited, the only other observers were the commuting cars that circled the on-ramp on their way to somewhere else.
This was a tighter Prospect than in some years past, featuring fifty-one artist projects (versus the seventy-three of the previous iteration, held in 2017). The show, as has been typical since its inception in 2008, was international in scope, but this edition was firmly rooted in New Orleans. From there, it radiated outward to the rest of the US, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe, the specific locales to which the city has been bound by, as Nawi describes in her catalog essay, the “threads of exchange and influence.”
Those threads were visible throughout the exhibition. At the Historic New Orleans Collection, a museum housed in a series of historic homes in the French Quarter, the scholar and curator Josh Kun highlighted the curious musical influence of the Eighth Cavalry Mexican Military Band. With an exhibition of sheet music, photographs, and recordings, as well as occasional live events, he brought to life the music of a band that dazzled New Orleans in the late nineteenth century with waltzes, polkas, and danzones. (You know their work: they helped popularize a Mexican composition titled “Sobre las olas”—“Over the Waves”—an undulating waltz that became the de facto ditty of trapeze acts.)
One neighborhood over, at the Contemporary Arts Center in the Warehouse Arts District, an engrossing two-channel video installation by Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Cuervo and Low-Polygon Poem (2021), brought the Caribbean into view. Shot in Haiti and the artist’s native Puerto Rico, this meditative film captures fragments of two countries connected to New Orleans by history, by the sea, by the wrath of storms and the interventions (or lack thereof) of the US federal government. Images of fantastic sea creatures and animations of oceanic trenches were intercut with shots of mundane objects, ethnographic observations, and scenes of surreal entropy—like a horse scratching its rump on an old car. Which country each frame originated in can be hard to tell. As this puzzling montage unfolds, the voices of several unseen narrators ruminate on the nature of reality, memory, and time. “There is a genre of epic poetry in Sanskrit,” says a man’s voice in Haitian Creole at both the beginning and end of the video, “which tells two tales at the same time in the same text.”
In its structure, Santiago Muñoz’s video evokes this form, telling one tale through audio and an often unrelated one through video. Ultimately, it’s a poetic examination of the parallel spaces occupied by Haiti and Puerto Rico, two nations that inhabit neighboring islands in the same geographic space yet remain disconnected in language, cultural practice, and critical infrastructure. There are no direct flights between San Juan and Port-au-Prince; travel between the two nations generally requires at least one stop in the mainland US.
Ultimately, Prospect.5 always brought the viewer back to New Orleans—with encounters that were both deliberate and serendipitous. At the New Orleans African American Museum, for example, works from Prospect.5 casually intermingled with an unrelated exhibition organized by Kristina Kay Robinson that explored real and imagined Black spaces. That show contained a sensational piece by Langston Allston that impressed with its scale: a black-and-white painting on a wall-sized white tarp titled Second Line Sunday that depicts an ebullient Mardi Gras celebration under a portion of elevated highway. The scene is framed by a handwritten text that reads like a fusion of poetry, essay, and diary:
New Orleans, Louisiana. Time moves differently. People make themselves bigger by being beautiful. In beads & masks & paint & on horses & in fast cars & far from fear & far from peace sometimes too…
Dialogues like this—among artists, and between artists and the city—materialized throughout Prospect.5. At the Ogden Museum, intimately scaled sculptures of shotgun-style houses and the shacks of tenant farmers by the late Beverly Buchanan sat within view of large-scale drawings of quiet New Orleans street scenes by Willie Birch, representing visions of vernacular African American architecture. In another gallery at the Ogden, the Neighborhood Story Project, a nonprofit organization devoted to recording the histories of South Louisiana, presented a series of installations that examined regional spiritual practices that have historically been shepherded by Black women. (It included a splendid altar to Mami Wata.)
Across the street at the Contemporary Arts Center, the upper gallery seemed to respond to these spiritual themes with a beguiling collection of pieces by contemporary artists that sat at the intersection of spirit and landscape. Particularly potent were a series of works by the late Carlos Villa, a Filipino American artist from San Francisco who braided together Asian, Oceanic, and indigenous artistic traditions in large-scale canvases with meditative patterns of looping forms. These often functioned as backdrops to arrangements of objects: feathers, body prints, and details that were, in some cases, rendered in blood. Suspended from the gallery’s ceiling was Villa’s 1977 sculpture First Coat, a ceremonial-style cloak made from canvas and feathers that was measured to his body. Its presence seemed to transform the gallery into a site of religious ritual.
Prospect.5’s historical, environmental, and spiritual themes came together in a small, tightly curated grouping of work at the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University. In larger-than-life charcoal drawings, the New Orleans native Ron Bechet blew up details of southern Louisiana flora—shrubs, buttress root systems, dangling lianas—and, through stark shadows and texture, made of them a natural world filled with such vigor that it awed as much as it alarmed.
On view in the adjacent galleries were several of Barbara Chase-Riboud’s “stele” sculptures, works she conceived to reimagine the formal language of monuments. Chase-Riboud, a novelist, poet, and artist who was born in Philadelphia and now resides in France, made the first of these back in 1969 to honor Malcolm X, though she has since expanded the series to make reference to other subjects. Slightly larger than human scale but purely abstract, they are generally composed of a tangle of geometric shapes cast in bronze from which fall resplendent “skirts” crafted from silk rope and skeins of silk thread. The artist has described them as drawing on universal forms that occur in every civilization: as she said during a talk at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2013, “They occur in Peru, they occur in China, they occur in Ireland, they occur in Greece.” At the entrance to the exhibition stood the stele Mao’s Organ (2007), a billowing combination of glimmering polished bronze and crimson red silk that commanded the room with extravagant authority.
While Chase-Riboud’s work reflected on the ways in which history is evoked, Los Angeles–based artist Elliott Hundley focused on the ways it can be a chimera—via an astonishing forty-foot multimedia collage titled The Balcony, after a 1956 satire by Jean Genet. Genet’s play is set in a brothel where customers pay to role-play powerful men, roles they end up inhabiting for real when a revolution interrupts their reverie and they continue their act before a restive crowd.
Hundley’s sprawling reimagination of those sordid scenes spans ten conjoined panels jammed with thousands of small images that have been clipped out of books, magazines, and photographs and impressively arranged by theme and hue. These included depictions of ancient and modern art, geometric patterns, architectural diagrams, bodies in various states of dress and motion, objects of desire like jewelry and fancy cars, contested monuments, symbols of protest, and sundry athletes, entertainers, warriors, and politicians, including Ronald Reagan—as shown in a black-and-white reproduction of Thin Lips (1984–1985), Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol’s painting that depicts the president as a bogeyman of Western capitalism, with various economic terms (“outlays,” “deficit”) stenciled over his face. In its entirety, Hundley’s collage reads like a staggering portrait of our fractured United States, one in which illusion and reality are hopelessly, dangerously conflated.
It is impossible to write about Prospect.5 without considering the reason for its existence: Katrina. Prospect New Orleans was born of a desire to draw visitors to the city and thereby help it recover economically after the storm. It was a lofty goal that, in retrospect, was rather fraught—especially for an art world tangled up in struggles over gentrification in urban neighborhoods and the sources of its patronage. Seventeen years after the storm and fourteen years after the first Prospect, New Orleans is a whiter city. Vast swaths of the Lower Ninth Ward, the site of many Prospect installations over the years, remain empty—the promise of high culture’s deliverance largely unfulfilled. As Naima Keith writes in a sharp, clear-eyed essay in the catalog, “In a city desperately in need of basic resources and rebuilding, proposing art as a tool of healing and justice seemed simultaneously hopeful and optimistically naïve.”
It’s a question that at least one artist in the triennial tackled directly. The New York–based sculptor and performance artist Kevin Beasley took his Prospect.5 commission funds—along with some of his own money—and acquired an empty lot in the Ninth Ward that he transformed into a community garden equipped with electrical outlets and a Wi-Fi hot spot. A set of concrete steps, once someone’s stoop, now functions as an impromptu bench. The property sits amid the vestiges of other attempts to revitalize the neighborhood, including the houses built by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation. A report published by an urban geographer from the University of Illinois in late January revealed that only six of the original 109 homes—all of which are less than fifteen years old—“remain in reasonably good shape.” Two have been demolished because of mold problems as others lie empty, and Pitt’s foundation is now mired in lawsuits. Beasley is all too aware of the ways in which his own project could fail. He told The New York Times’s Siddhartha Mitter in January, “As we’re breaking ground on my project, the carcasses of everything else are still there.”
One artist and one triennial can’t make up for decades of disinvestment and disenfranchisement, of course. But perhaps what they can do is create moments of meaningful engagement. Dave McKenzie is a conceptual artist who was born in Jamaica and now lives in New York. He was one of a small group of artists who participated in the first Prospect New Orleans in 2008 and were invited back for Prospect.5. (The others are Mark Bradford, Wangechi Mutu, Nari Ward, and Willie Birch.) For that first edition of the show, McKenzie pitched an action that, at the time, sounded like a performative prank: his piece, titled I’ll Be Back, would consist of visiting New Orleans once a year for the following decade.
The artist kept his word, traveling to the city every year, including the year in which he lost his father, who died in November 2010. “I always went at the end of the year,” he told me by phone from New York.
We were staying at my mother’s house, and I had to tell her, I know you’re not feeling well and you’re grieving, but we’re going to leave you alone…. I’m going to New Orleans. No one is waiting for me. There are no consequences for not going.
That commitment, he added, is “the crux of the piece…. Not only did I say I was going to go, but if things are difficult, I’m still going to go.” McKenzie said his journeys to the city were largely unremarkable. He didn’t stage performances or pursue some obsessive checklist. In 2009, he took his father.
For his Prospect.5 project, McKenzie bought a niche at Hope Mausoleum in New Orleans, where he will bury a bracelet his father once wore. (Because of Covid he has yet to inter the object, but three black-and-white photographs that were on view at the Contemporary Arts Center recorded the mausoleum and the bracelet.) He says it is a way of joining his memories of his father with those of New Orleans: “This place that I wanted to go back to was also a place I would go back to and remember him.”
This rather private gesture will do nothing to change life in the city. But it is emblematic of what Prospect.5 was able to achieve in its most thoughtful corners. It was about getting to know New Orleans and, over time, forming a bond.