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The Louisiana Project at MoAD

Magnificently Mounted Masquerades of Metaphor

I don’t remember exactly when or where I first encountered Carrie Mae Weems’ work, but she left me with a distinct impression. It was like the first undiluted moment of recognition you have when you meet someone who will eventually change your life -- a teacher, a friend, a lover, or an enemy. I don’t have much use for most art or most artists these days. I’m so over piles of dirt in corners, post-religious art object worship, and the narcissistic, academic, post-structuralist prattle about “gendering” that’s been inflicted upon us for the last generation or so.

Things like NASCAR and the National Enquirer seem much more useful to me as sources of existential delight. I often precipitate confusing moments of bug-eyed angst among my smug cosmopolitan friends with flip proclamations like “I’m not interested in art.” But despite my crotchety rive gauche pomposity, Carrie Mae Weems gets my attention because she has a story to tell. That’s all we really want, isn’t it, a good story?

Erik Neal, director of the Newcomb Art Gallery at Tulane University in New Orleans, commissioned Weems to do "The Louisiana Project" in 2003, to commemorate the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase: a fitting anniversary and purpose, for so many reasons. Recently the image of the supreme architect of this crucial event in our history, Thomas Jefferson, has been imbued with more, shall we say, complexity, for having a purported connubial relationship with one of his slaves. His greatest contribution to the country may have been pulling off what we now lovingly refer to as the “real estate deal of the millennium,” or something to that effect.

Jefferson was by all accounts a gifted politician and dealmaker, but the Louisiana Purchase was, as Weems points out, more the “consequence of Haiti, malaria, yellow fever, and the spreading seeds of freedom in the mind of Toussaint L’Ouverture.” The real story was that one empire in decline (France) was forced to dump a troublesome and unproductive chunk of empire (Louisiana) at fire sale prices to a scruffy empire on the rise (America), in order to finance a war in one of its other poorly performing pieces of real estate (Haiti).

"The Louisiana Project", an installation with still photography, canvasses, and video with narrative, is as fascinating for what it hides as for what it reveals. Weems’ rich, eloquent poetry is conveyed with equal impact through her imagery, her words, and her velvet, mesmerizing voice, with its sibilant cadence, alliteration, and poignant power:
“A woman illuminates the darkness via the passage of time: she leads us along the shores of the Mississippi down the shadowy corridors and into the theater of history. It is here, in this dark place, that desire is found lazy and wanting. We were happy to be the playmates to the patriarch: men of power and wealth, after all, we were women.”

One of the key themes of "The Louisiana Project" is the highly ritualized Mardi Gras balls where the secret societies, donning 18th century period dress, act out “ bizarre notions of heritage” in “moments made grand by cotton and courtly cotillions.” She depicts these in the form of a shadow theater, somewhat like the Balinese, where figures become blurred, graphic, and foreshortened. The backgrounds are all a blurry lattice, suggestive of lace, secret funereal gardens, or iron grilles. The figures, in their belle epoch dress, are also reminiscent of the cut paper silhouettes popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. They curtsey and prance, then engage in elaborate and slyly erotic horseplay, replete with riding crops, spanking, frilly lingerie, and dominant/submissive role reversals.

As Weems explains, the Mardi Gras rituals were where New Orleans society asserted their exquisitely hierarchical claims to power. The delicious, elegant, enigmatic shadow play seems to suggest that all is not necessarily as it seems when it comes to power, that the hidden sexual dimensions of relationships between men and women, black and white, are often blurred. It also leaves one with the impression that private sexual power probably never translated into public political power -- this is underscored by the uprooting and exposure visited upon New Orleans culture in the last year.

Weems does work in what may be called a “conceptual” genre. The show is in fact an “installation” and referred to as “a starting point from which to investigate and critique on a broader basis the politics of race, identity, gender, and class” in some of the explicatory material. But despite the vacuousness of most in her métier, she shows a consistency of purpose, control of imagery, and above all, a poetic voice that lets us approach political, racial, and class issues without becoming mired in self serving guilt or overwhelmed by the ancestral pain of our history of slavery and racism.

The culture and dichotomies of the South have been exposed by Katrina, rather like a log turned over in the swamp, and most of the country is afraid to look. What we have forgotten is that the story of the South is also the story of America, that this country was built upon a towering mountain of the bones of slaves, and we will probably never live it down. Giving us a tiny, tantalizing, ambiguous, poignant, tragic peek at Southern culture, Carrie Mae Weems makes us hungry to learn more, to learn the truth, to know the real story - even though the real story may ultimately be unknowable and fade into the mists of history before anyone can get it to hold still long enough to point a cell phone camera at it.

The Louisiana Project
By Carrie Mae Weems
runs through October 9
at the Museum of the African Diaspora
tickets, $10 general