Anniversaries call for exhibitions, and art museums across New Orleans felt compelled to remember Hurricane Katrina as the 10th anniversary of its landfall approaches. But the anniversary shows at some of the city's most high-profile museums seem surprisingly understated, at least to outsiders' eyes. In fact, they barely seem to be about Katrina at all.
"I didn't know that's what it was," says one baffled tourist when he's informed he's in the middle of a Katrina-related show called "The Rising" at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Evan Smith of Birmingham, Ala., looks around at photographs of gay teenagers, Latino migrant workers and oil refineries. "I didn't know that, no," he says.
Curator Richard McCabe knows his showcase of the city's up-and-coming photographers doesn't exactly scream Katrina. He tells a group of students, "I was a little worried about doing this because I wanted to do something about the 10-year anniversary but there was no way I could go back and relive it through photographs because they were just too painful."
McCabe, who moved to New Orleans just before Katrina, ruled out so-called disaster porn for "The Rising." That meant no wreckage, no waterlines and no people trapped on roofs.
"The tourists would love to see those pictures," he says ruefully, "because a lot of people think half of New Orleans is still underwater, you know?"
McCabe curated this show for a city with a long and illustrious history of photography. Back in the early 1900s, photographer E.J. Bellocq documented New Orleans' brothels. (His career was later fictionalized in the movie Pretty Baby.) Today, New Orleans' photography scene is more vibrant than ever, according to McCabe. He wanted to take control of the imagery with a fresh exhibition that shows how the city sees itself now.
"We've done, at this institution alone, like 20 Katrina shows," he observes.
The same problem bedeviled Russell Lord, curator of photographs at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Lord also decided against including explicit Katrina images in his anniversary show, "Ten Years Gone," partly, he says, because of what they could trigger.
"Psychologists and psychiatrists are kind of preparing for this moment and preparing for an onslaught of those kinds of images and the effect they might have on people in terms of PTSD," he says.
So Lord went abstract. His show explores themes like time, memory, loss and transformation. One room in the show is filled with little bronze lumps about the size of a fist. They're grimy and filled with holes.
"They're crawfish dwellings," Lord explains. "They create these mounds for survival."
The artist, Willie Birch, is a New Orleans native who grew up kicking over dried crawfish mounds. In his un-air-conditioned studio in New Orleans' 7th Ward, Birch explains that he found more crawfish dwellings in his backyard after Katrina than he'd ever seen before, so he cast them in bronze.
"These are incredible little critters," he says. "So how can I use them? I can use them to make metaphor as a signifier for survival."
The New Orleans Museum of Art also commissioned work for "Ten Years Gone" by New Orleans artist Dawn DeDeaux. She made tall, thick, polished acrylic slabs that seem to be filled with water. Each piece is named after conversations she heard after the storm while waiting in lines at places like the Red Cross. " 'Oh, I only got 4 feet' or 'I got over 8'; 'I topped in at 6.' No one even had to use 'water,' " she says. "You knew what they were referring to. Everyone was concerned about: How much water did you get?"
And then DeDeaux makes a startling Katrina confession: "I learned this about natural disasters: They're also quite beautiful." She recalls being in a mall parking lot where all the windows were blown out by the storm. It was filled with glass. "Then, all of a sudden, the sun came out and I was standing in a field of diamonds," she says. "All of a sudden, everything was glistening. It was extraordinarily beautiful. And I was shocked to hear myself utter — there I am in tears: 'Oh my gosh, this is so beautiful.' "
DeDeaux says she wanted her work commemorating Katrina to reflect that experience — "to both be frightening, and also beautiful."
Meanwhile, a show called "REVERB" at the city's Contemporary Arts Center takes the anniversary as its starting and ending point. Director Neil Barclay says their show isn't actually about Katrina — they're more interested in what the city's artists have been doing ever since.
"Was it social activism?" he wonders. "Was it aesthetic innovation? What was it they took from that? What was it they left behind, perhaps?"
The 10th anniversary of Katrina's landfall (in late August) hasn't even passed yet, but the city's curators are already looking ahead to the next landmark. Richard McCabe at the Ogden jokes with a couple of photographers in his Katrina show (that's not really about Katrina) about having to curate another one in five years.
"We gotta go there again?" he moans. "This is it, man. This is it. I'm not doing it again."
New Orleans, McCabe says firmly, has moved on.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Art museums in New Orleans are marking the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina with special exhibits, but a lot of the art is not really about Katrina. Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Several tourists at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art seemed a little baffled.
EVAN SMITH: I didn't know that that's what it was. It was of Katrina. I didn't - it is.
WENDY LEWIS: I didn't know that. No.
ULABY: Evan Smith and Wendy Lewis came to the show from Birmingham, but they missed a tour by its curator Richard McCabe.
RICHARD MCCABE: Thanks for coming, y'all. This is "The Rising" exhibition, and this is my 10-year Katrina show. And I was a little worried about doing this because I wanted to do something about this - you know, the 10th year anniversary - but there was no way I could go back and relive it through the photographs 'cause they were just too painful, really.
ULABY: McCabe moved to New Orleans just before Katrina. For the show, he ruled out what's called disaster porn - now wreckage, no water lines, no people trapped on roofs.
MCCABE: The tourists would love to see those pictures 'cause a lot of people think half of New Orleans is still under water, you know?
ULABY: McCabe curated the show for another audience.
MCCABE: I was thinking more of New Orleans when I did this.
ULABY: The city's history of photography is long and illustrious.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PRETTY BABY")
KEITH CARRADINE: (As E.J. Bellocq) Put your hand behind your head. That's it.
ULABY: The movie "Pretty Baby" immortalized photographer E.J. Bellocq, who shot the city's brothels in the early 1900s. Now, Richard McCabe says, New Orleans' photography scene is more vibrant than ever. His show at the Ogden celebrates today's New Orleans - its Latino migrant workers, gay teenagers, Mardi Gras Indians and its landscape of ports, street, parties and shotgun shacks. McCabe wanted to take control of the imagery, and he was tired of what everyone's already seeing.
MCCABE: And we've done, at this institution alone, like, 20 Katrina shows.
ULABY: The same problem bedeviled Russell Lord of the New Orleans Museum of Art. He faced the Katrina anniversary show with dread. He also decided against including explicit Katrina images.
RUSSELL LORD: Psychologists and psychiatrists are kind of preparing for this moment and preparing for a potential onslaught of those kinds of images and the effects that they might have on people, in terms of PTSD.
ULABY: So instead, Lord went abstract. One room in his show's filled with little, bronze lumps about the size of a fist, grimy and filled with holes. I have no idea what they are.
LORD: Crawfish mounds - they're crawfish dwellings. They create these temporary mounds for survival.
ULABY: The artist Willie Birch plays "The Rough Guide to Voodoo" CD while working in a studio in New Orleans' Seventh Ward.
WILLIE BIRCH: Yeah, may be ancestors (laughter). See?
ULABY: Birch, like a lot of people in this part of the world, grew up kicking around dried crawfish mounts. After Katrina...
BIRCH: ...I had more of them in my backyard than I'd ever had. I think it's because of the water table. Keep in mind that three feet underneath the earth is water. It's water in New Orleans. So any ground that you're walking on, you are really walking on water (laughter). So for whatever reason, as the water table came up, it pushed these crawfish to the surface, and they built these dwellings. And I kept saying these are edible little critters. So how can I use them? I could use them as - to make metaphor, as a signifier for survival.
ULABY: Birch cast them in bronze. The New Orleans Museum of Art also commissioned work by another local artist, Dawn DeDeaux. She made thick polished acrylic slabs that seem filled with water. Their 5, 6, 8 feet tall and communicate a chilling sense of being underwater. Each piece is named after bits of conversation she heard standing in line after Katrina in places like the Red Cross.
DAWN DEDEAUX: Oh, I only got 4 feet, or I got over eight. We topped in at six. No one even had to use water. You knew what they were referring to. Everybody was concerned about how - how much water did you get?
ULABY: As we talked, DeDeaux startled me by how she remembered Katrina.
DEDEAUX: I have to confess that I learned about this - natural disasters - is they're also quite beautiful.
ULABY: DeDeaux recalled walking by a mall where all the windows were blown out by the storm. The parking lot was filled with glass.
DEDEAUX: Then all of a sudden, the sun came out, and I was standing in a field of diamonds. All of a sudden, everything was glistening. It was extraordinarily beautiful, and I was shocked to hear myself utter - you know, there I am in tears - oh, my gosh, this is so beautiful.
ULABY: DeDeaux wanted her work commemorating Katrina to be like that.
DEDEAUX: I wanted it to both be frightening and also beautiful.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS)
ULABY: That's children drumming at a class at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans. Director Neil Barclay says a new show there takes the 10th anniversary of Katrina as its starting point, but...
NEIL BARCLAY: Our show is not actually about Katrina.
ULABY: He's more interested in everything that's happened to the city's artists since.
BARCLAY: Look, Katrina happened, and then 10 years passed. What happened for you as an artist in those 10 years? Was it social activism? Was it aesthetic innovation? Was it you became an artist? What was it that they took from it? What was it that they left behind, perhaps?
ULABY: The city's curators are already looking ahead. Back at the Ogden Museum, Richard McCabe is joking with a couple of photographers in his Katrina - or not Katrina - show. They're teasing him about having to curate another one in five years.
MCCABE: Oh, god, we've got to go there again?
MCCABE: This is, man. This is it. This is it. I'm not doing 15, 20.
ULABY: New Orleans, he says, has moved on. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.