By Shemsi Frezel, Art Contributor
Outsiders often remark on New Orleans’s seemingly unique ability to hold on to historical elements of culture that have long since disappeared from other cities in America. In New Orleans, the goal has never been to reinvent the wheel rather take what already exists and add a little flare. “Ashe to Amen” the current exhibition at Ashe Cultural Arts Center celebrates the cultural retentions and remixes evident in New Orleans’s evolving visual arts landscape. The exhibition is spatially and thematically divided into three sections, each portion of the exhibition works to show how New Orleans artists have modified and expanded on African art making traditions overtime. Spatially the exhibition spans Ashe’s three locations: Ashe I, Ashe Too, and Ashe Power House with each gallery featuring art that highlights a particular theme.
The focus of Ashe I is on traditional African works mainly from the 20th century. The works range from the functional like hunter’s shirts from Mali made from thick fabric and adorned with shells and a meticulously carved wooden door from the Dogon People of Mali, to the decorative and spiritual like the colorful pieces of Yoruba beadwork and graphic dance masks from Mali. The works in Ashe I l lay the foundation for what is to come in Ashe Too and Power House. Here we see the creation of a visual language that continues in the next two spaces. That visual language consists of the sculptural elements seen in the masks and other pieces carved from wood, mixing of mediums in a single work, and intricate beadwork.
The exhibition continues down the block at Ashe Too. But before reaching the second space visitors will walk past Ormand White’s mixed media installation Katrina set in the window space which connects Ashe I and Ashe Too. White’s work helps the exhibition transition from traditional art to modern works. The art in Ashe Too shows the influence of the African Diaspora on art and speaks to the shift from traditional African art to African American art. The dates of the work in this section range from mid 20th century to present day. Beadwork makes an appearance in For Erzulie Danthor (Drapo Vodou Sequin Flag), a fabric, sequin, and beaded Haitian flag. Photographs by Christine Brown and Gason Ayisyin have a more obvious connection to the Diaspora documenting New Orleans’s Maafa Commemoration, recognition of the tragedies of the Middle Passage. Other highlights of this section include prints by John Scott, Douglas Redd, and Marcus Akihlana.
The final portion of the exhibition, located in Ashe’s Power House, contains works that demonstrate an appreciation for tradition combined with contemporary execution. Work like Martin Payton’s Obatala pays homage to Yoruba religion, where Obatala is the orisha responsible for the creation of humans, while achieving an elegant sculptural effect from steel, a material emblematic of modernity. Similarly, John Scott’s Stations of the Cross exhibits an expert handling of a modern material in a work with a spiritual subject matter. Here again beadwork is on display this time in the form of Mardi Gras Indian suits. Other notable works in this section include photographs by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, a large work on paper by Willie Birch, and a quilt by Louise-Mouton-Johnson. Throughout the exhibition the theme of resilience shines through. In “Ashe to Amen” the idea of resilience is twofold: the resilience of Africans throughout the Diaspora and the resilience of the descendants of the African Diaspora in a post Katrina New Orleans. “Ashe to Amen” is an important reminder of what New Orleanians know to be true, the city did not reinvent the wheel but through resilience, retention, and remixing created the conditions that allowed it to spin in a whole different way.
“Ashe to Amen” will be on display through December 2015, be sure to catch it before the end of the year.
ASHÉ CULTURAL ARTS CENTER
Ashe 1: 1712 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.
Ashe Too: 1724 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.
Ashe Power House: 1731 Baronne Street
All photos used with permission from Ashe Cultural Arts Center.