ASK ALMOST ANYONE IN NEW ORLEANS about Charles “Buddy” Bolden and they’ll tell you he was the king and, loosely speaking, the father of jazz. A cornet player who was active at the turn of the twentieth century, Bolden drank too much, lived too hard, played too loud. He was known for a syncopated squawk, weaving in and out of crowds gathered in the French Quarter on parade days and bursting onto the street at irregular intervals to blast his horn. Since he died, in 1931, at the Louisiana State Insane Asylumtwenty-five years after he suffered a psychotic break and disappeared from public lifehe has been remembered for creating an intuitive combination of church hymns and blues music, gospel spirituals and ragtime. Some say it was precisely that unsanctioned intermingling of the sacred and profane that broke him. Others say his music was so lacking in wisdom you’d want to clean every note that he played.
The known facts of Bolden’s life are few, and a century’s worth of conjecture has filled the gaps between them. It is said that he worked as a barber, that for several years he published a newspaper called The Cricket, that he bashed his mother-in-law in the face with a water pitcher. He is the subject of least five biographies, a handful of films, and two daring novels, the most famous of which is Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, published in 1976. The New York Times critic Anatole Broyard, who was born in New Orleans, hated Coming Through Slaughter: “Too many sentences float between cliché and bombast,” Broyard wrote. But his most damning conclusion sounds today, in the context of contemporary art, like challenging praise: “The author gives us all the broken pieces and leaves it to us to infer the final form.” Whatever the form, Bolden was a huge influence. On his album Live at the Village Vanguard, from 1999, Wynton Marsalis said: “Buddy Bolden could play so loud that when he opened up his horn in New Orleans, Louisiana, people way across the river in Algiers could hear it and it made them feel good, because they knew it was time to swing, and that’s where everybody likes to be.”
A fortnight ago, where everybody wanted to be during the preview days of Prospect 4, it seemed, was in the fifth-floor gallery of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, on Camp Street, where John Akomfrah’s three-screen video installation about Buddy Bolden was showing for the first time. Prospect 4 is the latest edition of New Orleans’s biennial turned triennial––which was founded by curator Dan Cameron in the calamitous wake of Hurricane Katrina––and has stumbled since 2008 through lesser storms of budgetary, staffing, and organizational distress. Commissioned for Prospect 4 and titled Precarity, Akomfrah’s film coaxes Bolden’s story into a capacious rumination on the experience of double consciousness, W. E. B. Du Bois’s term, in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), for the psychic burden on black Americans made to see themselves through the eyes of a hostile other. (In one of those great, lightning-quick exchanges that make endeavors like these worth it, curator Thomas Lax pointed this out to me, and also the few lines in Akomfrah’s work“two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body”that come directly from Du Bois’s text.)
Akomfrah interprets double consciousness in relation to ever-finer terms such as “enjambment” and “immanence,” and he uses it to echo Bolden’s possible schizophrenia. As a narrative, Precarity is elliptical, repetitive, and at times frustratingly unforthcoming. Some of the professionals milling around Prospect 4’s main venues argued that the new film was too similar in structure to The Unfinished Conversation, Akomfrah’s wondrous 2013 portrait of the cultural theorist Stuart Hall, but not nearly as satisfying.
That seems true enough, though Buddy Bolden is a very different subject from Stuart Hall, and what is remarkable about Precarity is the way in which Akomfrah withholds the very thing you want most from Boldenhis music, loud and clear. There is a practical reason for that. Only a few photographs of Bolden survive, but there are no known recordings. The rare evocations of Bolden’s playing in Precarity come muffled and distorted through the sounds of running water. At the same time, the film says more about the horrific, unhealed legacies of slavery, segregation, and institutional racism in the United Statesfinding a form for all those broken piecesthan anything Akomfrah has done before. It demands viewers connect the dots of Bolden’s story to the context of his silencing. Akomfrah’s take on Bolden practically embodies, in its audiovisual mesh, how freedom, experimentation, and the risky mixing of unlike things have been as stifled by the cruelty of American politics as the brash cornet player’s music was muted by the wardens of his insane asylum. More prosaically, Akomfrah’s work, with its constant footage of moving currents, is a reminder of the extent to which New Orleans is tormented by waterby the last unspeakable storm and the next one coming.
That Precarity was the most talked-about piece ahead of Prospect 4’s public opening on Saturday, November 18, was perhaps expected but also something of a consolation prize. It was meant to be another work, reversing Bolden’s sound and drawing people way across the river to Algiers to hear a butane-powered, thirty-two-note calliope steam organ built by the artist Kara Walker and played by the musician Jason Moran.
Walker visited Algiers Point last summer and was stunned to discover not only that it was the site of a former slaves’ quarantine but also that it bore a plaque wholly inadequate to this brutal history. Her piece, titled Katastwóf Karavan after the Haitian Creole word for “catastrophe,” was conceived as a retort to the Natchez, a steamboat with its own calliope bringing tourists up and down the Mississippi River while listening to antiseptic Dixieland. The idea was that the Natchez would play, and the Katastwóf would answerwith songs, chants, and shouts taken from the long history of African American protest music. Just six days before the preview, however, Prospect 4 announced that the work had been postponed until February, when the triennial closes. For a city that celebrates life as much as death, that’s a passable proposition. But it left more than a few observers, chiefly journalists coming from the more cynical regions of Los Angeles, New York, and London, smelling the blood of disorganization.
I, for one, arrived on the Wednesday before the two-day preview expecting no less than total disaster. But beyond the inevitable fraying of last-minute details, Prospect 4 gave me little material in that regard. The most egregious error on the part of the triennial seemed to be the damaging of an artwork by the London-based French Algerian artist Zineb Sedira, who was meant to be exhibiting a diptych of large-scale photographs showing a warehouse in Marseille full of sugar, on the left, and empty, on the right. Only the right-hand image was hung in the CAC, which effectively rendered her contribution moot. Otherwise, given how much had been yoked to Walker’s project in terms of hype, a few of the artists were justifiably upset to learn of its postponement.
On Friday afternoon, sitting under an old tree in front of the New Orleans Jazz Museum, across from a bronze sculpture by Hank Willis Thomas of a black cherub posed warrior-like on top of a snail, Prospect’s affable interim director, Ylva Rouse, told me Walker’s visit to Algiers Point had been intense for everyone. It was her first major project in the SouthWalker was born in California but grew up in Georgia, and much of her work is rooted, with great ambivalence, in the Antebellum erawhich had grown over time into “an incredibly ambitious piece, technically and conceptually.”
Later that day, taking a breather on a bench outside the New Orleans Museum of Art, Prospect 4’s equally genial artistic director, Trevor Schoonmaker, echoed the point, saying Walker’s calliope was complex, weighed more than a ton, and was highly sensitive to temperature and weather conditions. It simply needed more time for testing. What no one seemed willing to say was that while the artist had brought some $200,000 in funding for the project, the triennial needed more to get the thing shipped down to New Orleans. (For perspective, Prospect 4’s total budget, including seventy-three artists and collectivesthirty-two of them contributing specially commissioned workwas $3.8 million.)
That aside, it speaks to the atmosphere Rouse and Schoonmaker have achieved that I was basically won overby everyone and everything associated with Prospect 4by 11 AM the next day, when Carol Bebelle, of the Ashé Cultural Center, opened the morning’s press conference with what amounted to a Thanksgiving sermon. She expressed gratitude “not for the narrative that’s been given to us” but rather to the American Indians who welcomed the first settlers of New Orleans and paid for it with their lives, and for the African slaves who were brought to the city against their will but made it what it is today. Sounding a common refrain, she called attention to the fact that New Orleans was nearly lost in (and after) Katrina. “We’re the prophetic city of America,” Bebelle said. “We’re the do-over capital. Now I ask you,” she added, casting her gaze around the room, “to carry your excitement [into the city] but also your hankering and yearning to be better.”
From there on out, I was pleasantly surprised by a triennial that seemed, at almost every turn, relevant, thoughtful, and politically sound. Schoonmaker included very little work that felt like filler and almost nothing that was truly awful (rare for perennials anywhere). He has an obvious ear for musicDan Cameron gave him his first break in New York, at the New Museum, where his exhibition “Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti” ran in 2003and this edition of Prospect honors the rich musical heritage that has emerged from the great historical confluence of New Orleans, “the most African city in the United States, the most deeply Southern city in America, the most European city in the US, and the northernmost city of the Caribbean,” as Schoonmaker put it during the press conference. Originally from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and now based in Durham, where he’s the curator of contemporary art at Duke University’s Nasher Museum, Schoonmaker, boyish and southern, is a perfect curatorial fit for Prospect.
And yet, it became increasingly clear that on the local level, Prospect was struggling for attention. On the same days, and in some of the same spaces (the CAC, the Ace Hotel), as the triennial’s preview, the tennis star Serena Williams was getting married, which had traffic going berserk and everyone abuzz about “celebrities” in town. Then, on Saturday, when Prospect 4 was opening to the public, a mural by Banksy, showing soldiers looting after a lesser storm, was being unveiled after renovation. The Times-Picayune critic Doug MacCash went so far as to call Banksy “perhaps the world’s most famous artist, period.” Also on Saturday, the city of New Orleans elected its first-ever female mayor, LaToya Cantrell. (Prospect’s board might want to take note of that ahead of announcing the curator for Prospect 5, in February; so far, it’s been an exclusively male engagement.) In January, Cantrell will succeed the career politician Mitch Landrieu, who was on hand for Prospect’s Swamp Galaxy Gala on Friday, shaking hands and cracking jokes about the Duke contingent in the house (southern rivalries die hard, apparently).
John Akomfrah’s new film may be this Prospect’s blockbuster, but at least two dozen other artworks are as provocative and compelling, including Dawit Petros’s installation of photographs from the 2016 series The Stranger’s Notebook; Sonia Boyce’s split-screen video Crop Over, 2007, about the explosive incongruities between lingering colonialism and festival culture in Barbados; Radcliffe Bailey’s lovely new sound piece in Crescent Park; Daryl Montana’s incredible Mardi Gras costumes; and Jeff Whetstone’s recent photographs and video of the batture, a liminal stretch of land along the river that is only exposed when the tide goes down.
I loved getting an impromptu tour of the triennial’s public sculptures from John D’Addario, who writes for The Advocate and moved to the city reluctantly (he’s originally from the Bronx) but stayed (for twenty years now) to become one of New Orleans’s most loyal critics. Ditto learning from the painter Wayne Gonzales, a New Yorker who was born and raised in New Orleans, about the history of NOMA, where he used to study as a boy, writing papers on the collection’s one small Monet. The museum is an encyclopedic institution in miniature, and the concurrent exhibition at the Ogden, “Solidary & Solitary,” on black abstraction (among other themes), curated by Katy Siegel and Christopher Bedford, is a knockout. As an astute young man on the largely white press junket remarked that it’s one of several shows of modern and contemporary black artists currently making the roundsit’s touring seven US citiesbut there isn’t a single New York institution on its itinerary.
Schoonmaker named his triennial “The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp” after a (slightly altered) quotation by the saxophonist Archie Shepp, who in 1970 described jazz as “a lily in spite of the swamp,” a beautiful thing growing in, but weirdly dependent upon, the muck. In that sense, Prospect counters but also draws strength and material from all the chaos, corruption, and violent history that has made New Orleans so fascinating and tenacious. Wynton Marsalis said that Buddy Bolden’s music made people dance because it was syncopated, made them dance with feeling because it was the blues, and made them dance with accuracy because it was jazz. Prospect 4, for all its hitches and hiccups, does all thatand more.