PRINT May 2019


Blights Out, Home Court Crawl, 2014. Performance view, New Orleans, December 13, 2014. Center: Freddy “Hollywood” Delahoussaye. On building: Lisa Sigal, Burning, 2014. Photo: Scott McCrossen/FIVE65 Design.

MORE THAN A DECADE after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is still far from having recovered. Many survivors of the 2005 disaster could not afford the liens accumulating against their water-damaged properties and today find themselves displaced from their ancestral homes. Households and shops remain gutted. Legal forfeitures have been normalized, and officials have resold lost homes to whiter, wealthier people. In 2014, to bring attention to the dispossession of lower-income communities of color, Imani Jacqueline Brown and her compatriots in the collective Blights Out (Mariama Eversley, Bryan C. Lee Jr., Lisa Sigal, Sue Press, and Carl Joe Williams) orchestrated Home Court Crawl, a raucous wake for the city’s housing. A brass band called To Be Continued weaved through the collapsing houses scarring the Mid-City/Tremé area, followed by a crowd of neighbors and supporters singing and dancing in a variation on New Orleans’s “second line” parades, descended from its jazz funerals. As the horns blew and the drumbeats sounded, New Orleanians faced the dilapidated buildings en masse. A mix of Kaprow-style Happening, William Pope.L’s Tompkins Square Crawl, 1991, and Louis Armstrong’s Going to Shout All Over God’s Heaven, 1938, the action evoked that joyous anguish psychologists call the “dual process model of grief,” wherein the bereaved oscillate between despair and resilience. Indeed, Blights Out is not only concerned with loss. The artists, activists, and architects the group comprises also intend to “design a new model for housing development centered outside the for-profit market.” For their efforts, members of the collective have won grants from Creative Capital, Art Matters, and the Joan Mitchell and Robert Rauschenberg foundations.

Blights Out, Home Court Crawl, 2014. Performance view, New Orleans, December 13, 2014. Photo: Scott McCrossen/FIVE65 Design.

Blights Out embodies an ethics of radical democracy akin to that of Black Lives Matter and ACT UP, but native New Orleanian Brown deserves special recognition for her heavy lifting. As a marked presence in several energized collectives, Brown engages relational aesthetics to promote salvific values, tackling race, class, and environmental problems. Her persistent and dedicated involvement in group-art activism, combined with her deflection of stardom, offers a model for community leadership and artmaking. After Blights Out’s first event, she helped organize an action responding to news that the city intended to auction hundreds of repossessed houses. That demonstration, Live Action Painting, 2015, targeted gentrification’s prime movers, including the government’s neoliberalism and the apathy of “innocent” bystanders. Blights Out asked local Black artists to set up easels in front of busted homes and sketch them in an act of documentation and protest. Simultaneously, the artists attempted to make friendly contact with the new owners of restored Sixth Ward homes near the ones they were sketching. Most refused to respond to these overtures. Live Action Painting recalled the seventeenth-century vogue for portraits of “great houses”—think masterpieces such as Alexander Keirincx’s Falkland Palace and the Howe of Fife, ca. 1639—as much as it quoted the kind of “witnessing” exemplified in Carrie Mae Weems’s 2003–2005 series “Beacon,” in which Weems appears with her back turned to the camera at various sites of historical, cultural, or environmental significance in Beacon, New York.

Blights Out, Live Action Painting, 2015. Performance view, New Orleans, May 17, 2015. Katrina Andry. Photo: H. Hickman.

In 2017, Brown grew more visible when she co-orchestrated the faux political campaign Blights Out for Mayor, which included a series of propaganda pieces whose slogans derived from local stories of gentrification. “We were enslaved as property,” went one motto. “We need land to be free.” The campaign’s centerpiece was a cycle of billboards placed among boarded-up buildings at the intersection of Tremé’s Orleans and Galvez Streets. These billboards, which rotated every month, elaborated on Live Action Painting’s arguments about state failures to intervene and bystander responsibility. October’s sign, illustrated by Hannah Chalew, featured a black-and-white drawing of a haunted-looking house that echoed the dread-struck illustration of Edward Gorey and the race horror pioneered by Jordan Peele. A vein of red text outlined the scene: ECOLOGICAL APARTHEID (SPATIAL SEGREGATION) IS ALREADY ETCHED INTO OUR HOUSING LANDSCAPE. WILL OUR FUTURE CITY BE A GENTRIFIED FORTRESS DESIGNED TO PROTECT THE WEALTHY FROM THE RISING-UP OF SEAS AND PEOPLE? This caption crowned the central call to action: #TELLYOURMAYOR/WE DEMAND/TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION/ON GENTRIFICATION. Blights Out’s use of the passive voice (“is already etched”) implied that the state had stood by while Orleanians lost their properties and had thereby facilitated segregation. The phrase “truth and reconciliation” refers to the South African process that Nelson Mandela established in 1995, now steered by leaders such as Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, in which one refuses to regard as bystanders those who directly benefit from others’ deprivations. In other words, the affluent’s unfettered accumulation of wealth actively harms the citizens of New Orleans.

Billboard from Blights Out’s Blights Out for Mayor, 2017–18, Galvez Street and Orleans Avenue, New Orleans, 2018. Photo: Blights Out.

“The core mission of Blights Out will fail, and ultimately this is a failure of the city and the state and the capitalist system,” Brown told me in a 2018 conversation. “We started this project with an open question of whether people could participate in the system in New Orleans, and the answer is ‘no.’” Underscoring the inadequacy of these property politics, Brown and her confreres made a video for the campaign about their frustrated efforts to purchase and reuse an “underwater” property. Blights Out for Mayor of New Orleans, 2017,shows a bespectacled Brown carrying a sign that reads BLACK LAND MATTERS. She stands alongside Eversley and Lee Jr. in front of an empty lot at 1937 Orleans Avenue in the Tremé neighborhood. Blights Out had intended to employ the now-demolished building at this address as a mixed-use community space. They were defeated less by cost than by byzantine red tape. “Over the last twelve years,” Brown says in the neighborhood-canvassing video, “1937 has accumulated $97,000 in debt that is ‘unforgivable’ under current Louisiana law. . . . Nineteen thirty-seven is merely one of tens of thousands of former homes and businesses that have been left stranded, abandoned, imprisoned by punitive policies imposed since Katrina.” Gazing intently at the camera, she declares, “If I were mayor, I would call for forgiveness of all Katrina-related debt!”

Blights Out, Blights Out for Mayor of New Orleans, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 2 minutes 31 seconds. Imani Jacqueline Brown.

Brown’s projects respond to the tyranny of overwhelming debt and the ourobouros of wealth, influence, and power.

Soon after the campaign, Brown left New Orleans for London, where she is now working toward a master’s degree in research architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London. But she continues to expand her practice to address other systems of exclusion, oppression, and false consciousness. With Blights Out, Brown and her comrades exposed the ways that supposedly “free” markets lead to dead housing and gentrification. The artist’s other projects respond to the tyranny of overwhelming debt and the ourobouros of wealth, influence, and power: For Occupy Museums, of which Brown is a central member, she helped organize Debtfair, 2013–, a print-and-digital archive that shares the work and stories of more than six hundred artists whose medical bills, student loans, and other crushing expenses leave them in thrall to major lenders such as Banco Popular, Navient, and JPMorgan Chase. The second largest shareholder of the latter firm is BlackRock, Inc., a six-trillion-dollar asset-management behemoth that also holds significant shares in the other companies, and whose CEO, Larry Fink, sits on the boards of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and New York University. (In 2017, the Whitney Museum of American Art featured Debtfair in its Biennial.) This spring, Brown turned her sights back on New Orleans, where she cohosted with Monique Verdin, Raquel de Anda, Katie Mathews, and Jayeesha Dutta—Fossil Free Fest, a celebration preceding New Orleans’s Jazz & Heritage Festival, which is sponsored by the energy-and-petrochemical company Shell. With her signature blend of vivacity, earnestness, inclusivity, and incisiveness, Brown and her partners offered films, parties, talks, and music in the service of a self-critical Socratic dialogue. “Non-profit arts and educational institutions are struggling,” reads Fossil Free’s mission statement. “Oftentimes, our search for support for our work leads us to accept funding from sources we may consider contentious, such as oil and gas or petrochemical corporations . . . [but in that willingness,] are we granting these companies a social license to operate?” It is Brown’s genius that she can foster close-knit communities by means of such devastating interrogations. 

Occupy Museums, Debt of 500 Artists Largely Owned by Five Nongovernmental Economic Super Powers (After Hans Haacke), 2017, digital print, 18 × 12".

Yxta Maya Murray is a novelist, a professor at Loyola Law School, and an art critic based in Los Angeles.