Totems Not Taboo at Newcomb Gallery

January 6 was the official start of the Carnival season in New Orleans. Totems Not Taboo, an exhibit at Newcomb Art Gallery as part of Prospect.3: Notes for Now, is an ode to Jermayne MacAgy’s 1959 exhibit of the same name at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. MacAgy assembled one of the largest exhibitions of primitive art and displayed them as objects of fine art, or “as participant in the working out of ideas and expressions of contemporary life.”[1] Totems Not Taboo features work by Monir Farmanfarmaian, Andrea Fraser, Hew Locke, and Ebony G. Patterson, and curator Franklin Sirmans echoes MacAgy’s show by placing Carnival within a contemporary art context.

Hew Locke. Installation View of The Nameless, 2010-2014; at Newcomb Art Gallery for Prospect.3: Notes for Now, a Project of Prospect New Orleans, October 25, 2014 - January 25, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Hales Gallery, London, Photo © Scott McCrossen/ FIVE65 Design

Claire Tancons, associate curator of Prospect.1 and curator of the recent Up Hill Down Hall: An Indoor Carnival at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, has written extensively about the relationship between Carnival and the canon of art history: “By and large, Carnival has been marginalized at best, left out at worst in contemporary Caribbean art exhibitions in the United States and the United Kingdom, where most such exhibitions are organized.”[2] Sirmans addresses this predominant oversight by including Andrea Fraser’s installation Um Monumento as Fantasias Descartadas (A Monument to Discarded Fantasies) (2003). The installation, made of discarded Brazilian Carnival costumes, is piled chaotically into a tower of brightly colored sequins, feathers, shoes, and outfits. The glittery pandemonium recalls the alternate identities adopted during Carnival—a time to shift and expand the representation of our selves, as well as the abandonment of those temporary identities. In fact, the concept of Carnival itself is one that can shift precariously in and out of a fine-art context.

Andrea Fraser. Installation View of Um Monumento às Fantasias Descartadas (A Monument to Discarded Fantasies), 2003; at Newcomb Art Gallery for Prospect.3: Notes for Now, a Project of Prospect New Orleans, October 25, 2014 - January 25, 2015. Courtesy of the artist, Photo © Scott McCrossen/ FIVE65 Design

Monir Farmanfarmaian’s incredibly detailed and alluring mosaic wall pieces are more ambiguously related to Carnival, creating a balancing contrast with Fraser’s direct conversation. Convertible Series Group 10 (2011) is made of mirrored pieces and reverse-painted glass, sliced to create elaborate geometric frameworks that recall a hybrid where traditional Persian designs meet Western modernism. Farmanfarmaian’s works, like Fraser’s, suggest an inherent multiplicity of selves. Viewers are left with hundreds of tiny reflections of themselves, an ode to the infinite possibilities of the future—as if today is the first day of history.

Monir Farmanfarmaian. Convertible Series, Group 10, 2011; Mirror and reverse glass painting on plaster and wood, 4 parts; Dimensions Variable; 4 parts, each: 19.75 x 32 x 1.25 inches; as shown: 47 x 47 x 1.25 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery / San Francisco.

London-based artist Hew Locke was raised in Scotland and Guyana and brings a multivalent perspective to his work. His installation The Nameless (2014) is in its fourth iteration here.[3] Using black rope and black Mardi Gras beads, Locke creates a raucous parade of characters across geographic traditions: Angels, Inca gods, queens of Benin, gargoyles, baboons, and a marching band fill the room. In the 2011 monograph Hew Locke: Stranger in Paradise, Kobena Mercer writes, “By assembling sources from vastly different times and places, Locke lays bare the way state power is vulnerable to the passage of time and the inevitability of decay.”[4] But Locke may also be suggesting that Carnival parades are places where anything is possible and everyone is welcome to join as a participant. In this way, Carnival has outcomes similar to—though much more temporary than—that of revolution. Carnival, in Locke’s vision, can challenge preexisting ideas and conventions and invert the status quo.

Ebony Patterson. In di grass- Beyond the Bladez, 2014; Mixed Media on Paper. 4 x 8 feet. Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago.

Ebony G. Patterson’s five mixed-media collages focus on costume and theatricality in Caribbean culture. Patterson creates these large-scale works out of photos, textiles, wallpaper, rhinestones, sequins, brooches, and embellishments that are based on the tradition of Voodoo flags and sequined textiles found in Haiti. In Di Grass-Beyond the Bladez (2014) is ornate: Fields of green, yellow, and red obscure a prostrate black male figure with a bleached face. In this work, Patterson recalls the tradition of Carnival masking and explores the concept of costuming as a method for both self-determination and release from conventions.

Mikhail Bakhtin’s famous definition underscores what is problematic about Sirmans’ (or potentially any curator’s) exploration of Carnival in this contemporary art context: “Carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions. Carnival was the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change, and renewal.”[5] Each of these works, while thoughtful meditations on Carnival traditions, are made specifically for a fine-art context. The chaos and glitter and confusion found in the middle of Carnival streets will always be more aggressively anarchical, continuously leading to an infinite sense of possibility rarely found inside a gallery.

[1] Jermayne MacAgy. “Flight of the Image: An Exhibition of Feathers,” California Palace of the Legion of Honor Bulletin, Vol. 10, No. 7 (November 1952).

[2] Claire Tancons. “Curating Carnival? Performance in Contemporary Caribbean Art” in Curating in the Caribbean (Berlin: The Green Box; 2012), pp 37-62.

[3] Other installations included the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center; Hales Gallery, London; and KAdE Kunsthal in Amersfoort, The Netherlands.

[4] Kobena Mercer. Hew Locke: Stranger in Paradise. (Black Dog Press: London; 2011).

[5] Mikhail Bakhtin. Rabelais and His World. Translated by Hélène Iswolsky. (IU Press; 2008).

%d bloggers like this: