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January 2012: New Orleans African American Museum

New Orleans African American Museum, photo by Sara Blaylock

For fans of David Simon, the Tremé conjures a vivid and sonic narrative. The HBO series tells of the everyday in immediate post-Katrina New Orleans, focusing, at least symbolically, on the Tremé neighborhood, located northwest of our more traditional pop culture referent: the overly pastied and vomited Bourbon Street. I need not summarize this show. Turn on New Orleans’ WWOZ and you’ll get a free taste of the music and the goings-on that distinguish the city’s, and the show’s, unrelenting soundtrack and joie de vivre. It is the rhythm of New Orleans musicians that underpins Tremé the show and, more importantly, Tremé the neighborhood. The series emphasis on music, local characters, and African American tradition attempt the difficult task of abstracting, without summarizing, a city with many faces. Which is to say, follow this city’s siren and float yourself to this exceptional quarter.

On a recent trip to New Orleans, I had the good fortune of visiting the New Orleans African American Museum (NOAAM), a Tremé institution that offers a unique combination of the historical and the contemporary. With a focus on Tremé’s cultural history, the NOAAM provides a comprehensive, albeit slight, look at this impressive, often exploited, neighborhood. Situated on a former plantation, the museum holds a collection of artifacts that tell an uncommon history of interracial freedom. Haitian Creoles, including women, freed slaves and whites established the neighborhood in 1812. For much of its early history, the Tremé was an anomaly not just in the South – home to one of the largest and most prosperous community of free people of color in all of the United States.

On my visit, John E. Hankins, executive director of the NOAAM, offered me a guided tour of the buildings on the museum complex. Hankins described the Meilleur-Goldthwaite villa as “a Creole cottage on steroids.” This landmark house, built around 1828, is the best example of a Creole master house in the city. Take note of the finer details of this house, built in New Orleans’ one-time architectural epicenter. Some of the finesses and adornments are Tremé originals, since popularized throughout the city. The big house features the NOAAM’s oldest artifacts, cues to an ambivalent, complicated history: books by early New Orleans African American poets sit in vitrines alongside slave shackles. Out back, the plantation grounds are in large part preserved. Two creole cottages, two slaves quarters, and a double shotgun house remain in remarkable condition. Though NOAMM suffered damage from Katrina, the centuries-old plumbing infrastructure kept most of this complex high and dry.
Tremé calls itself the birthplace of jazz, brass bands, second lines, Mardi Gras Indians, the home to New Orleans Creole culture, as well as instrumental African American cultural and political leaders. I got a better sense of this rich history in a semi-permanent exhibition, Restore the Oaks. Art Under the Overpass in Tremé, installed in one of the Creole cottages. In 2002, the NOAMM organized a community revitalization arts project to install murals memorializing the people, organizations and traditions of the Tremé. The NOAAM installation displays the mock-up paintings for the murals, which have been painted on the pillars that support the I-10 overpass over Claibourne Avenue a few blocks away. This location, Hankins informed me, is of historical import to jazz and local history. Until the interstate was installed in the late 1960s, Claibourne Avenue was the Tremé’s Canal Street, a broad avenue, lined with Oak trees and jazz clubs. The decision to destroy this apex in the neighborhood was, according to Hankins, racially-determined. The neighborhood, he contends, is still recovering.

Creole Cottages, photo by Sara Blaylock

Which brings me to what brought me to the NOAMM in the first place. Curator Dan Cameron established the Prospect biennial in the underplayed Crescent City as a means of aiding its revitalization post-Katrina. Cameron has procured exhibition space at the NOAMM for both Prospect editions (Prospect 1, 2008/9; Prospect 2, 2011/12). This year, a cotton candy colored cottage displays photographs from Lorraine O’Grady’s Art Is…, a 1983 performance, which challenged the conception that African American artists could not participate in the avant-garde. During the Harlem African American Day parade, O’Grady sent a cast of ladies marching alongside an enormous float-ed frame. Frames in hand, the women put spectators in their frames, an easy, but sincere, reference to the “art is everything” conceit of the avant-garde.   Visit this museum for its fluidity, as well as its historical insight. The website requests that visitors “call ahead to find out what is on display.” In November, Dr. John came by for a chat. This is a city of unexpected delights, and voodoo only has a little bit to do with it.

Sara Blaylock


Sara Blaylock was born and raised in Milwaukee, schooled in Oakland and has since lived as an artist, writer and educator in Western Massachusetts, Barcelona and rural Holland. She is presently studying in the Visual Studies PhD program at the University of California - Santa Cruz. Her artwork and writing can be found at:
www.sarablaylock.com

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