By Terrence Sanders Smith
Artvoices Books Publishing and the Alexandria Museum of Art
By VITTORIA BENZINE, March 2023
Nearly eighteen years since New Orleans weathered Hurricane Katrina, readers around the world now have an opportunity to regard the disaster in a different way — through the artistic renaissance that accompanied its rebuilding, thanks to the print publication of the Smith & Wisznia Collection.
Last year, New Orleans’s landmark Saratoga and Maritime buildings were sold to hotel chains, displacing the contemporary art collections they housed — all curated by artist, publisher, and curator Terrence Sanders-Smith. After deliberation, Sanders-Smith placed the works at the Alexandria Museum of Art, in the same Louisiana town where he was born, which now houses 162 pieces amassed from 32 artists active amongst the state’s recovery.
The Smith & Wisznia Collection was exhibited there in full during 2022, empowering underserved audiences to discover their creative community. About 100 works from the collection appear in its eponymous book, which was released worldwide in February 2023.
The human toll of a tragedy like Katrina is innumerable. Money is easier to understand, right? Hurricane Katrina remains the costliest natural disaster in American history still thus far, costing the taxpayers $190 billion. Money is only sort of easier to understand, though. The mind can’t comprehend the totality of a single billion much easier than the infinity of another’s identity.
At least not without abstraction. A creative way of thinking.
Even if the population of New Orleans hasn’t climbed back fully to pre-Katrina figures, the scene surely found its footing after, springing from the city’s spirit itself — evident in documented acts of local heroism and, in terms of negative space, the prevailing falsity of sensationalist reporters recanting stories of looting that never happened. Art stars abound, like Bruce Davenport Jr, Jamel Shabazz, Keith Duncan, and the full, vast cadre of artists Sanders-Smith has collected.
Architect and developer Marcel Wisznia employed Sanders-Smith to start assembling their jointly-named collection in 2010. Works range from the same year Katrina hit to around 2019. Industry essentially ceased in Katrina’s wake — except construction. Wisznia’s firm renovated the Western Union Telegraph Building into the Union Lofts in 2007, and renovated The Maritime and Saratoga Buildings in 2009. The Maritime housed the Smith & Wisznia Collection starting 2011.
Throughout those same years, Smith writes in a curatorial statement, “There was a migration of creatives from all areas of life to Louisiana. Musicians, Fashion Designers, Architects, Writers and Visual Artists congregated, forming a vibrant foundation of cultural declaration and inspiration.” His short manifesto of hope opens this 156-page book alongside a photo of the collection as it lived in The Maritime Building for over a decade, and a shot of the site’s exterior.
In full, this neat visual record of the Smith & Wisznia Collection holds space for its artists to tell Louisiana’s story of recovery themselves — predominantly through the vast visceral sensations expressed through their work, but also through introductory paragraphs written for each creative by writer and critic Adam Falik in a conversational, passionate tone, as if he really were telling you about them at a bar. The control variable here isn’t money, but education — each artist lists where they earned their degrees from, if any. Between that and the work, readers can piece together which artists have been steeped in the city their whole lives, and which arrived with accrued life experience in tow.
Diversity, then, allows this look at the Smith & Wisznia Collection to provide an authentic window into this floodplain state’s psyche as it learned to thrive through a new chapter in its own notoriety, becoming known for a moment mostly for Katrina. Citizen X has some powerful thoughts on what it feels like to be called resilient — hint, it’s not so pleasant after a while. A small but strong contingent of artists in the collection are self-taught, but the rest have B.F.A.s and M.F.A.s from local institutions like Tulane University and the University of New Orleans. Others studied in further flung destinations, like the Cleveland and California Institutes of Art.
Smith’s curation manages that most desirable feat: harmonizing disparate aesthetic approaches around one single, albeit abstract, unifying sensation. Printmaking and painting abound, as do collages and photography — of particular favor in this collection. Smith has practiced photography heavily himself, and this book features several series by him which confound the notion that seeing is believing, interrogating the medium’s often unquestioned objectivity. Tongue in cheek anguish with an ounce of truth abounds, like artist and organizer Michael “Rex” Dingler’s skull silkscreen that reads “All my friends are doing drugs and dying…” There’s inside jokes too, like Hayley Gaberlavage’s genre painting of two girls headed to Panama City Beach.
Palpable honesty unites them all. Even though the sheer fact of these artworks’ creation is miraculous in some ways, they communicate many flavors of angst. Maybe we don’t need to cast this tragedy in a rosy light yet. Facets of that human toll wrought by Hurricane Katrina were avoidable. Even after, income disparity still called the shots, as some citizens were cheated out of resources they were owed. We’ve yet to look back on this as a learning experience. First New Orleans must heal, which is always possible, no matter how hard it seems. The Smith & Wisznia collection, in person or in print, testifies that art doesn’t flourish from suffering, but in spite of it. WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // firstname.lastname@example.org // vittoriabenzine.com
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