In New Orleans, the spot where a statue of Robert E. Lee once stood is now home to a depiction of an African deity. The installation by acclaimed sculptor Simone Leigh is part of “Prospect New Orleans,” a once-every-three-years event that invites contributions from artists all over the world. The exhibitions are usually temporary, but that’s seeing a big change this time around.
The placement of Leigh’s West African deity, Mami Wata, is controversial. It stands at a downtown traffic circle once cradling the Confederacy and sits beside a pedestal where five years earlier a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was removed.
Leigh, however, described it as “medicine.”
“I’m big on public art being public medicine. So what this is is medicine for all of us,” she told CBS News’ Michelle Miller.
Naima Keith, co-curator of “Prospect New Orleans,” said 60% of New Orleans is African American and Black.
“And so to have a Black female figure at the center of the city, I hope says that you can be inspired by this female figure, but also that how much of an impact Black culture has had on the city, in both the formation of the city, but also the continued life and the continued energy of the city,” she said.
Keith and partner Diana Nawi are the first team of women to organize the triennial exhibition that showcases art in various museums and public spaces around the city. The art itself spans from replica homes to paintings of the January 6th insurrection.
To coordinate the exhibition, they began a year-long “listening tour,” Nawi explained, which involved meetings with community artists and stakeholders throughout New Orleans to hear what was important about the show and “what they thought it could do for the city.”
The project was awarded a $2 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to create a new age of monuments.
“We really wanted to propose a set of artists that complicated this idea of monument,” Keith said. “When one thinks of a monument, they often think of a person, that you’re kind of putting a certain person in stone.”
But one work, by EJ Hill, memorializes an amusement park lost during Hurricane Katrina. The lone surviving gondola from Jazzland’s Ferris wheel now rests in a nearby neighborhood in New Orleans East.
“As we invite artists to the city of New Orleans to make work about New Orleans, they’re also making work about the issues that affect New Orleans the most,” said “Prospect” Board Chairman Chris Alfieri. “Climate change, social justice, these are issues that affect all of us.”
Alfieri has been a leading force in the exhibition since its inception in 2006. He said the initial thought was that it could help promote the economy and boost tourism in the area. He hopes it will create visibility for New Orleans around the world.
They’ve taken that involvement a step further with an installation that was simply land.
“The weight of [New Orleans] is so immense that I wanted to do something that wasn’t just there for just three months,” said artist Kevin Beasley, whose works have graced The Whitney Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim.
“What does buying a plot of land have to do with artist expression?” Miller asked him.
“It’s a big question, I think, given that the premise was to think about what land ownership – Black land ownership specifically … the Lower Ninth Ward was a predominantly Black-owned community.”
To this day, large portions of the Lower Ninth Ward remain barren – many owners have not returned since Katrina or have been bought out by speculators and outsiders. As a newcomer, Beasley believes the garden purchased with his “Prospect” stipend can welcome neighbors in small, subtle ways. He even outfitted the lot with WiFi and electrical outlets to charge phones.
“It’s not only a project that people can experience now, but it’s one they can come back to and see its evolution,” he said.
It’s a promise of a community for a city trying to define what is was, is and hopes to be.
“A lot of exhibitions – triennial, biennial exhibitions – are really bringing artists into a city and then they leave,” said Alfieri. “That’s not what our artists do. Our artists get their hands and feet in the city of New Orleans.”