Prospect.4 and the Meaning of Community

The city of New Orleans will turn 300 years old next year. Coinciding with this tricentennial, Prospect New Orleans will run their fourth citywide triennial, Prospect.4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp, which opened this past Saturday, November 18, and will extend into 2018.

Sonia Boyce
Stilt Walker, Harewood House, England, 2007
Courtesy the artist
Photo: William J. Cummins

Since 2015, under the direction of Brooke Davis Anderson, Prospect New Orleans has undergone significant changes that responded to the challenges involved in remaining faithful to its community and thriving on a global scale. The organizers recommitted to being a city festival by moving all operations back to New Orleans and revising their mission. In March, Anderson appointed Jennifer M. Williams to Deputy Director of Public Experience before resigning as Executive Director after being with the organization for four years.

What emerged—similar to the first edition, Prospect.1, conceived in the aftermath of Katrina—is a narrative hovering between the local and the global. In a recent public press release the organization, still under Anderson’s direction, stated: “There is so much we can learn from New Orleans ... we work to draw the map we want to live in, the place we want to dwell, faithfully led by artists and art.” On the other hand, Artistic Director Trevor Schoonmaker promised that Prospect.4 “will be particularly global in scope,” and formed an artistic directors council with big-ticket names such as Wangechi Mutu and William Cordova.

To be both global and local is not an impossible task, nor are those two states mutually exclusive. For a city such as New Orleans, whose history extends beyond that of the United States and is rooted in international communities—Spanish, English, Creole and African, to name a few—this mix of global and local makes sense. But the history of the festival, launched as a means of rebuilding the city post-Katrina, must also be accounted for. Perhaps this is why Williams is an exciting choice. As the former Executive Director of the McKenna Museum of African-American Art and participant at other community-based art biennials, such as Senegal’s Dak’art biennial, Williams has proven expert at using cultural institutions to build and engage communities. I spoke with Williams and our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, explored her ideas on community-building, the vibrant history of New Orleans and what makes Prospect.4 unique in our times.

Lovia Gyarkye: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your pre-Prospect.4 life?

Jennifer Williams: I’m originally from Atlanta. Two years after graduation, I moved to New Orleans. I was twenty-five years old. I worked in a community center as a project coordinator and was engaged with a project that worked with young children and teens for two years. I went on to volunteer at the McKenna Museum of African-American Art, where I eventually became director. Over the six years I was there we did twenty-five exhibitions with public programs. The space is not in an art district; it’s in a neighborhood. It attracted various people in the community, from university students to community members.

LG: In an interview in 2012 you said that art is a part of life in New Orleans. In your work and as a critical consumer of art, how does one build and grow a cultural event while keeping it rooted in the community?

JW: I think that that is one of the most debated questions that we have and there are different sides of the equation. I find myself in the middle. I think you have to be really intentional, you have to be aware that culture is something that is created with a group of people over time in a space—it is very space-specific. We can’t just pick pretty pictures to put on the wall. It is important to look at the content of the work, the artists who are producing that content, where they are from and who they are. I had a debate recently with someone who said to me, “I just want to look at work, who the artist is and what their background is and where they are from doesn’t matter to me.” But representation matters. As we produce an international triennial we have to be very clear that there are artists in New Orleans creating amazing work and not forget about those individuals.

That is why Prospect has instituted a satellite program so artists and curators can participate by producing an exhibition in their own space. This has been an integral part of the project because it is very much about who the people are who create the work, where they are from, what their work says and if it is speaking to a specific people, theme or place. Trevor Schoonmaker has been very intentional about everything, including choosing the theme—it is about celebrating people across cultures. New Orleans is truly a gumbo. But unfortunately key cultural producers and artists are being pushed out of the very city in which they created the culture. What I love about Prospect is that it always accounts for those who physically create work in New Orleans. Even though it is international, it is also speaking directly to who is here. Art is functional and engrained in the life here.

Barkley Hendricks, Photo Bloke, 2016. © Barkley L. Hendricks. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

I want a space that is ethnically and racially diverse. This is often overlooked .... I also want to make sure that the artists are not inaccessible.

LG: What positions Prospect.4 to answer this difficult question, of how one creates art and culture that stays rooted in the community?

JW: Art is not just going to a museum to look at work on the wall and then leaving. It is music, it is video and it is documentation. At Prospect.4, there are talks and opportunities to debrief and give feedback. There are also opportunities to interact with the work in ways that were not encouraged in the past. We are interacting in a way that to me is very similar to how people in New Orleans have been for hundreds of years. You don’t just see art on a wall, you go for the dialogue with your community members. Prospect.4 is unique because it brings the visual arts to the forefront of New Orleans. Now, if you want to see great visual art, you don’t just go to New York or Los Angeles or Miami, you also come to New Orleans.

LG: What does it mean for Prospect.4 to be part of a more “optimistic cartography?” That’s a phrase that I picked up from the mission of the triennial. Can you define what it means and how it applies to Prospect.4?

JW: I moved to New Orleans in 2007, after Katrina. I really don’t want to create that kind of narrative around pre- and post-Katrina, even though it is a reality. Work was being done before Katrina and continues to be done. I moved and I made it my home, and I give that background because from the outside sometimes New Orleans seems like just Louis Armstrong, Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras. An optimistic cartography refreshes the world’s memory—that New Orleans generated so many things: food, music and, most importantly, visual arts. New Orleanians are creating their own future. We live and understand the challenges of the present and the past. But we are utilizing art and culture to make and transform communities. They also know that there is a renaissance and a real movement of people. They want to see a better New Orleans and they are using the arts and the existing culture. Prospect is helping to show that to the world.

LG: I like the idea of using what you have to create a better future. How does that play into your role right now as the Deputy Director of Public Experience? What are some ideas to help bridge this gap between community and the world?

JW: I’ve had several conversations around this idea of intentionality, but it can’t just be an idea. My plans begin with our team and our networks. What is special about this iteration is that our team is based in New Orleans. They are not individuals who just moved here yesterday, so they have a sense of the community. We are also aware of ways we can engage community, from holding meetings to going where the community is. The art world can be off-putting. It can be seen as an elitist place if you don’t have a certain level of experience. I want to flip that notion on its head and make sure people feel welcome.

I want a space that is ethnically and racially diverse. This is often overlooked. When we look for art writers we also include individuals who live in the South who are interested in and write about art. I also want to make sure that the artists are not inaccessible. We are creating experiences for people to meet the artists by having them give gallery talks where they can walk around the space and have conversations instead of being on a panel.

LG: How does the artists’ work or activism speak to the goal of Prospect.4 being a part of the city?

JW: In crafting his exhibition plan, Trevor Schoonmaker identified artists that have ties with the history of New Orleans, the history of migration here and melding of its cultures. He’s chosen artists from all over the world. It’s one of the most diverse and intentional exhibitions I have seen. From Derrick Adams and Kara Walker to Darryl Montana and Beatriz Santiago Muñoz—he really looked at places that often don’t have representation, and made sure that they were present in a real way. There are some people who have been featured in other biennials and are well known, but there are also new artists who are fresh and have great work. There are those who were born and raised here and those who are not, and this speaks to this New Orleans renaissance.

Dawit Petros
Act of Recovery (Part I), Nouakchott, Mauritania, 2016
Courtesy the artist and Tiwani Contemporary, London

Cauleen Smith
Courtesy the artist, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago and Kate Werble Gallery, New York

Tita Salina
1001st island – The Most Sustainable Island in Archipelago, 2015
Courtesy the artist. Photo: Irwan Ahmett