In the Eye of the Hurricane: “Ten Years Gone” in New Orleans

Isabelle Hayeur, Manatee Drive 4, from "Underworlds" series, 2011.
Isabelle Hayeur, Manatee Drive 4, from “Underworlds” series, 2011.

Upon first seeing the banner image for the New Orleans Museum of Art’s current exhibition, “Ten Years Gone,” you might assume that you’re looking at the flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. This summer is the 10-year anniversary of the disaster, and NOMA’s show is one of several exhibitions and events to mark the milestone. In the image, water fills the lower two-thirds of the vertical image, and our point of view is just at the surface of the water. In the murky depths, rocks are visible, even a cement block. In the background, a white archway gleams against a blue sky filled with white clouds in an out-of-focus urban landscape of tall white buildings and green trees. My mind raced through possible options that might place the archway as a bridge in New Orleans, but landed on nothing. The title gives the game away: Manatee Drive places the bridge in Florida.

The disorienting poster is indicative of the museum’s desire to do a Katrina show that is not actually a Katrina show. Named after a Led Zeppelin song, “Ten Years Gone” begins with the premise that, 10 years later, no one wants to see any more “Katrina art.” The time has come and gone for angsty paintings or collages of photographs of the damage. Instead, NOMA photography curator Russell Lord offers a show about the concept of anniversaries and the universal themes of the passage of time, memory, loss, and transformation. Lord chose the work of six contemporary artists, three of whom lived in New Orleans at the time of the storm. None of the iconography is specific to Katrina, but make no mistake, it is a Katrina show. It’s just a different kind of Katrina show, one that works by analogy and by offering counterarguments to the Katrina imagery that already pervades our visual culture.

For weeks, the media inundated us with aerial photographs of the hardest hit areas, such as Gentilly, Lakeview, and the Lower Ninth Ward. Hayeur refuses that point of view, one associated with mastery and control, and brings us down to the level of the water by lowering a camera in a watertight case into the water. The resulting photographs from the “Underworlds” series are installed in the Great Hall, surrounding one as soon as you enter the museum. Their unusual point of view makes you feel as if you are witnessing the water that rose around the museum in City Park 10 years ago (the park was flooded between 1 and 8 feet in different areas). They remind me of a bumper sticker that I often see on cars here: “New Orleans: proud to swim home.” Many storm survivors who braved the floods did have to swim to get out, and Hayeur’s point of view analogizes their point of view. Even though the water is from other places, such as Florida, the images can still speak to the general plight of water.

As a post-Katrina transplant to the city, I also have to resort to analogy to try to identify with Katrina. When I first moved to New Orleans, I thought I had some insight, given that I have witnessed and survived a category 4 hurricane (Hurricane Hugo in Charleston SC in 1989). But when I moved here and started asking about Katrina, the first thing that people told me was that the problem was not “the storm.” That’s why so many people refer to it as Katrina and not Hurricane Katrina. Yes, there was a hurricane, but “Katrina” encompasses all the dominoes that the storm knocked down, starting with the flooding caused by the broken levees and including the incompetence of FEMA’s response and the way that the media painted a picture of the city that many felt was inaccurate and exploitative (playing up the looting and violence, for example, instead of the less dramatic instances of personal connection and support).

The gambit of the show seems to be that we can approach the task of memorializing Katrina sideways, by comparing it to other traumas, ranging from climate change to 9/11. But how might this approach feel to someone who does have firsthand experience of Katrina? For the purpose of answering such questions, I recruited a team of Katrina veterans to see the show and contribute their responses: Regina Scully and Valerie Corradetti, both local artists, and Cheryl Castjohn, friend and sometime art critic. Scully responded most strongly to Hayeur’s photographs: “Hayeur’s photos impacted me as soon as I walked into the museum. It didn’t matter that they weren’t from New Orleans, a fact I later learned, which gave me some distance from Katrina itself and made me realize that there is potentially destructive murky urban waters in many cities.”

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