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Whose art is Katrina art?

In hurricane's wake, local artists found themselves competing with outsiders to record the event.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 17, 2009

Visitors stop by the booth of folk artist Bob Shaffer, known as ‘Dr. Bob.’ Mr. Shaffer is a longtime New Orleans sculptor and painter known for his ‘Be Nice or Leave’ signs.

David Rae Morris/Reuters

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New OrleansFour weeks after the levees broke, submerging her city under 10 feet of water, Susan Gisleson sneaked back into the city to rebuild her house. The New Orleans native waited for her neighbors to show up and do the same. But at the end of each day, she and her family were still alone.

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"Nobody came back. Nobody came back for weeks. It was looking for a while that nobody wanted to come back and rebuild the city. We felt the shock of thinking, 'What would happen if the city should not come back?' " Ms. Gisleson says. "That's why we had the impetus to start creating things."

Under the collective name Antenna, she and other artists staged art shows and literary events, published books, and hosted free workshops, all in the spirit of breathing new life into New Orleans, a city that many in the wake of hurricane Katrina, had left for dead.

The embers of those early endeavors helped launch a full-fledged artistic renaissance in New Orleans, embodied by a new arts district of storefront galleries in the city's Bywater and St. Roch neighborhoods, increased enrollment in the local university art programs, and the arrival of artists from all over the world.

The amplified activity is building a body of work that addresses Katrina from both the inside and from many states away.

As a source of recorded history, the art offers dimensions much more complex than those of photography or video. But there are those who say artwork involving the flood is in danger of becoming "emotional pornography," says Gisleson. Like many things in New Orleans – pictures of cemetery tombs, bus tours of the devastated Lower Ninth Ward – the city's moribund charm is inevitably tagged with a price.

"It's annoying," says Bob Shaffer, a longtime sculptor and painter known for his "Be Nice or Leave" signs assigned to every bar in town. "There's a lot of carpetbaggers and scalawags coming down here and playing on the art scene. If someone comes down here [to capitalize on Katrina], they better be giving it back."

Prospect One, an international art exhibition, was staged in the city's most devastated areas in November 2008. It offered artists from across the world a chance to showcase work that explored Katrina in images and performance pieces.

Chris Saucedo, a sculptor whose home was inundated by 10 feet of water and who still sleeps in a FEMA trailer, says that while the 10-day exhibition "literally put us on the map as a destination of contemporary art," for local artists it presented "complicated feelings of being appreciative [that outside artists] were here but [feeling] overlooked at the same time."

"I didn't need artists from Brazil and London to make Katrina art. That's my story," says Mr. Saucedo. "On the other hand, a lot of it was so good and so powerful, I just loved it."

For some artists, being hyped on Katrina art added to "a sense of fatigue," an inevitable condition for most residents who returned to rebuild. "We lived so much with Katrina, and for people to come in and want to experience it for themselves made it go on longer," says Lawrence Jenkins, chairman of the University of New Orleans fine arts department. "It wasn't hostile, but you did feel a disconnect with people who are still doing that art or exploring the disaster after you lived with [it] for 3-1/2 years."

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