If there’s a through-line connecting the four distinct but conceptually resonant shows that opened recently at the Contemporary Arts Center, it’s how identities — especially marginalized ones involving race, gender and sexuality — are constructed and represented through artistic practice.
“These exhibitions initially were imagined as competing and complementary explorations on the subject of identity construction — how we self-define as well as define others,” said Andrea Andersson, chief curator of visual arts at the CAC. “But, they quickly demonstrated that identity construction is always, already about community construction — how we understand ourselves and others through our relationships.”
If that sounds a little abstract to make for interesting viewing, the vibrant visual creativity in each show will convince you otherwise.
The centerpiece exhibition is New York-based Mickalene Thomas’ “Femme Noires,” which occupies most of the CAC’s first-floor gallery space. It’s Thomas’s second solo show in New Orleans in recent years, following a 2017 exhibition at the Newcomb Art Museum.
An increasingly visible presence in the national art scene over the past decade, Thomas also has high-profile shows in Miami and Baltimore opening this season.
“Femmes Noires” begins with a knockout: “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les trois femmes noires,” a mixed media version of a photographic collage Thomas initially created as part of a project at MoMA PS1 in New York in 2010. The imagery takes as its point of departure the central group of figures in Edouard Manet’s 1863 painting, with which it shares the first part of its title — and which further traces its formal imagery to a Renaissance work by Raphael.
With its layers of art historical associations combined with motifs and materials that reference African diasporic and African American artistic practice, the piece serves as a gorgeous, glittery introduction to Thomas’ subsequent explorations of how black women are represented in visual art and popular culture.
Nearby, “Me as Muse” is a video assemblage in which Thomas’ nude body is juxtaposed with imagery ranging from other paintings in the Western art historical canon to multicolored textile patterns, all overlaid with a soundtrack from an interview with Eartha Kitt talking about her life and career. It’s a mesmerizingly kaleidoscopic example of the way Thomas situates herself as a contemporary queer black woman in a wider artistic and historical context.
A series of paintings which feature Whoopi Goldberg in “The Color Purple”’and another depicting what Thomas calls “Groundbreaking Black Women” (like actress Diahann Carroll and model Naomi Sims) highlight some of the role models who figure in Thomas’ artistic practice, as do the stacks of books by writers like Toni Morrison, Audre Lord, Nikki Giovanni and Angela Davis that are interspersed throughout the galleries.
And there are dozens more famous figures occupying the space of “Do I Look Like A Lady?”, an installation of brightly patterned furniture and video projections of black female singers and comedians. Like the central tableau in Thomas’ 2016 Newcomb installation, it’s a deeply personal and nostalgic evocation of the artist’s formative influences. It’s also a powerful testament to the many ways that black women have chosen to present themselves to the world.
If Thomas emphasizes personal experience and influences in her art, Meg Turner, whose “Here and Now” is on view on the second floor of the CAC, approaches similar themes of self-expression from a more community-based context.
The show is centered by a neon-lit structure based on the facade of an iconic tire shop on St. Claude Avenue — the nexus of Turner’s queer community in New Orleans — which Turner reimagines as a collective repository for all kinds of information, services and exchange. It’s surrounded by dozens of Turner’s tintype portraits of friends, lovers and chosen family.
In its construction of physical space and objects that implicitly address the lack of such things in the history of queer communities, Turner’s work resonates with that of New Orleans-based artist Skyler Fein, whose installation “Remember the UpStairs Lounge” occupied the same gallery space during the Prospect.1 biennial in 2007.
It’s an immersive environment whose outlook and politics will make some viewers deeply uncomfortable. It will make others feel like they’ve finally found the kind of promised land that Turner references in a quote from critical theorist José Esteban Muñoz’s “Cruising Utopia” that opens the exhibition: “We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.”
Turner imagines that queer utopia as a place where borders are open, where all bodies and all expressions of gender and sexuality are celebrated, where abortions are free and legal, where everyone is entitled to vacations and massages regardless of their income level, and where sex toys are always on sale. It’s a place that’s far removed from our current reality. But the optimism and beauty of Turner’s vision is in imagining that such places are possible.
Elsewhere at the CAC, Ghanaian American artist Akosua Adoma Owusu’s multichannel video installation examines African identity and self-expression through hair culture: the multiplicity of ways that African hair is depicted, treated, displayed and styled. And Thomas collaborates with New Orleans-based artists Carla Williams (owner of the retail concept shop Material Life) and Lee Laa Ray Guillory in an “activation” of the gallery in the center of the CAC’s circular ramp. The display combines vintage Black pulp magazines from the 1960s and 1970s with other representations of black female presence like quilts and family portraits.
Like all of the artistic environments on view at the CAC this season, it’s one worth exploring.
Mickalene Thomas, “Femmes Noires”
Meg Turner, “Here and Now”
Akosua Adoma Owusu, “Welcome to the Jungle”
Material Life and Mickalene Thomas, “Femmes Feroces”
WHERE: Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St.
INFO: (504) 528-3805, www.cacno.org
ADMISSION: $10 general admission; $8 students and seniors; free for CAC members and students under grade 12 (all times) and for Louisiana residents with ID (Sundays only)