In our May 12 issue, Carolina A. Miranda appraises New Orleans’s fifth citywide art triennial, “Prospect.5: Yesterday we said tomorrow,” an exhibition that brought together “historical, environmental, and spiritual themes” in works by artists from around the world that were nonetheless “firmly rooted in New Orleans.” The show spread across the city and included sculptural rejoinders to Confederate monuments, a forty-foot multimedia collage, and the interment of a father’s bracelet in a local mausoleum. Miranda concludes that at its best, the experience of Prospect.5 was “getting to know New Orleans and, over time, forming a bond.”
Miranda came to art criticism after many years working as a journalist and blogger. In 2014 she became a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, where she was named a columnist in 2020. “Writing was something that I always wanted to do,” she told me over e-mail this week. “My parents always had a strong interest in literature and poetry, and both could recite long poems (in Spanish) from memory. But it took me a while to figure out how exactly I was going to deploy that.”
In Miranda’s undergraduate years, she had been an aspiring historian, and her excitement about the intersection of art and history is apparent in her writing on the triennial and in our interview. Miranda and I corresponded about the intrigue of New Orleans, art and geography, and talking back to Confederate monuments.
Daniel Drake: Do you have an art practice yourself?
Caroline Miranda: I can’t draw to save my life. Those who can’t do, criticize.
Do you have a sense of what the New Orleans art scene was like before Katrina catalyzed the variety of work—politically engaged and otherwise—that shows in the Prospect.5 triennial?
Prior to Prospect.5, I’d only been to New Orleans on a couple of brief visits as a tourist, but the city had always felt familiar to me. I’m Latina, and I’ve lived for spells in Latin America and the nuances of New Orleans’s racial hierarchies and its louche Catholic vibe felt like something I’d experienced in places like the Caribbean or in coastal Peru, where my dad’s family is from—places where there is a of mixed race that includes an influential African presence. And I’ve always been intrigued by New Orleans’s connection to Latin America. New Orleans was the home of United Fruit, the multinational known as “El Pulpo” (The Octopus) for its far-reaching influence on economics and politics.
Unfortunately, I came to know New Orleans only after Katrina. In fact, early in my career, when I worked at Time, I reported from New York on some of the issues related to FEMA’s mismanagement of the disaster. So, the piece about Prospect.5 was an opportunity to spend time studying a place I had previously reported on from a distance. I also regularly write about monuments and digging into that history was part of what motivated the journey to see Prospect.5. It was also an opportunity to see what two important LA curators, Naima Keith and Diana Nawi, were working on in Louisiana. I must know what my fellow Angelenos are up to!
In your essay, you write that “one artist and one triennial can’t make up for decades of disinvestment and disenfranchisement, of course. But perhaps what they can do is create moments of meaningful engagement.” What are some examples of artwork you’ve liked that embodies this idea or ethic of engagement? Is it about a direct relationship to place?
I was thinking about it as a very specific engagement by the art with place. Being from Los Angeles, I’m sensitive to how badly places can be misrepresented. As art fairs have come to dominate the arts calendar, art feels increasingly placeless, something that parachutes in and just as quickly disappears. Certainly, Prospect faces some of those criticisms since it is an international show. But as an exhibition, I felt like Prospect.5 never let you forget you were in New Orleans. In addition to Dave McKenzie’s piece, the installations by Simone Leigh and Glenn Ligon engaged the city’s landscape and gave you a real sense of the fraught histories inhabiting the sites you were standing on.
There were others, too. New Orleans artist Katrina Andry had a terrific series of woodcut prints at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art that playfully, fantastically took on race and beauty among Black women. Across town, at the New Orleans African American Museum in Tremé, Atlanta-based artist Paul Stephen Benjamin created an architectonic monument titled Sanctuary in the museum’s garden. The museum is on the site of an old brickyard and plantation where enslaved laborers once worked, so Benjamin built his structure out of black bricks. It’s a work best viewed at night, when the word “TREME,” which runs along the structure’s spine, is illuminated with purple light. It felt like it was made more for the neighborhood—it is visible from the street—than for the art types who might see it in daytime.
I’m loath to wade into the well-trod Confederate monuments argument, but I wonder if there are any alternatives or responses to, or wholesale demolitions of, the monuments that you’ve found to be beautiful or meaningful?
Let’s wade. This is history that we are still processing, and I find it more thought provoking when cities have allowed for partial removals or recontextualizations before razing everything. For example, when Charlottesville removed its monument to Robert E. Lee, they removed everything and fenced off the site. It seemed more an act of denial than of reckoning.
New Orleans removed their monument to Lee but left the column it stood on, which I think offers an opportunity for reflection in the same way a ruin might. I was intrigued by how Simone Leigh intervened, touching on New Orleans ecology and cultural history with her sculptural tribute to the female water deity Mami Wata, which Leigh refused to mount on the plinth—thereby providing an opportunity to think about our connection to land. In that vein, I’m really into Dominican American artist Joiri Minaya’s work de ella with colonial monuments: she cloaks them in custom fabrics bearing botanical designs with different cultural significances. The installations come off as ghostly and beautiful. For so long, these colonial and Confederate monuments have talked at us; these types of interventions are an opportunity to finally talk back.
In your review, you write about how recent New Orleans art loosely coheres around the many meanings and feelings evoked by water. Do you think there are similar dominant motifs, elemental or not, in the Los Angeles art world?
That is a big question! Los Angeles sits at such a confluence of phenomena it’s hard to pick one. There are fires and earthquakes, there is the quality of the light, there is the epic nature of our brutalist freeways. But these days I’m thinking less about these motifs than redefining how we think about this place geographically. So often, this is a city that is defined by its relationship to the east coast. It is the “The West,” the traditional end point of Manifest Destiny and the narratives of Anglo settlement. Instead, I prefer to think of LA as North and East—the northernmost fringes of Mexico, the “El Norte” to which so many Latin American immigrants arrive, and the East to which myriad waves of Asian immigrants have journeyed. In this North and this East, cultures have fused in singular ways. How might that change our view of who and what is elemental to Los Angeles? Who sits at that confluence? The first artist that comes to my mind is painter Shizu Saldamando, whose fine portraits beautifully capture not the bleached-blonde LA of popular culture but the LA I see on the street.