By Chris Waddington, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
Essence Festival 2014 fits New Orleans. Both the city and the celebration wrap the riches of African-American culture into compelling packages.
For Essence visitors, New Orleans offers tons of cultural detours, even beyond the familiar music and culinary destinations. To help you get started we put together a manageable tour that stretches from the French Quarter through Treme to our flagship museum in City Park. The stops include the Historic New Orleans Collection, the Backstreet Cultural Museum, Le Musee, and the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Historic New Orleans Collection
New Orleans photographer Richard Sexton connects the dots that link the Crescent City to Haiti, Panama, Cuba, and other places where an African-influenced “Creole” culture shapes the local style. After gathering images for forty years, Sexton distilled that work in a lush, photo book, “Creole World,” that was published in April by the Historic New Orleans Collection. A selection of 50 images from “Creole World” are on display in a free exhibit at the HNOC’s Laura Simon Nelson Galleries, 400 Chartres St. Gallery hours: Tues.-Sat., 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is free. For more details call 504.523.4662 or go to Hnoc.org.
Backstreet Cultural Museum
Set in the historic Treme neighborhood, the Backstreet Cultural Museum spotlights a host of New Orleans traditions: Mardi Gras Indians, Skull and Bone gangs, Baby Dolls, social aid and pleasure clubs, second lines and jazz funerals. Sylvester Francis, who operates this intimate house museum, collected much of the material on display – and he knows these traditions from the inside. This is the spot to examine the elaborate beading on Indian costumes or to ask why Baby Dolls turn out on Fat Tuesday. When you leave the museum, take a look at the neighborhood, which is full of grand 19th century buildings, most of them built by free people of color before the Civil War. Backstreet Cultural Museum, 1116 Henriette Delille St., is open Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $8. For details and directions call 504.522.4806
Want to know more about the free people of color who helped to shape antebellum New Orleans? Visit Jose Torres Tama’s exhibit, “New Orleans Free People of Color and Their Legacy” at Le Musee, a historic, house museum in the Treme neighborhood. The show examines the lives of 19th century New Orleans notables, including composer Edmond Dede, healer Marie Laveau, civic leader C.C. Antoine, and religious leader Henriette Delille. Tama’s expressive pastel portraits are accompanied by interpretive material that details their lives – and the history of a community that doesn’t get much play in standard American histories. Le Musee, 2336 Esplanade Ave, opens on weekends, noon to 4:30 p.m., (or by appointment, 504.914.5401). Admission: $10. For more details visit Lemuseedefpc.com.
New Orleans Museum of Art
The New Orleans Museum of Art has something for everyone, including a free outdoor sculpture garden for folks who prefer a shady green spot to an air-conditioned museum. Look inside, however, and you’ll find two exhibits of special interest to students of the African diaspora.
“Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College” includes 35 pieces by the celebrated muralist - prints, drawings, a small survey of his easel paintings and the grand murals that depict events from African-American history. Woodruff’s subjects include the mutiny on the slave ship Amistad, the Underground Railroad, and the founding of historically black Talladega College in 1867. The murals, painted on canvas, were created for the library of the Alabama school in 1939 and 1942. They had never been seen outside the library until the current museum tour, a seven-city affair that began at the High Museum in Atlanta.
NOMA’s permanent display of African Art is one of the nation’s best. For sixty years, the collection has grown steadily, supported by a network of local collectors, a celebrated New Orleans dealer, and a long-serving curator with a passion for all things African. It includes more than 500 objects from across the continent, including beadwork, gold, masks, costumes, sculptures and the carved posts of a palace façade from Cameroon. Freshly re-installed, this moodily lit display isn’t just an aesthetic showcase: it also communicates the cultural meaning of objects that held great power for those who made them.
New Orleans Museum of Art, 1 Collins C. Diboll Circle, City Park is open Fri., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Tues.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is $10 adults; $8 seniors; $6 children (ages 7-17). Wednesdays are free for Louisiana residents with ID. For details call 504.658.4100 or visit noma.org.