NOMA Spotlights Houma Culture

By John d’Addario | The Advocate

In the ancient French Breton legend of the city of Ys, a coastal city full of splendor and vice is submerged by a great wave and disappears beneath the ocean, never to be seen again.

Southern Louisiana might have been spared that unhappy ending for the time being, but it’s not difficult to see why the tale resonated with French artist Camille Henrot when she visited New Orleans a few years ago.

The parallels between Ys (pronounced “ees”) and the Louisiana wetlands were the initial inspiration for her exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art, “Cities of Ys,” on display through February.

Yet Henrot, who was awarded the Silver Lion award for Best Young Artist at this year’s Venice Biennale, found herself drawn to a different kind of story.

In particular, Henrot was intrigued by a French-speaking community of Native Americans in southern Louisiana: the United Houma Nation, whose art and culture is the subject of both “Cities of Ys” and a related exhibition on view at NOMA, “Woven Histories: Houma Basketry.”

Both exhibitions were curated by Miranda Lash, curator of modern and contemporary art at NOMA, who described “Woven Histories” as the first museum exhibition to focus exclusively on Houma basketweaving – one of the most important art forms of the United Houma Nation.

Aside from being significant (and beautiful) works of art, the baskets reinforce the identity of the United Houma Nation as a Native American population in the eyes of the United States government, an ongoing and somewhat contentious process which is additionally explored in Henrot’s adjacent exhibition.

While the Houma consider their extensive oral history, geographic cohesiveness, and shared history and struggles as the foundation of their identity as a Native American people, the federal government has very specific criteria regarding what constitutes a valid tribe.

Some of those criteria might be considered problematic, even contradictory. Henrot explores different ways culture is expressed and recorded in her “Cities of Ys” exhibition in an adjoining gallery on NOMA’s second floor.

The two exhibitions are physically and conceptually linked by a Fiberglass pirogue that passes through the wall separating the galleries, as if taking the viewer on a journey between them.

“Many worlds were bridged in the making of this exhibition,” Lash observed. “And that includes the different worlds of contemporary art.”

Aside from a piece that serves as an introduction to the watery environment that defines the “Cities of Ys,” the video sculptures in Henrot’s exhibition all feature members of the United Houma Nation talking about their work, their families and their efforts to achieve federal recognition as a people.

Despite the extensive video footage in the exhibition, however, Lash stressed that Henrot’s viewpoint is that of an artist, not a documentarian.

Each video is presented as a freestanding sculptural object, surrounded by a custom frame or stand and supplemented with drawings, photographs, found images, even an iPad and a laptop.

Technology is an integral part of “Cities of Ys,” which also examines the way in which both the Houma people and the viewer use electronic devices and the Internet.

One of the video sculptures shows a member of the United Houma Nation scrolling through family portraits on an iPhone, while the screen on the adjacent laptop scrolls through a series of Wikipedia pages on the Houma people and borrowed French terms in American culture. It’s as if we’re looking over someone’s shoulder as he browses the Web.

Another takes us into the office of a United Houma Nation historian as she explains the difficulties in achieving federal recognition, a process summed up by a sign in her office that reads, “If it’s not in writing, it didn’t happen.”

It’s those direct, intimate moments with individuals that make “Cities of Ys” so engaging.

“The more time you spend looking,” Lash said, “the more you’ll see.”