Kirsha Kaechele, known in the New Orleans art community for her avant-garde work post-Katrina, has curated a new exhibit in the St. Roch neighborhood that aims to get guns off the street and local youth into a brand-new recording studio.
Called “The Embassy,” the conceptual art project debuted Saturday with a “no questions asked” gun buyback program funded by Kaechele and her husband, David Walsh, owner of the Museum of Old and New Art in Australia. The couple donated $100,000 toward the effort, making it what organizers call the biggest gun buyback program in New Orleans history.
“We appreciate the partnership,” said the Rev. Norwood Thompson, who joined with Kaechele and the Greater New Orleans-Jefferson Gun Buy Back Committee to organize the event.
Thompson has worked since 1995 to get guns off the street with buyback programs, but he said Saturday that he had never before gotten a donation as big as Kaechele’s.
“It’s brought (the buyback effort) back to life again,” he said.
The program offered $75 for a handgun, $150 for a rifle and $250 for an assault rifle from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday in the 1200 block of Franklin Avenue.
It was only a small part of the exhibition, however. Its longer-lasting counterpart, a free recording studio, also debuted Saturday a few blocks away in what used to be a car wash.
Called Gun Metal Records Studio, the “safe haven” opened Saturday afternoon with an anti-violence parade and ceremony, featuring a procession of Mardi Gras Indian tribe queens led by Maroon Queen Cherice Harrison-Nelson, of the Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society.
Joining the Indians were the McDonogh 35 High School majorettes, the 504 Boyz Horse Club and a local motorcycle and car club. Several local rappers, including 5th Ward Weebie and Partners-N-Crime, also were slated to perform songs focused on nonviolence.
According to Kaechele, the purpose of both the procession and the studio, which is open free to the public, is to create community and alleviate the shootings, murders and other violence that has long afflicted the 8th Ward area.
“It raises awareness. We’ve really tried hard to give people a safe place to make change without punishment,” Kaechele said as she perused the hundreds of guns that had piled up in the buyback part of the exhibit. After being displayed briefly, they were placed in garbage cans and rolled out the back door to be destroyed. “It’s an opportunity to trade killing for opportunity, and for the youth to find their voice,” she said.
Based at the recording studio, which is painted in bright purple with purple-and-white-striped floors, the multifaceted project opened in conjunction with Prospect.3, an international art festival that has made its name in New Orleans since the first version opened in 2008. The studio isn’t officially one of the 18 selected Prospect.3 sites, but with a roster of local artistic heavyweights and celebrities, the venture promises to draw attention.
Claire Tancons, a freelance curator who used to work for the Contemporary Arts Center, worked with Delaney Martin to put together Saturday’s “Public Practice: An Anti-Violence Community Ceremony” procession. Martin curated the popular Bywater installation “The Music Box: A Shantytown Sound Laboratory.”
Also on hand, coordinating efforts between the buyback location and the recording studio, was former NBA player and New Orleans native Randy Livingston.
“It’s an awesome project,” Livingston said, adding that he remembers living in the city and seeing friends die from gun violence. “If we can help just one life, this program will be successful. If we can stop just one murder, it’s a success.”
Hip-hop recording artist Corey Smith, who goes by his stage name Mr. Serv-On, agreed. Serv-On, who was one of the first rappers to sign on to No Limit Records, said he joined the effort with the hope of mentoring youth and other community members who want to get involved in the music business.
While the art festival is slated to end Jan. 25, Serv-On and other organizers hope the studio will have a lasting legacy. To that end, organizers will pick 10 to 12 of the best songs recorded in the studio and release them on a single album that can be sold to raise money for the community.
Serv-On said he also hopes some residents will stumble upon potential careers as rappers or producers, finding a way to make money without turning to drugs or gang activity.
“I want to help youth realize their dreams, give them a chance,” Serv-On said as he finished setting up a bright gold recording room in the studio. “This is a place where they can come in, get off the streets. They can get out their anger, get out their hurt.”
And according to Kaechele, that cathartic experience is the entire point of her artistic endeavor.
“The music and the ambiance, the dramatic lighting and the guns piling up … it’s really a reverence for a release of our own tools of violence,” Kaechele said.