Artist Willie Birch laughs when he says that his upcoming expo started with a challenge from a skeptic several years ago.
"He said, 'Willie, you know, artists don't know how to work with groups," Birch remembers. "'Y'all are loners.'"
He concedes that much of his artistic career has been focused on his own work and career. His recent work, which is included along with six other artists and collectives in the Changing Course: Reflections on New Orleans Histories opening Friday at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), is part of a community-focused project.
Birch bought property in the 7th Ward to create four apartments and a community garden near O'Reilly and New Prieur streets. The garden is the project's metaphor for change.
"The idea was to use art as a means to transform a community, particularly in light of gentrification and what's going in our city — and particularly in terms of poor people, who are being pushed out, and this idea of constant movement," Birch says. "For someone who is poor, the idea of constantly moving really messes with your psyche."
Birch has commissioned other artists' contributions and he's invited the community to take ownership of the garden. Some work was displayed at Isadore Newman School, where he mentored students and shared the project with them.
The suite of works includes black-and-white portraits of neighbors and community scenes. He used materials collected from the properties, such as grass, bones found under one of the houses and other found objects. There's also a long tapestry with the Mississippi River winding through it, subtly invoking New Orleans history, including the slave trade and racism, in depicting a contemporary scene.
Doing work that's part of a community is a concept that's more African in nature but it also fits with New Orleans in the form of Mardi Gras Indian suits, Birch says.
"Tootie Montana used to say, 'I'm not making this suit for myself,'" Birch says. "'I'm making it for the community.'"
At NOMA, other projects in the exhibit explore other communities and marginalized histories. Following its debut in art triennial Prospect.1 in 2008, Skylar Fein's Remembering the Upstairs Lounge installation was acquired by NOMA. Through news photos and artwork by Fein, it recreated the second-floor gay bar where a 1973 arson led to the deaths of 32 people.
Katrina Andry's scrolls depicting lush vegetation and news images on paper crumpled into flowerlike blossoms invoke the recent history of New Orleans East and the way events such as Hurricane Katrina changed it. Lesley Dill's large-scale, text-heavy wall hangings and sculptural works invoke the life and street preaching of folk artist Sister Gertrude Morgan. The Propeller Group's video The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music also was part of Prospect.3. It shows Vietnamese funeral traditions similar to jazz funerals.
In NOMA's Great Hall are photos of New Orleans school children by L. Kasimu Harris. In one image, children present flowers and read books in Lafayette Square at the foot of the statue of John McDonogh, a slave owner, philanthropist and namesake of many New Orleans public schools. The annual tradition was among McDonogh's wishes when he died in 1904, but it was for many decades a segregated practice, an irony and history captured in the present by the photo.