When the Prospect.4 triennial opened in November, it did so without work by one of its marquee artists: Shortly before its opening, organizers announced a much-anticipated installation by Kara Walker would be delayed until Prospect’s closing weekend.
That weekend is now here — and it turns out Walker’s work has been very much worth the wait.
For three days this weekend, Walker’s “The Katastwóf Karavan” will be on view near the ferry landing in Algiers Point, directly across from the French Quarter.
The title comes from the Haitian Creole word for “catastrophe," and relates to the painful history of the location of Walker’s installation: In the 18th century, it was the site where enslaved Africans from West Africa were quarantined after being unloaded from the ships that forcibly brought them to New Orleans before they were transferred to the slave markets on the French Quarter side of the river.
The piece consists of an 8,000-pound steel parade wagon laser-cut with Walker’s recognizably unsettling silhouettes, which encloses a 32-note steam-powered calliope
The calliope, which Walker had custom-built for the installation, is intended to provide a counterpoint to that on the Steamboat Natchez a short distance upriver.
Instead of the tourist-friendly tunes on the Natchez, Walker’s calliope will play songs resonant with the African-American experience, with a selection ranging from traditional spirituals and protest anthems like “We Shall Overcome” to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and Prince’s “When Doves Cry.”
In the voice of “sideshow barker-in-chief, aka Miss Kara,” Walker describes the genesis of the project in a statement accompanying the installation which will be available at the site over the weekend.
“We here in the U S of A have never given a Name to the Event which has defined generations,” writes Walker. “We simply say ‘Slavery’ as if that were a legitimate job instead of what it was, a Catastrophe for millions.”
The installation was also created to correct the imbalance of the current historical record at the site, which Walker describes as “A cheap bronze plaque constitut(ing) a paltry memorial to the Catastrophe called slavery and Algiers Point’s nearly forgotten, but pivotal role in its perpetuation.” (According to a 2015 report by WWNO, the Algiers plaque is one of only two historical markers in the entire city that address the slave trade.)
The calliope will play three times a day over the weekend, at 11:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. — though Walker says the last performance may “edge closer to sunset” to coincide with “‘the magic hour,' when the view from Algiers Point towards the French Quarter — or from the slave pens to the slave market if you will — is most beautiful.”
On Friday and Saturday, the calliope activations will include performances by musician Jason Moran, who Walker calls “a live pianist of Prodigious Talent and Incorrigible Manners” and the project’s “first composer, player, and steam whisperer.”
Like several of the more memorable installations in the Prospect orbit these past few months, such as Zarouhie Abdalian’s bells in the French Quarter, Walker’s piece transforms a New Orleans environment through sound and reveals layers of history and experience that have otherwise been marginalized or intentionally erased over the years.
And like much of Walker’s work that has examined the horrors of slavery, such as her 2014 installation of a giant sphinx-like figure in the old Domino Sugar Factory in New York City, “The Katastwof Karavan” simultaneously speaks to the histories of a particular place, a nation and a people. And it’s especially resonant as New Orleans celebrates its tricentennial in 2018.
“New Orleans is this rare city on the Mainland which has retained and even celebrates its Africanisms,” writes Walker. “Second line Parades, Mardi Gras Indians, Jazz — us outsiders may take that for granted — but it’s the nearest thing to beauty this forced history has brought us.”
“And for all that work, defying, resisting and messing with dominant culture — what thanks do its creators get? Evictions, floods, soggy infrastructure and the constant drunken reminder that forgetting is preferable to remembering, as remembering stirs action.”
Kara Walker, “The Katastwóf Karavan”
WHEN: Friday, Feb. 23 through Sunday, Feb. 25, with steam calliope activations at 11:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. each day; live performances by Jason Moran on Friday at 4:30 p.m. and Saturday at 2:30 p.m.
WHERE: 101 Mississippi River Trail, Algiers Point (to the left of the ferry landing)