Like many New Orleanians, Fari Nzinga has been looking forward to the 300th anniversary of the founding of the city.
But when she looked at the schedule of official offerings late last year, she noticed something missing.
“It didn’t seem like there was a lot celebrating or even acknowledging the experience of African-American or other marginalized communities in the official NOLA 300 events,” said Nzinga. “So I wanted to do something to address that.”
The result is the provocatively titled “The Rent Is Too Damn High!”, a group show on view at the Crescent City Boxing Gym in Central City until May 6.
Curated by Nzinga, the show includes work by a dozen artists, from major heavyweights in the New Orleans arts scene to lesser-known talents who Nzinga recruited especially for the show.
Martin Payton contributes three massive welded steel assemblages constructed of found objects like basketball hoops and pieces of traffic signs: urban totems that acquire a powerful monumentality despite their commonplace components.
In a similar vein, Ayo Scott takes an abandoned mattress and transforms it into a site of respite and redemption. It is installed next to evocative paintings by Cecilia Givens that pay homage to ancestors and protective spirits.
Kristina Robinson also used dozens of found objects to create “Temple of Color and Sound” a room-sized altar of sorts that will be spiritually “activated” by live activities twice a week during the run of the exhibitions.
Other highlights of the show include photographs by Cosette Richard, whose composition and restraint recall the Harlem Renaissance portraiture and street photography of James Van Der Zee; and C+J (Cecelia and Jose Fernandes), whose diptychs juxtaposing residents of New Orleans in ambiguous situations were highlights of the 2015 Louisiana Open at the Ogden Museum a few years ago.
The exhibition space is practically a feature of the show in its own right. Located in a corner of Central City off Claiborne Avenue far off the usual art trail and anchored by a massive mural of Muhammad Ali above a boxing ring at one end, the room speaks both to the sport and to the history and culture of the African-American community in general.
And about that title? Nzinga says it was a phrase that was used by New York state gubernatorial candidate Jimmy McMillan, who became a viral sensation in 2010 for running on the “Rent Is Too Damn High” party ticket. Although it didn’t specifically refer to New Orleans, it captured for her something of the spirit she wanted the show to convey.
“I thought, now that's how you use humor and political satire to force a conversation on a real issue,” said Nzinga. “And so when I was watching the mayor and the CVB and the tourism industry in New Orleans make this huge to-do about the tricentennial, I wanted to say something that spoke truth to power.
"I thought, if I'm here struggling to pay my rent with a damn PhD and a whole heap of privileges, then I know other folks who come from here and have been here for generations must be feeling the same, probably even more so.
“But the show is not just about affordable housing. The ‘rent’ is like what James Baldwin described in ‘Price of the Ticket’: it is the cost of being black and creative and trying to live free in this city in this time and place. So the theme is funny and authentic for sure, but it's also something more than face value.”
“The Rent Is Too Damn High!”
WHEN: Through May 6
WHERE: Crescent City Boxing Gym, 3101 Erato Street