The front lawn of the Old U.S. Mint at the foot of Esplanade Avenue has a new addition: a one-ton bronze sculpture of a young black boy riding a kind of mollusk called a nautilus.
The creature’s bronze antennae now arch toward the fire station across Esplanade. It will stand sentinel in that location at the edge of the French Quarter for the next three months, as part of the New Orleans-wide art exhibition Prospect.4.
The sculpture’s installation Saturday morning showed the depth of work that it takes to put Prospect.4 together. All across town, installation crews and artists labored to put 250 pieces of artwork into place.
The appetite for the exhibition’s art, which will dot the city, also seemed high. A stream of curious passersby began to inspect the nautilus sculpture even before the crane had lowered it into place.
Rance Jefferson, 37, a forklift driver working nearby, strolled across North Peters Street during a break to get a peek. No question about the message, Jefferson said: “A black man on a snail. He’s saying that it’s been a slow process to get where we are now.”
Pat Duplessis, 33, rubbed the sleep from his eyes and walked across Esplanade from where he had just spent the night with some of his buddies slumbering under a live oak tree on the neutral ground. “I just find it intriguing,” he said, gazing at the sculpture.
Nearby, a woman leading a well-groomed toy poodle on a leash talked with a friend about the statue’s different patinas, which give the curve of the nautilus’ shell a glossy, almost mirror-like look, while an intricate top ridge is detailed like an ornate brocade that goes underneath the boy and heads toward the creature’s antennae. “It’s stunning in its intricacy,” the woman said, as the two walked away toward the river.
Chris Berntsen, 32, who was part of the sculpture’s installation crew, has worked with Hank Willis Thomas, the artist, for about 10 years. He particularly likes the “fantastical” elements of the sculpture, which reminded Thomas of the city’s Mardi Gras floats. “I love that quality of it,” Berntsen said.
Crane operator Landry Dupont, 60, admired the craft of the piece. “It’s a well-done little contraption,” said Dupont, whose crew typically places HVAC units on top of buildings. After he’d finished his work, Dupont stood back and puzzled over the larger meaning of what he’d just helped to deliver.
He saw a message of optimism: “He’s riding him a snail. He won’t get anywhere fast, but he will get there.”
Thomas' work is infused with political sensibilities about race and wealth and power.
So, in some ways, it seemed as though his sculpture may have been placed intentionally at a historic crossroads, at the edge of the wealthy Quarter, across the street from where slave traders once showed off their human wares and not far from Esplanade Ridge, once a stronghold for the city’s large population of free people of color.
Yet the location also was chosen for a practical reason: The ground along the river is not quite as spongy as back-of-town soil, which makes it able to support a one-ton bronze sculpture, said Emily Wilkerson, the deputy director for curatorial affairs for Prospect New Orleans.
Thomas, who also does photography and film and other media, once made an exhibit of Nike "swoosh" logos superimposed onto the bodies of black men, recalling the branding of slaves by their owners.
His image displayed in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., is called “Strange Fruit,” after the Billie Holiday song about lynchings of African-Americans. The image is of two black basketball players playing a game of one-on-one, but above them is a noose instead of a basketball net.
Last year, Thomas helped to found For Freedoms, a "super PAC" run by artists that notably created a controversial billboard near Selma, Alabama, that showed a photo of state troopers about to descend on peaceful protesters. Across the image was the phrase “Make America Great Again,” Donald Trump’s campaign slogan.
To Thomas and the PAC’s other artists, “all we could really think about as a time when America was great was when citizen heroes of the civil rights movement stood up to injustice and brutality with dignity, love, integrity and courage,” he told The Washington Post.
Thomas was raised in a household filled with arts and activism. His mother is Deborah Willis, professor and chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
His father is Hank Thomas, a longtime civil rights activist who on May 24, 1961, rode out of Montgomery, Alabama, on one of the earliest Freedom Ride buses, along with New Orleanians Jerome Smith and Doris Castle, Oretha Castle Haley’s younger sister.
The New Orleans sculpture, which Thomas titled "History of Conquest," is based on “Snail with Nautilus Shell,” a delicate 8-by-10-inch piece of art that was created in 1630 from a nautilus shell and gilded silver by German artist Jeremias Ritter. It’s now in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut.
On top of the creature’s shell, Ritter placed a rider, described by one exhibit guide as a “well-modeled figure of a Nubian, enameled in black, with a dark-red and green loincloth and carrying a bow with a quiver of arrows on his back.”
Other museum descriptions refer to the rider as a Moor. Both Nubians and Moors were black people who lived in North Africa.
In his proposal to Prospect.4, Thomas noted that some art historians had “speculated that the snail motif was meant to symbolize the vilified, in this case ‘the Moor.’ ”
Trevor Schoonmaker, Prospect.4's artistic director, recalls his excitement when Thomas proposed the idea a few years ago. “The work speaks to our current cultural climate, with so much tension, fear and animosity toward people of color and Muslims,” Schoonmaker said.
The sculpture was fabricated earlier this year in China. A ship carried it to a port in California, where a crane placed it into a tractor-trailer truck for its cross-country ride to Louisiana. Early on Saturday morning, the crane truck left Pearl River carrying the sculpture.
In some ways, the bronze mollusk’s long journey is emblematic for those who have worked for the last few years to create Prospect.4, which opens to the public on Nov. 18.
On Friday night, registrar Linda Stubbs and her crew worked until 10 p.m. installing works at the Contemporary Art Center. They arrived early Saturday morning to oversee installation of the nautilus.
From there, they headed to Crescent Park to install a 5,000-pound sculpture by artist Radcliffe Bailey that came on a wide-load truck with a police escort but had to be relocated downriver at the last minute, because the Piety Street Wharf’s boards couldn’t support the crane truck.
As she stood at Crescent Park near the river, Wilkerson figured out a new solution by talking with the park’s managers and Facetiming by phone with Bailey.
Wilkerson was thrilled to see another piece emerge from its wooden crate. “Because we’ve been working on it so long, each piece has intricacies that I love,” she said.