Monday, December 2, 2013

From Folktales to Indians






With her background, Camille Henrot, a French artist living in New York, is most qualified to look for a lost tribe of Houma Indians diluted between water and land in the most Southern part of Louisiana. A sort of ethnographer, philosopher, historian, who graduated from the famous Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs, her interest in different cultures and her research in primitive myths fit with the subject of her first solo exhibition in the United States, Cities of Ys at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Through her installation which includes a series of videos, she captures the life of the Houma people and looks into their ancestry, heavily influenced by the French, from their language to their last name. She describes a community, busy with church meetings, celebrations or school gatherings. Individuals share their photographs on cell phones and oral traditions are taken over by visual recordings which have become the repository of their memories. Adapting to a new world, their occupations have shifted from fishing to working for the oil companies, like building pipes for use on the oil rigs, an unavoidable collaboration for survival. The Houma Indians now disseminated in six different parishes were identified by Cavelier de La Salle in 1682 and recognized by the State of Louisiana but need to fulfill seven criteria in order to meet the definition of a tribe and receive subsidies from the federal government.
The awareness to the Houma tribe brought up by this exhibition is only one of the artist's goal. She presents the videos with a twist by modifying the shape of the screen with different "frames". The set up includes also a pile of paper printed with excerpts of old French Ballads from Brittany, a screenshot of a Wikipedia page with the word "Cappuccino", a late Klee-like painting, a photograph of an eagle or a paint color swatch with shades of red... These sideshows blended around the videos require some interpretation by the viewer. However their symbolism may be lost due to the visual overload. Loosing the thread, the visitor may miss a great view of an offshore oil platform reflected in the sunglasses of a local story-teller or children playing under water followed by a shot of the oil sheen lurking on the surface, picture of a loss of innocence. How  eight silkscreen prints drawn from the imprint of pieces of wood leftover from guitar making relate to the cities of Ys? In Horse with No Name, the artist defines her vision of America, the guitar becomes a symbol of the land.
The transition to the next exhibition, Woven Histories: Houma Basketry, about the long tradition of basket weaving in the Houma Indians is very relevant. A half canoe (or pirogue) on each side of the wall separating the two exhibitions. On one side, the front of the canoe, simple and efficient, on the other side, the back loaded with symbols, the mother pirogue with smaller pirogues and a ceramic ball representing the earth, created from the gathering of mud by a crawfish according to a myth from the Houma tribe.
Going back to the French myth which gave the title to the exhibition, the end of the tale is dramatic. The city of Ys is swallowed by the ocean.
Water, the element binds a mythical city and an Indian tribe trying to rediscover its roots in a shrinking land.





photographs by the author:

detail "Plasmas plasma stealth", 2013
detail "The Descendants of Pirogue", 2013

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