New Orleans Photographer Gus Bennett at CFAC

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 07/09/09More articles
(At right, “Queenie,” from the “Organic Watermarks” exhibition on view at Community Folk Art Center © Gus Bennett, Jr. Used with permission.)

Gus Bennett, Jr. was heading directly back to New Orleans to get ready to shoot the main stage photos at this year’s Essence Music Festival. Internationally known for his entertainment, celebrity and magazine cover photography, Bennett’s work has appeared in publications such as “Essence,” “Ebony,” “Jet,” “Upscale” and “Tribe.” But his new exhibition is something of a departure and he was happy to chat about that recently over coffee at the Genesee Grande.

Bennett was in town on June 27th for the opening reception at Community Folk Art Center (CFAC) on East Genesee St. of “Organic Watermarks,” 22 portraits overlaid with digitally layered images of watermarks on concrete and other surfaces, leaves, textures, fabric, and remnants left behind by Hurricane Katrina. Certain images recur – the X’s marked on buildings when first rescuers checked them for survivors and bodies, a school’s water-stained concrete floor, fabrics, even the pattern made by repeating the burner coil of an electric stove. Most of the subjects are women because the subjects self-selected in that way (there is one portrait of a young man in this selection and Bennett says ten altogether in the thousand images he’s shot for this project). Many of the subjects have disrobed above the waist, which Bennett says they also chose to do for this project.

This is actually Bennett’s second trip to Syracuse for a CFAC opening. He was here in April 2007 for an unusual gallery exhibition of the restoration effort that occurred after Katrina’s flood waters – and then Hurricane Rita’s – engulfed the 9th ward campus of the Southern University of New Orleans, which housed a collection of about 1,000 African antiquities. Many of these were sacred objects. In an interview for Women’s Voices Radio at that time, curator Linda Hill told me that Bennett was her first choice when she sought a photojournalist to document her rescue and restoration project, which took 18 months. Hill said the collection had been underwater for 55 days when the celebrity photographer waded right into the muck with her. That exhibition’s link to Syracuse was New Orleans native Redell Hearn, a recent museum studies graduate student at SU, who was also working with Hill on the antiquities restoration. After Katrina, CFAC’s director Khelli Willetts had telephoned Hearn to make sure she was alright and in a second phone call offered CFAC space for the eventual exhibition.

Contacted for the same 2007 radio program, Bennett had commented, “If we could save the NFL Superdome we could save this collection. But think about it – a lot of neighborhoods look like Katrina hit yesterday and after all, this is African art. A lot of people don’t realize the value. They think, just go to T.J. Maxx and get some more.”

Similar concerns imbue “Organic Watermarks.” I told Bennett that some of these elegant images felt so ancient that they reminded me of cave paintings.

“I’m glad you saw that,” he said immediately. He says he often recounts – as he did later that afternoon in his artist’s talk – that when relief workers arrived the first question they asked was, “Can I see the destruction?”

“‘Show me the debris’ just totally forgets ‘show me the people,’” said Bennett. “I worked on my porch and just used available light. I would say to people, ‘If today was your last day, how would you want people to remember you?’ As you can see, most people didn’t smile. That thought had been very real for many of them. I would offer them some of the same fabrics and those show up in a number of images, but the women themselves decided to appear as they do. That really started with a woman whose name actually is Storm – in the collection she is called Eve because I wanted something Biblical – as you say, ancient.”

Some images in this series were taken before Katrina for two earlier projects that then merged with this one. “First Offerings” was a collection of portraits of women pregnant with their first child. “Revelations” was Bennett’s way of “reliving a trip to Tanzania” and his attempt to capture that “moment when people stared at me and just knew somehow that I was an outsider but they still presented themselves to me.”

Bennett says that because of television, Katrina has had a Black identity.

“And I did offer this project in other neighborhoods and communities, but the people who responded came from my own neighborhood primarily. As for the men,” he went on, “they just didn’t do it. I think there was an attitude of ‘every man for himself’ in those first days. The men were there to work – often that was really scavenging – and the women were there to rebuild. It’s different. You saw women everywhere, busy, re-building. Also older Black women didn’t volunteer for this series but I think that’s generational. You know – ladies cover up. The only man in this show is 14. He’s the brother actually of the young woman in profile with her had wrapped. He came in with his aunt. This image shows how vulnerable he is. I think the idea of fragility is built into beauty. ‘Ugly’ is so concrete somehow. God was a photographer, you know – he said, ‘Let there be light.’”

Bennett grew up in New Orleans and says he first learned photography by swiping his father’s Pentax camera from a bag in the closet, beginning at age 6 or 7. He shot everybody in the neighborhood, took the film to the one-hour photo lab and then sold the snapshots. He hung out at the camera store and eaves-dropped enough to eventually work there part time. He went to college for music and journalism, but when “Essence” magazine came to New Orleans in 1995 and lost all their film, “I was working at that corner photo shop and I gave them film. After that I was in with them.”

New Orleans remains home base for Bennett, whose family is no longer in the city. He says maybe his photographs, this project in particular, replace his family in some way.

“I can’t stop at my mother’s for red beans and rice anymore. Even before Katrina, though, I was ready for a new direction,” he said. “I’d been laid off. I was feeling vulnerable. Maybe I had been using some of my photographs as band-aids. My grandmother always said, ‘Go for broke when you’re broke.’”

Back in New Orleans, besides the Essence Music Festival shoot, Bennett is working on a masters in museum studies. His thesis explores identity and representation of people of color in post-Katrina New Orleans. He’s happy for the opportunity to show “Organic Watermarks” in Syracuse, partially because he could come back here and partially for the perspective an audience here provides.

“I need this work shown outside of New Orleans first,” he said, “to get feedback from people who didn’t experience the storm. That’s why Spike Lee’s film about Katrina was so important, because it offered perspective.”

This article appears in short form in the July 9, 2009 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle. Gus Bennett’s “Organic Watermarks” on view at Community Folk Art Center, 805 East Genesee St., until August 22nd, along with Eunjung Shin’s ceramic exhibition, “Purple Treatment” and, in the main hallway, selections from city elementary schools of Say Yes to Education art projects. The radio interview mentioned above was aired on April 5, 2007 as part of “Visual Arts Near and Far, Part 3,” on Women’s Voices Radio, WAER Syracuse 88.3 FM, now archived online at WPS1 Art Radio in New York City. Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at nancykeeferhodes@gmail.com.

TAGS: Gus Bennett, photography, Community Folk Art Center, Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans. Essence Music Festival, 9th ward, Nancy Keefe Rhodes
EDITION: The Eagle

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