This is the greatest show in the world
by Sarah Wesseler
I recently came across a piece I wrote in 2011 for now-defunct magazine Satellite and thought it was time to give it a new home online. The questions raised by New Orleans artist Willie Birch seem, if anything, even more pertinent today.
Willie Birch was born in New Orleans in 1942. After earning his MFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art, he moved to New York and established a successful career as an artist, exhibiting throughout the U.S. and internationally. He now lives in New Orleans, where he depicts the unique culture of his native city in large-scale black-and-white drawings.
In an interview for [Satellite's] New Orleans issue, Dan Cameron [the curator who founded New Orleans art festival Prospect] made what I thought was a pretty amazing statement: “What’s going on in New Orleans right now I would describe, without any irony at all, as an artistic renaissance really unparalleled in this country.” I wanted to get your perspective on this.
I wouldn’t be able to validate what Dan is saying on a certain level, because his international perspective gives him a worldview that I don’t have. But I do know that there is a change going on here. Many, many young artists are moving here.
As wonderful as that is, my question to them, usually, is have they really invested in the culture here? Because that’s two different things. You can come from someplace and continue to do what you do, or you could come to this place like Dan has come, creating a Prospect: study the city, know what the city has to offer, and therefore bring some resemblance of what’s here. I’m not sure that that’s taking place to the level that I’d personally like to see. But we’ll just have to play that out over time.
You have a city that already has a culture. People have come from all over the world because of the music we call jazz, because of what we call Second Line, what we call Mardi Gras Indian. The way we dance here is different than any place in the world that I’ve ever been.
There are basically two cultures that are trying to move at the same time, and hopefully at some time they’ll intersect. And then they might make something that is visually very, very unique, that transcends race and class.
But I don’t necessarily see that yet. Most of the artists who have come to New Orleans, I believe, are still doing formal stuff that you could see in any other part of America. For me, the nature of what we have here—the different ways of seeing, hearing, movement that makes New Orleans so unique, because of the African tradition—has not translated to a lot of the young people yet as a form they can use. I’m sure there’s a lot of reasons why. But I’m 68, so maybe it’s too slow, maybe I don’t have that much time to wait. I want it now! [laughs] So I may not be totally fair in terms of my comment.
The city was already in the process of change before Hurricane Katrina. I think Hurricane Katrina just pushed it a little bit further. On certain levels, the disaster had its advantages, in terms of allowing a new type of people to come in and realize that they can create something without being inhibited by what we know as standard forms. It left a wide open door.
How was the city changing before Katrina?
The city, and the arts community in particular, was beginning to take itself more seriously. You had more young people going away for school or other reasons and nding out how important visual art was in other places. And all of a sudden that was beginning to come to New Orleans. After Katrina, it just doubled or tripled. Once that energy started moving, young people began to come because this was the place that they thought they could make their personal statement.
Do you feel that the arts activity that’s going on in the city now mainly involves outsiders, or is it people from New Orleans as well?
I think it’s both. I still think there are some major problems around race and class. I think that the arts community that I see, that I’m a part of, has problems in terms of addressing the entire city.
I mean, it’s very, very complicated, but there are two art communities. Being African American, I’m able to go across both lines. I have formal training, but I grew up in a situation where I had access to African American culture, so I’ve always been involved with both of these ways of working and seeing. I think that’s what may separate my work somewhat from most people’s.
As an African American artist, I’m somewhat isolated from not only a lot of my European colleagues, but also from my African American colleagues. I lived in New York for twenty-some years, so moving back here is not the same as if I had stayed here. New Orleans is a very community-based place, where everybody knows everybody. And when you’re away from here for a certain time, it makes you different.
Because people knew my mother, father and cousins and all these people, that gave me an entree. At the same time, because I’ve lived away from here as much as I’ve lived here, it gave me a way of looking at my city more as an outsider does. That helped me to see things that maybe folks who were born here take for granted, I believe. So I’m sitting in these two worlds, trying to play my unique role of being in a culture but also outside of a culture.
With the separation between the African American community and the white community, are there totally separate venues for showing art?
The format is different. I mean, when you talk about second line or Mardi Gras Indians, those are performance arts. So they come out certain times a year—Mardi Gras day, St. Joseph’s night, whatever—and they perform, they do their thing.
That’s changing somewhat. A couple of young people I know who are Mardi Gras Indians are now doing a 4′′x5′′ [visual art] piece, which changes the whole dynamic of what they were doing. My response is, as long as you keep your sense of integrity and the respect for what you’re doing, it somehow will translate in the work.
But in taking a Mardi Gras Indian costume and placing it within a museum setting [a Mardi Gras Indian costume was shown in Prospect 1], you change the whole dynamics of what it represents. So I think as a lot of these young people begin to explore the idea of what they want to say and how can they say it, it creates another sense of where and how they fit. Part of how we perceive art in America is based on buying and selling. So young people like to think, where’s the money? And somebody like me, I’m saying there is no money, or the money comes later. [laughs]
It’s a real tricky situation, which I’m sure could really frustrate somebody if they don’t understand the system. In New York, making pieces that express your unique need, that’s normal. You deal with hunger because everybody you know is doing that. But that’s not necessarily how it works here. Most of these young people, they are committed to their costumes for the need of making this one particular statement twice a year, to give something back to the community. That may not involve any money. But then when you take a Prospect and you place that kind of monetary value on the work they’ve done, it changes the whole dynamic. I’m not sure too many people really want to talk about that yet. But I do, because, like I say, I got one foot over here, and one foot over there.
I find that dynamic incredibly fascinating. Most art events I go to, there are very few African- Americans. That’s the reality. My statement is always, is this normal? Those are the issues that I’m trying to confront people to think about. Obviously that is not normal, but at the same time, you can’t force people to come and be a part of wherever you are just because you invite them. So it’s very complicated.
You cannot eliminate race in this. You cannot eliminate our history. But the history is a painful history. I’m sure certain whites don’t want to be a part of it, they don’t want no responsibility for it. But at the same time, you have people who live that history. In the city here, it’s more than 50% African American, so nobody’s going anywhere. So there are these underlying aspects to this that nobody really wants to talk about, and until we do, we still walk around fooling ourselves that everything is just hunky dory.
And how do you feel about arts education in the city with regards to these issues?
That was the mission part of Prospect, I thought. As an educator, I was disappointed that there wasn’t more education. Artists are looking at new ways of seeing, you know, more conceptual. And yet, there is no literature that allows you to enter the work unless you come with a certain level of formal understanding. And that’s unfortunate.
I think it’s deeper than that, it goes back to the culture. The culture has isolated art and made certain people feel that they’re not welcome. New Orleans is part of that. Just the other day I was with a group of people, and I kept saying, "Education, education." So one person went, "Educate who? He wants to educate children?" And I said yeah.
And the conversation stops, because that was what he, as part of the cultural elite, needs. For me, man, coming out of the civil rights movement, you start with the young. But to him, he doesn’t have no time for that. I’m saying, well, there are two problems here. One of them is, do you think that these people have no worth? Which really took him to a place he didn’t want to go. Or do you believe that nobody else will support that endeavor because they may find it absolutely ridiculous? There is something wrong with both of those concepts.
I like to get people to understand that once you give me an intro to understanding what I’m looking at, I can make my own evaluation in terms of whether I want to play there or not. But as long as you keep me isolated, you can go on to anyone about how ignorant I am and how I don’t want to be bothered, which is totally not true. We have enough literature today to show how these things have worked out in terms of African-American issues, in terms of female issues, in terms of immigrant issues, how they’re treated . . . none of this is new at this point. Where we still haven’t gotten to is a need to educate all the folks who want access to this information. Because then you’re empowering people.
Music has always been put on a plateau higher than the rest of the arts in New Orleans. I was eleven years old when I decided I wanted to be an artist, and it was through an art teacher who had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris who created an art school just for somebody like me. My mother thought it was the most ridiculous thing in the world, but she allowed me to go because of who this person was. But visual art, on a certain level, has always been seen as only for a certain group of people.
But with New Orleans having such a strong culture, in terms of the African-American debate, at some point somebody will hopefully get wise and realize that this is not going to go away. It has to be in every dialogue about what we do here and how we do it, and how we need to go in terms of making all people a part of what we do, beyond race and class. I may be dead when that goes on, but I hope one day it does happen. Other than that, we gonna wallow in our ignorance.
I don’t have no answers, the only thing I know is to continue to make the work I do, and tell people that this is my story. It’s not the only story, but it is my story. My story has as much right to exist as anything else. And that’s a real power struggle, from the point of view of a society that has attempted to deny certain people any sense of equality.
I was amazed when a year and a half ago a very wealthy collector came into my studio and after about ten minutes he said, "Wow, you’re really bright." I’m saying, "Well, I’m glad to hear that," brother; I’m thinking, what the hell? Why would you come in here thinking I was some dumb dude—and here you support my career on top of that, you know?
That’s the kind of prejudice that exists when you don’t really investigate why you think certain things are less. But the culture has created this sense of what’s more important and what has more validity. My reasons for doing paper mache [in his earlier artwork] have to do with challenging what was precious. The first time somebody paid $20,000 for a piece, it was a like a joke to me. But then you realize it has nothing to do with the material, it has to do with what you’re saying. Your calling is to make the statement and be as honest as you can.
An artist will always play on that edge of confronting and challenging society in terms of how it sees itself. You know, New Orleans is a perfect canvas right now to be an example of how this world will change, and in particular how people in the United States will see each other.
In New Orleans, the level of poverty is unbelievable. I tried to get the New Orleans Museum of Modern Art to have art classes where my studio is. They threw the idea around for a while and of course they realized, maybe we ain’t ready for it. And I’m saying, you keep wanting kids in my neighborhood to come to you, but they have no sense of you. They have no sense of you as being somebody who will be fair to them, and you don’t want to accept that. What would happen if you send an artist in here? And then when those kids reach a certain age, you can begin to export them to the museum. But those kinds of simple gestures don’t seem to work here, because we don’t seem to like to look at something that will benefit a greater good unless somebody puts up some money. Everything is couched around money, and that may be part of the problem, too.
Is there anything else that you think would be good to discuss?
One of the most beautiful things about New Orleans—I always get goose bumps when I think about it—is that on any given Sunday during second line season, some young brothers will be walking down the street, with everybody going to find where that second line is. And somebody will holler out all of a sudden, “This is the greatest show in the world!” And this person may be raggedy, some of their teeth may be falling out, but yet, they have a personal pride, and understand that what they’re experiencing is a cultural phenomenon that only can be gotten at that particular time, at 2:00 in New Orleans on any Sunday, whether there’s a football game or what.
That’s incredible. That’s empowering to me. It’s incredible how many times you will hear “this is the greatest show in the world.” And then you get it. You get it, you get it, you get it.
That’s my city. It’s magical, you know. It’s like no place on earth, and that’s beautiful. And if a cultural form is able to come out of here—like Cuba; like any other place in the world where people have come together to turn their experience into a cultural manifestation that is unique to them . . . We already have that in terms of music, we have that in jazz. Lil Wayne is turning hip-hop on his head, you know what I mean?
When I decided to stay here in ’97 rather than go back to New York, that’s what I saw. I began to say, okay, there is something totally different here. And if you can tap into that, brother, you will help to start something that may last for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. Because that is the feeling of my city, and visually, that has never happened. It’s a new day, and so the visuals now have a platform. What do you do with it? Do you do the same old stuff, or do you take what the city has to offer in terms of its marches, its crawfish, its oysters, and all of these different things that exist here, and add a layer called gumbo that makes it so unique that everybody wants a piece of that?
People gravitate toward truth and energy. And that’s what I’m trying to make happen, every day of my life.
Being an artist in an African American community is an unusual phenomenon. Those dudes around the corner, they’re selling drugs, but they all know me. They all respect Mr. Willie, because I don’t work for the man, I work for myself. And I can speak to them in a way that gives them dignity, so you got to respect that.
I don’t have a gun, I don’t carry no weapons. I’m just this old dude who can walk my neighborhood, and at some point somebody says, you know, we know him. That’s what community’s about.
I grew up with that idea, and it’s part of why I think I will continue to survive, because of the nature of the respect that the community feels about what I do in depicting them, giving them another purpose and sense of who they are. That’s very, very beautiful to me. That’s what Mardi Gras Indian does, that’s what second line does. It’s magical, and so hopefully my work has that same kind of magic. I call it truth. If I do that well enough, my ego says that I will have to be dealt with.
It’s a great moment for me to be alive, and to say I’m a visual artist and I was born and raised in New Orleans. There ain’t that many of us, you know.
Top image: Willie Birch, Back Yard on Villere Street, 2007. Via Arthur Roger Gallery.