In 1920s Germany, a photographer named August Sander did a very German thing: He published a catalog of the German people. Like a field guide to birds, its subjects ranged from bankers to beggars, posed in their work clothes. Although initially well received, it was banned when Adolf Hitler came to power because Sanders’ people didn’t look like his idea of a “master race.” Fortunately, no one ever mistook New Orleanians for a master race, so Bunny Matthews’ drawings, The People of New Orleans From A to Z, are available for all to see. Rendered in his traditional post-psychedelic baroque caricature style, Astrologer captures the zoned-out gaze of a bejeweled lady in a turban as she peers into the wonders and terrors of the future. The Drunk, by contrast, sees little beyond his martini, but The Fisherman, depicted with the oil rig-studded waters of the Gulf behind him, clutches a redfish as proudly as the father of a newborn babe who worries about the future.
At the other end of the scale, in Xenophobe, a woman defensively clutches her Chihuahua to her breast, and a nearby Zulu (pictured) ambassador in a top hat reminds us of our diverse heritage. Today, few recall that in the 1960s Zulu became controversial for its jocular approach to identity issues; as noted in a recent Louisiana Weekly article, the controversy was quickly quelled when local civil rights leaders joined the club. In fact, Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club’s jocular approach is shared by many of the leading black artists featured in the great 30 Americans show at the Contemporary Arts Center (reviewed here), with its many parodies of the preposterous stereotypes perpetuated in pop culture over the years. In that sense, Zulu was ahead of its time. As a taxonomy of local types, these drawings lovingly caricature the familiar faces around us, suggesting that, while we may not be a “master race,” there is something to be said for being able to laugh at ourselves.
Through April 19
The People of New Orleans from A to Z: Cartoons by Bunny Matthews
Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St., (504) 522-1999