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Making a Comeback 

It's a momentous time. Everyone has had to decide whether or not to return. Some who want to return have no place to stay. FEMA and the city say they are doing all they can, but not everyone believes them. The Congressional Black Caucus advocates a "Right of Return" for Katrina evacuees, using terminology ordinarily reserved for victims of ethnic cleansing. Is such language too strong? Would residents of the Lower Ninth Ward feel ethnically cleansed if they were legally or economically barred from returning and rebuilding their neighborhood? How would any of us feel in similar circumstances?

Those are weighty issues. Most people just want to know who is coming back and who is back already. "Making a comeback" is a hopeful phrase, part of the lexicon of American optimism. For a city to make a comeback, we assume its people will have to come back. The Comeback exhibits at Arthur Roger and LeMieux are affirmations of faith in a city and its art, as well as homecoming parties for returning artists. Rather than focusing on solitary individuals or themes, these shows provide a way of saying we have faced the biggest disaster of any city in American history and were unbroken. At the end of the day, our flag was still there.

Most of the work at LeMieux is familiar enough to most art buffs. Alan Gerson's images in the front room celebrate the ironies of nature and the law. Colorful works by Paul Ninas, Jesse Poimboeuf, Dick Johnson, Billy Solitario, Deedra Ludwig and Kate Samworth explore the glories of tropical nature while Charles Barbier and Leslie Staub celebrate human icons. Similar dynamics are seen at Arthur Roger, where John Scott's oversized wood block prints prophetically depict street culture and physical upheaval in the hood, and a 1991 canvas by Michael Wilmon depicts a flood engulfing the CBD. Others are archetypal examples of work by some of the city's leading artists, including a miraculous new painting by Douglas Bourgeois.

And what of art and artists in post-Katrina New Orleans? Recently Don Marshall, executive director of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, hosted a meeting of the city's visual artists to find out what their concerns were. A longtime activist, Marshall was looking for areas of mutual interest within the art and music communities, and places to live and work topped the list. But while many of the visual artists most associated with this city are either back or are expected to return soon, a lot of New Orleans musicians have been forced to remain in exile. Clearly, these are the very people who are central to this city's identity, so paving the way for their return is an obvious priority. And we will ultimately need to restore our population in order to regain political clout in Baton Rouge and Washington.

But for now there is another side to this story. One of the great things about post-Katrina New Orleans is that most of the residents who are back appear to be people who feel a deep personal connection to this city and its unique character. Crime has never been lower and the sense of community has never been stronger. Yes, we urgently need to bring back our great musicians, cooks, plaster and brick masons, Mardi Gras Indians and everyone else who has made this city what it is. But we don't need the whiners, crackhead gangstas, opportunists or the "respectable" generic types who wanted us to be more like Dallas or Atlanta.

Most of them are now elsewhere, and suddenly there is an opportunity for this city's future to be shaped by those of us who love it for the urban artwork that it is. Experts talk about the New Urbanism, but traditional New Orleans was a masterpiece of the old urbanism of shops mingled with residences in economically and ethnically mixed neighborhoods, each with a unique and vital identity. Now that we no longer are burdened by the dead weight of those who never appreciated it, there is a chance -- a fragile but luminous window of opportunity -- to create the urban masterpiece that New Orleans potentially was all along.

click to enlarge John Scott's Blues Poem for the Urban Landscape - celebrates the glories of New Orleans' street culture while - prophetically hinting at the chaos caused by the storm and - subsequent flood.
  • John Scott's Blues Poem for the Urban Landscape celebrates the glories of New Orleans' street culture while prophetically hinting at the chaos caused by the storm and subsequent flood.
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