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The Finer Things 

When officials at the New Orleans Museum of Art decided to present a panel discussion in conjunction with photographer Judy Cooper's 20-year retrospective expo, Living Color, the artist agreed, but with a caveat: it should not be about her, but about "finery." What she meant could be seen in the makeup of the panel, which included local socialites famous for their flamboyant attire as well as notable representatives of African-American church groups and second-line marching societies. If that sounds like the makings of an Easter parade, you're right on the money. The 50 photos in the show are divided into sections titled: Women in Red, Local Color, Twins and New Orleans Sunday, groupings of works that in the richly hued and softly lit gallery shimmer like Russian icons. But these are saints of another sort, those local folk who bring so much of themselves to the common rituals of city life. Assembled over two decades, the images cut across race and class to encompass the culture that makes this city so indelibly and ineffably what it is. In some ways, Twins is a perfect theme for such an exploration. In The Parsons Sisters, 1993, Cooper gives us a pair of elderly, similarly dressed twins peering quizzically out from the porch of a stately Victorian home that, with its fading paint and limp American flag, suggests a local version of Grant Wood's American Gothic. It's a far cry from The Bailey Twins, a pair of pretty African-American teens posing in an ornate parlor in their red sequined majorette costumes. While notably different in age and ethnicity, all are related by their shared kinship in New Orleans culture.

Cooper is perhaps best known for her portraits of Mardi Gras Indians and second-line parade marchers as well as society matrons dressed to the nines, works with the sort of instant charisma that can sometimes make them seem almost clichéd — but not always. Edna Mae Klein's Easter Outfit, 1991, is an extraordinary portrait of an aging matron in a pink outfit sitting in her equally pink parlor — a kind of overstuffed domestic piñata festooned with rococo ceramic fruit and cherubs and no end of frou-frou. It's way-over-the-top and certainly not to everyone's taste, but it's also amazing, dazzling in its own weirdly hypnotic way. And while Klein is white, her flair for the dramatic is shared by a number of African-American church ladies whose hats and outfits seem designed to give Mardi Gras Indians a run for their money. It's unlikely that any of these folks has a subscription to Vogue, but that's not the point. Their outfits are all about self-expression, about being all that you can be without regimentation or artificial limits. Fortunately for us, Judy Cooper was there to document their moments of glory.

A somewhat different approach to portraiture appears in José Torres Tama's series of 18 expressionistic pastel portraits of trailblazing Gens de Couleur Libre, or "free people of color." Before the Civil War, New Orleans was home to thousands of African-American professionals and entrepreneurs. Some came from Europe and the Caribbean, others were homegrown, but all left their mark, perhaps most visibly in neighborhoods such as the French Quarter as well as Marigny and Tremé, which were largely built by Creole craftsmen.

So here we have Marie Laveau, the legendary voodoo priestess and beautician; Edmond Dede, a classical composer and violinist; and Rose Nicaud, an African woman who bought herself out of slavery by starting the first French Market coffee stand — all dynamically executed in living color. Inspired by old photos, Torres Tama created the portraits under the auspices of the Ogden Museum's "Artist and Sense of Place" residency program.

click to enlarge Judy Cooper's portrait, Edna Mae Klein's Easter Outfit, 1991, celebrates this city's widely shared culture of extravagantly over-the-top self-expression.
  • Judy Cooper's portrait, Edna Mae Klein's Easter Outfit, 1991, celebrates this city's widely shared culture of extravagantly over-the-top self-expression.
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