NEW ORLEANS — On the ferry across the Mississippi River to the Algiers neighborhood, the abstract painter Odili Donald Odita has installed a colorful flag with a wavy pattern. It's one of 18 flags planted around the city, in 16 places that have historical significance for black struggles. (Algiers was the parish where African slaves were held before being sold.)
"The city itself is the artwork, and the flags are just markers," said the Nigeria-born artist, who is known for his kaleidoscopic-colored paintings. "The struggle is the fight for freedom. It's something people died for and continue to fight for. But I wanted to underscore the act of celebration of what has been accomplished."
Celebration springing from the roots of hardship is the theme of a citywide contemporary art festival, Prospect.4, continuing in New Orleans through Feb. 25 – overlapping with Mardi Gras; Fat Tuesday is Feb. 13 this year.
Prospect began in 2008 as a response to the devastation of Hurricane Katria. The motto of Prospect.4 is "The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp," and the featured artists examine issues of identity, displacement, ecology, and racial and economic inequity.
"The greatest gift and challenge is the cultural and historical complexity of New Orleans," said Trevor Schoonmaker, Prospect.4's artistic director and chief curator at Duke University's Nasher Museum of Art. "Every city is complex, but New Orleans has layers and layers. The artists don't pretend to speak for the city. It's more about, What a gift this city is, and how can we explore common threads?"
Seventy-three artists are featured from the U.S., Europe, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Thirty-two works were commissioned specifically for the event, and all told they spread across 17 city venues, including museums and public spaces (although most of the art is concentrated in four venues). Outdoor exhibits are free, but the museums have admission fees and varying hours. Seeing everything could take up to three days.
At the Ogden, London-based John Akomfrah's moody, heartbreaking multichannel video installation "Precarity" looks at the life of Charles "Buddy" Bolden, a pioneering New Orleans jazz musician. In 1907, he was institutionalized for the rest of his life with schizophrenia and left no known recordings.
Wayne Gonzales's acrylic paintings from photos of contemporary Louisiana landscape are cleverly positioned alongside pastoral scenes by mid- to late-19th-century Louisiana bayou school painters to evoke the passage of time.
The Contemporary Arts Center features a cacophony of materials and themes. Lavar Munroe's towering sculpture of a rider fallen from his horse — made from fabric, tennis balls, rubber, wood, hair and so much more — is a centerpiece. Brad Kahlhamer's wire-and-bell dream catchers are delicate and intricate. The green flora in watercolor panels by Cuba-born Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, who explores how identity is formed through gender, history and religion, are lush and sinewy. Check out Kader Attia's circular floor sculpture of more than 2,900 bent beer cans crowded together and Margarita Cabrera's vinyl, thread, metal, and wood baby grand piano sculpture that looks like it's about to fold into itself.
At the nearby Ace Hotel on Carondelet Street, Los Angeles-based Genevieve Gaignard has created two rooms where she explores race, beauty and cultural identity. Just off the lobby are a parlor with keepsakes and furniture and a second room with church pews meant to inspire introspection. Go ahead and sit on the sofa in the installation; it's allowed.
For food and drinks: Slide up to the bar at Seaworthy next to the Ace for oysters and cocktails with fun names like Betty's Revenge (gin sour) and the Kumbaya, described as a smoky, spicy "flavor bomb." Also near the Ogden and the Contemporary Art Center is the rustic Peche, where chef Ryan Prewitt's grilled whole fish can't be beat. (Start with the tangy crab claws with pickled chilies.
At the edge of the French Quarter on Esplanade Avenue at the New Orleans Jazz Museum at the U.S. Mint, you'll find Rashid Johnson's cubicle-like steel sculpture with shelves for objects like shea butter, plants, and books and records that represent black literary and musical traditions. Especially fascinating are collages created by Louis Armstrong, who covered reel-to-reel tape boxes with photographs and words from magazines and newspapers. Darryl Montana's opulant, beaded and feathered Mardi Gras Indian costumes are gorgeous.
For food and drinks: The weekday three-course lunch menu for $18.56 (celebrating its 160 years of operation) at Tujague's in the French Quarter is a bargain, with house specialties gumbo, brisket of beef and seafood in a creole tomato sauce. Tujague's is old school for sure: checkered marble tile floors, white linen table cloths, and ceiling fans. Farther into the French Quarter, order the namesake French 75 champagne cocktail in one of the classiest bars in town, Arnaud's. Sit outside Palace Caféon Canal Street if weather permits with a cocktail and watch tourists, locals and oddballs pass by.
At the New Orleans Museum of Art, large colorful oil paintings by Barkley Hendricks, who died in April, line the main hall. The works depict the American artist's friends, family, and neighbors against vibrant backgrounds of hot pink, yellow and silver. It's easy to see how Hendricks's monumental portraits were inspired by old masters and pop art.
Upstairs, look for Njideka Akunyili Crosby's multilayered collages of intimate domestic scenes, a huge wall work that's a jumble of text by Xaviera Simmons that incorporates actual political speeches, and canvases by Afro Cuban artist Alexis Esquivel.
For food and drinks: It's a short hop to Catty Shack, a new Tex-Mex spot near the Fair Grounds Race Course. Owner and Austin native Catherine Smith serves delicious smoked-brisket tacos on soft corn tortillas, fried catfish, and hard-shell beef tacos and a vegan option with seasoned lentils, lettuce, and guacamole.
In the Bywater neighborhood, walk along the path between the train tracks and the Mississippi to view four sculptures in urban Crescent Park.
The Piety Street entrance at 3360 Chartres St. is easiest to access, with a free parking lot. After crossing the pedestrian bridge, turn right to see New Orleans artist Jennifer Odem's sculptures of stacked tables and steel that seem to mimic the New Orleans skyline. Nearby is Runo Lagomarsino's cheeky artwork "If You Don't Know What the South Is, It's Simply Because You Are From the North." The park also features Radcliffe Bailey's 2017 circular sculpture with sound emanating from a conch shell and Hong An Truong's steel and wire assemblage.
For food and drinks: Try the sweet and salty combination of praline bacon at Elizabeth's, a cheery restaurant near the park entrance that serves large portions of omelets, sandwiches, and salads.
Take a quick ride on the Algiers Point Ferry ($2 each way, exact change only) from the end of Canal Street to Algiers. Look up on the ferry for Odili Donald Odita's flag. Once off the ferry, turn left for Mark Dion's forlorn "The Field Station of the Melancholy Marine Biologist," a weathered wood structure on the river bank that is a replica of a marine biologist's lab and meant to speak to the ecology of the Mississippi delta. You can't go inside, but you can peek in the windows.
Kara Walker's public installation of a parade wagon with a 32-note calliope that plays African American protest music will be presented during the closing weekend in February. She's working with jazz pianist Jason Moran and steam-power enthusiast Kenneth Griffard. Walker is perhaps best known for a monumental sphinx in Brooklyn in 2014.