Rebuilding Lives in Art
In the year and a half since a Category 3 storm ravaged the Gulf Coast, “Katrina” and “New Orleans” have become uncomfortable but permanent fixtures in the mouths of Americans everywhere, resulting in grassroots volunteer delegations, angry newspaper coverage and, not unexpectedly, commemorative works of art. Such activities have also made their way to campus.
Last Sunday, a small entourage of students followed College junior and visual arts major Laura Einsel to the media lab to view her documentation of one such work, in the form of the short film Sign of the Judgment: a Shout House for New Orleans.
The film’s name comes from the title of an installation put up in a former “shotgun house” in Houston, Texas, by Oberlin alum Rashida Bumbray, OC ’00, in a local endeavor called Project Row Houses. The project renovates old and dilapidated houses and turns them into spaces for art installations, music lessons and performances. Local communities can take advantage of the spaces free of charge.
The installation took full advantage of the house form of the space, including emblems traditionally associated with New Orleans, such as bottles and umbrellas hanging from the rafters and windows and symbols of Yoruba culture. After completing the installation, Bumbray asked members of Oberlin’s Dance Diaspora to come down to Texas to be part of a series of performances that took place inside the space.
The group performed a ring shout, an African-American performance tradition based on a circle dance. The dance is usually performed for religious purposes, and in the installation space, it took on the task of commemorating and celebrating those who had been affected by Hurricane Katrina.
So why a New Orleans installation in Texas? In the film, Bumbray explained that the impact of her work was not abstracted, although she was far from the site of the storm. Because of the mass relocation that occurred in the aftermath of the hurricane, the Houston neighborhood where Project Row Houses is located is home to many who fled New Orleans against their will. Einsel recalled a pregnant woman who had come into the space during one of the performances and expressed her gratitude to Bumbray.
Once Dance Diaspora and Einsel left Texas, Bumbray continued to infuse the space with a virtual spiritual presence aided by recordings. Einsel filmed the performances over fall break, which culminated in her first complete video project.