Willie Birch talks about making art a neighborhood affair
Throughout his multifaceted six-decade career, Willie Birch has drawn on creative traditions ranging from European painting to Yoruba spirituality to evoke visions of the rich culture of New Orleans, as in the streetscape series in grisaille in charcoal and acrylic on display until January 23. 2022, at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art as part of “Prospect.5: Yesterday, We Said Tomorrow”. In addition, an exhibition dedicated to the artist’s new paintings and sculptures is on display at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts through January 7, 2022. In his Seventh Ward studio, Birch and I spoke about the importance of community in his practice and his life. , which he reflects on below.
AT THE END OF THE 1950s, my first cousin Nathaniel Dorsey organized protests and boycotts in New Orleans to integrate public spaces and the transportation system. I was fifteen or sixteen at the time, and my mom wouldn’t let me participate in protests at A&P. She thought I would be hurt and, from the family she worked for, she knew she might lose her job. I don’t remember if my cousin or I came up with the idea, but I agreed to make signs for the protesters to wear. Sitting on the sidewalk in front of the protest, looking at people I knew and didn’t know wearing signs I had made, it was a magnificent sight. I felt so proud to be a part of this moment. A few years later, I met civil rights activist Oretha Castle Haley and started participating in the Canal Street sit-ins with the Racial Equality Congress in New Orleans. From the start, Oretha helped me realize that my paintings were much more than beautiful landscapes.
I work with multiple media and subjects, but I approach everything with a sense of monumentality. It started with my decision to create great works, especially my portraits. I wanted them to be on the scale of other great works in museums, knowing that some viewers will feel uncomfortable due to their denials and inability to deal with race and class in a changing environment. evolution. Now, I don’t mind making some of my viewers uncomfortable. I really hope they get to the point of seeing this individual portrayed as a human being, going beyond the surface of the other.
Form and content are equally important to me. One is the story you see and the other is the story of the process, which is a reflection of my life. My current exhibitions are loaded with social questions: Who lives in my neighborhood? Why are they here? How is our environment changing? What does this mean in terms of lifestyle? My work also recognizes and celebrates African influences on the city of New Orleans and its people. This city is the birthplace of the music called jazz and defines what it means to be democratic in its ability to function both as an individual and as a group. This concept stems from the Pan-African religious ritual that we call voodoo in New Orleans and is one of the greatest cultural manifestations in the history of music and culture. I am looking to create something similar in my work as an artist, but working with many others. I often wonder, If this place existed to create jazz, then what can I bring to the table that can visually compete?
My grandmother’s favorite saying was “flowers are for the living” so for the first element of the Old Prieur Street project in 2015 we planted a garden for our neighbors in “The Cut”. The aim of this project is to use art as a tool in transforming a community, so I carefully thought of artists from various walks of the city to contribute, such as Ron Bechet, Jennifer Odem, Louise Mouton -Johnson and Rajko Radovanovic, and we started working with my neighbors to do a lot of art projects. After installing some sculptures and a mural along the garden on the corner lot, we decided to put up a short white picket fence. Some neighbors immediately objected, but a change in confidence became apparent when we covered the fence with plaques of neighborhood surnames artist Robin Levy collected during her project. The neighbors felt represented. On Mardi Gras Day, Mardi Gras Indians came and sang songs celebrating our ancestors in the garden. In 2019, Freddie “Junior” DeJean, one of our close neighbors who had been involved in the project from the start, was killed by gun violence. Her sister came to put flowers in front of their last name on the fence. Other people started coming on vacation like the Day of the Dead. And when the people started to bring flowers, when the care was shown, the people honored him even more. The garden has become a sacred space.
For me, in terms of what’s going on right now, we’re in the third civil rights movement. While my works are exhibited at NOAFA as The activist, no justice, no peace, 2021, talk more directly about this, it is of course at the forefront of my mind when I create every day. I come from the philosophy that change is subtle. The change is not a big thing. The more I played with this idea, it brought me to where I am now. I believe that as long as this garden project is relevant someone will take care of it, just as they would a house, painting, family heirloom, because it defines our collective memory in terms of who we are and how. we see each other, and that nourishes us. And you just don’t throw away something that feeds you.
– As told to Emily Wilkerson
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