ROOTS, an exhibition featuring three artists, prompted my first visit at the Chapel Gallery on the Xavier University campus. Located on the first floor of the administrative building, the gallery is a wide open space well-suited for the display of Ron Bechet's charcoal drawings, Patrick Waldemar's paintings and Rontherin Ratliff's sculptures. From diverse backgrounds, the three artists share a common heritage expressed through their work. Ron Bechet, born and raised in New Orleans, is presently Art Professor at Xavier University, the Jamaican painter Patrick Waldemar is a recent Crescent City's adoptee and Rontherin Ratliff represents a younger generation of New Orleans artists, deeply afflicted by hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
African Diaspora in today's Louisiana. Across the hallway, a second text describes the symbolic meaning of trees in West Africa. Connections between earth and sky, ancestors and livings, trees are also considered spirits. Walking into a narrow room lined-up with Bechet's twelve feet high drawings
(charcoals on paper), the visitor experiences the energy and power of nature. Surrounded by overgrown, contorted giant tree roots, one feels lost in a fairy tale. Farther down, smaller framed works Why Trans Formation, Restoration of Consciousness and Vulnerability, 2014, are tracing knots, arcane paths, ways to a secret initiation. They illustrate a quote from the artist painted on the wall: "Roots are passages and opportunities, a subtle dialogue between secular and the sacred."
Nature is nurturing but can also bring havoc and destruction. Ratliff experienced nature's wrath and Things That Float, 2010, three models of shotgun houses suspended from the ceiling, represent the vessels of his memories. Made of wood boards and Plexiglas, their glaucous walls expose stacks of water-damaged photographs, some flying in the houses, like blown by an ongoing storm. The weathered pictures have acquired a pinkish tint and, here and there, the shadow of a child can be seen, left over testimony of happy times. Ratliff contributed also a giant sculpture-installation Rooted, 2017, towering the largest gallery on the other side of the hallway. Built with found material, including bricks, a fireplace grate, window screens, a bicycle, discarded wood, and more, the tree, composite of inert material, becomes alive. Well anchored with its roots spreading on the floor, the trunk climbs the wall and spreads its limbs and foliage. Charged with their history, the objects loose their function and contribute to a new life form with a soul, a form of resilience following disasters.
Ten paintings, acrylics on canvas, from Patrick Waldemar hung on the three surrounding walls add bright colors to the display. The square compositions of moderate size (50 x 50 inches for the largest) could be divided in two series according to their predominant colors and their subject. Four of them built with geometric shapes, lines framing masked actors and circles from the moon, infer magic and rituals. Red and white on a black background add drama and mystery. The six remaining paintings are depicting white magnolia flowers on a black background with touches of yellow and green. In his artist statement, Waldemar relates his work to deeper meanings about a society "where the history of slavery still looms as a spectral presence at the racially exclusive balls and social clubs of the city."
The major themes of the exhibition, life, death, decay and rebirth, are powerfully expressed through the art works filled with Southern references.
"As the Magnolia browns, new seeds seek fertile ground. Stripped of petals, passion remains in the bones." Patrick Waldemar
" My roots are my connection to my ancestors, and my "knowing" without being told. In my landscape there is the intermingling of community, a metaphor for joy, grief, pleasure, and suffering. Death is respected here, as the continuation of life." Ron Bechet.
photographs by the author:
Ron Bechet, "Transformation: to the Question of Who" (detail), 2016-2017
Patrick Waldemar, "Morpheus and the River of Dreams", 2017