The Katastwóf Karavan, 2018
February 23–25, 2018 at Algiers Point, New Orleans, LA on the occasion of
Prospect 4: The Lotus In Spite of the Swamp by Dan Munn
Kara Walker’s stunning contribution to Prospect 4 was a calliope (steam-whistle organ) housed in a carnival caravan adorned with the artist’s signature cutouts. Due to financial and logistical issues encountered in bringing this highly anticipated work to New Orleans, The Katastwóf Karavan’s performances did not take place until closing weekend, bringing the curtain down on the triennial’s fourth edition. Responding to the dark histories of its site at Algiers Point, on which slave pens operated during the 18th century, and also the daily performances of the Steamboat Natchez directly across the river, The Katastwóf Karavan explores the ways in which the catastrophe of slavery (“katastwóf” in Haitian Creole) is memorialized in the Crescent City.
The calliope is an extension of the whistle used at cotton gins and mills to signal work shifts and fire alarms. Patented in 1855 by Joshua C. Stoddard, the instrument was originally intended for evangelistic use in the church. But due to its deafening volume and incapacity to produce notes in tune, it instead became a mainstay of showboat entertaining, supplementing the performances of brass bands and outperforming those of competing vessels. Later, the tinny sound of the calliope would become synonymous with the circus, employed in elaborately ornamented carriages in circus parades.
The Katastwóf Karavan replaces the classical ornamentation traditionally found on such carriages with silhouettes of sugar plants, Spanish moss, and tropical foliage in water-jet cut steel. On one panel, a man in a wide-brimmed hat sits piggyback atop two other men, whipping a line of yoked figures. Each vignette expands on the artist’s stylized yet exacting inventories of the material history of slavery and of racist physiognomies of the enslaved.
Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton
Old times there are not forgotten
Look away, look away
Look away, Dixie Land
Dixie’s Land (1859) by Daniel Decatur Emmett
In an interview with The New York Times, Walker describes the steamboat’s saccharine tootle as “a way of keeping a certain level of peace, placating everyone.” The Katastwóf Karavan’s performances were scheduled to follow directly after those of the Steamboat Natchez,
the ninth steamer to bear that name, its calliope played since 1989 by Debbie Fagnano (aka ‘Ms. Calliope’) who keeps mostly to a set playlist.
Walker does acknowledge in her text that the Birthplace of Jazz “celebrates its Africanisms” as home to creatives of color “defying, resisting and messing with dominant culture.” As a response, however, The Katastwóf Karavan largely side-steps the incremental–and undoubtedly hard-won–successes of black performers in New Orleans in The Age of Steam. Instead it directly addresses a present day where, laden some of NOLA’s over 10 million annual visitors, the Natchez devotedly recreates the melodies of a very different era on the century-old technology of a 32-note steam organ.
While the patriotic fervour of Natchez tunes such as America the Beautiful and Take Me Out to the Ball Game came almost a century later, the nostalgic cheeriness of Dixie’s Land and Stephen Foster’s Camptown Races and Oh! Susanna originated in the blackface minstrelsy of the 1850s. New Orleans played a key role in breaking down the “uniformly heinous” and dehumanizing racial depictions present in minstrelsy, a form of clowning arising in early American circus performances. In the early 1900’s the city was a major port of call for a number of the immortals of black vaudeville who, at institutions like Philip Foto’s Folly Theatre in Algiers Point or the Lyric Theatre–America’s largest African American playhouse–appropriated, sabotaged, and repurposed these racial stereotypes.
In contrast to the Natchez, The Katastwóf Karavan played “black protest (and celebration) music from many eras,” structured into three programs and featuring songs such as civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome and compositions inspired by mid 20th century police brutality and segregation such as What’s Going On and Change is Gonna Come. These programs also included both live and recorded music by jazz pianist, composer, and educator Jason Moran. Bringing complexity and improvisation to the instrument, Moran’s live performances to the bucolic riverside audience employed a broad dynamic range, from single note melodies to shrill cries releasing plumes of steam.
Compared to the Natchez’ twice-daily, seven-day-a-week drama etched into the soundscape of The Big Easy, the nearby historic marker commemorating 1700s slave pens that Walker calls a “cheap bronze plaque” feels less tangible. Titled “Enslaved Africans,” it indicates the site at which men and women from the Senegal-Gambia region were rested and cleaned up before being ferried across the river to the French Quarter to be sold into a lifetime of slavery. In The Katastwóf Karavan, Walker synthesizes racist caricatures and musical genres to reimagine this nominal marker as an itinerant stage on which the story of slavery in New Orleans is told anew. While the work harks back to the turn of the century, some of the harsher realities of modern day Louisiana–having the highest rate of mass incarceration in the country, or lacking affordable housing on high ground for instance–remain firmly within its scope. Breathing life into the calliope’s obsolete musical apparatus, the artist’s weekend of performances foregrounded the enduring weight of local histories, sweeping away a little of their sentimentality.
Dan Munn is an independent writer and curator whose reviews, artist profiles, and features have appeared in Kaleidoscope, Randian, C Magazine, Art Asia Pacific, Art New Zealand, This is Tomorrow, and Le Roy and in publishing by David Roberts Art Foundation, The Moving Museum, Union Pacific, Kunstraum, Minerva, and Bowerbank Ninow. He received his MA in Fine Arts from Goldsmiths College, London and is currently Director of Development & Communications at Alabama Contemporary Art Center.