If you wander down to Caffin and Charters in the Lower 9th ward and your ear gets caught by the sing-song of hammers and saws, what you are hearing is the sound of a community coming home.
As it is well-known, the Lower 9th ward of New Orleans was decimated by hurricane Katrina in 2005. Four years later, much work has been done. Walking up and the down the streets of this historic neighborhood, you see life where hopelessness and desolation once reigned. Homes that had been reduced to their foundations are popping up all over. Their bright fresh colors and architectural detail tell a joyous tale. The dark and dusty windows of houses whose owners were forced to flee are now clean and well-lighted. Lawns and yards that had run amok with weeds and debris are now neatly manicured. The silence—like the dead air of a ghost town—has been triumphantly shattered by the voice, the music, and the clatter of people eager to come back to their roots.
Sarah Lastie, wife of the late Walter Lastie, a drummer for Fats Domino, is one of them. When water levels rose too high, she left behind a home and a community she describes as “Excellent!” In a recent interview, Ms. Sarah reminisced fondly about her thirty-five years in the Lower 9th ward. She spoke of a neighborhood that functioned like one big extended family. Neighbors were friends, the kind who looked out for your kids, collected your mail when you went on vacation, and had their door open for you whenever you needed them. Ms. Sarah recounted stories of family parties and sunny afternoon barbecues. She recalled the jubilant jam sessions that sprung up when New Orleans music legends like Harry Connick, Jr. stopped by to play with her husband. She painted the portrait of a place as safe and as warm as Mayberry but as vivacious and as colorful as only New Orleans can be.
In 2008, Ms. Sarah was introduced to Wangechi Mutu, a renowned international visual artist. Mutu found herself in the Lower 9th ward in the summer of 2008 when she participated in Prospect 1, an International Contemporary Art Biennial. She saw the blighted lot, remnants of an attempt to rebuild at the corner of Caffin and Charters, the place where Ms. Sarah’s home once stood, and inquired about it, with the help from the folks at the L9 Center for the Arts. Somehow, that abandoned land had spoken to Mutu, and she longed to hear the story of the home and the people who lived there prior to Katrina.
Once she heard Ms. Sarah’s story, Mutu decided that she wanted to create a piece on the now vacant piece of land. When the two met, Ms. Sarah was at first skeptical. Like many New Orleans homeowners trying to rebuild, she had been defrauded by a contractor for thousands of dollars. It didn’t take long, however, for her to realize that Mutu’s piece came with an offering to eventually rebuild her home, a blessing of enormous proportions.
Mutu’s art installation, titled “Miss Sarah’s House,” was showcased on Ms. Sarah’s lot during Prospect 1 in the fall of 2008. According to Mutu, “Ms. Sarah’s House was a site-sensitive work that was built as a tribute and as a place of pilgrimage for Prospect 1 visitors but especially for the people of the Lower 9th ward who were struck twice in one week; first by the storm and secondly by the blow from the government’s catastrophic negligence.”
She continues explaining by saying “Ms. Sarah’s House was a drawing in light that created a kind of ghost building at night…a mirage of sorts, which represented an attempt to describe Ms. Sarah’s and others’ dream of returning home. Mutu used the footprint of the house-that-was-never-built, as a pedestal. The piece consisted of a frame that resembled a traditional New Orleans railroad house that the viewer could visit, enter, and walk throughout.”
Mutu is producing a print titled “Homeward Bound” that is being sold and used to raise funds for Ms. Sarah’s House project. All proceeds will assist Ms. Sarah in rebuilding / restoring her family home.
Once finished, Ms. Sarah’s actual home will be showcased in Prospect 2, which will take place in New Orleans in 2010.
Proceeds from the sale of Mutu’s print “Homeward Bound” will fund the continued rebuilding of Ms. Sarah’s home on Caffin and Charters. Construction began in November and is scheduled to be completed in the spring of 2010. Wangechi Mutu and friend Tye Waller, Co-founder of New Orleans Women Artists Collective (NOWAC), are jointly managing the project, that is being executed by a local builder, Mr. Dalbert Poree’ of Dalbert Poree’ Renovations.
Ground has been cleared. Foundation has been laid. Framing has begun. Each day on the job workers lend their skills, their sweat, and their sincerity in the effort to rebuild Ms. Sarah’s house.
Day by day, a promise is being fulfilled. The promise is one we all make—to take care of each other and to build community, no matter where we are. Mutu is not a resident of New Orleans, but her hopeful and compassionate spirit has the same color as the soul of its people. One by one they rebuild, move home, and reconnect with families, friends, communities. In work and play, in love and faith, they re-imagine and give life to that proud gumbo of art, music, food and culture called New Orleans.
If you are interested in purchasing an archival print of Mutu’s “Homeward Bound” please contact Angela Brazda at Barabara Gladstone gallery firstname.lastname@example.org, or Susan Vielmetter at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, email@example.com or Glenn Scott at Victoria Miro Gallery
If you would like to know more about Ms. Sarah’s House project or how you can help, please contact Tye Waller at firstname.lastname@example.org.