Antwaun Sargent speaks to New Orleans native Rashaad Newsome about the influence the city’s parties and performances have had on his work.
In 2013, Rashaad Newsome had an extravagant homecoming with “Rashaad Newsome: King of Arms,” a solo exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Newsome, whose work often uses pageantry, pomp, and music to investigate the intersections of power and identity, has drawn richly from his native New Orleans over the last two decades. At NOMA, the artist orchestrated an ostentatious second line—flashy by even the peacockiest of local standards—led by a custom-designed Lamborghini Murciélago, that included vogueing dancers, Mardi Gras Indians in full mask, and the Eleanor McMain Secondary School marching band. (Newsome later used footage from the parade to create several video works.)
In a 2014 performance at the Brooklyn Museum, titled KNOT, Newsome nodded to the influence of New Orleans’ hip-hop scene and you could see his interest in the rhythmic improvisational gestures bred therein as the dancers dropped and dipped alongside Newsome and the other emcees. A corresponding video, like much of the artist’s work, mixed baroque architecture with contemporary popular culture—red-soled Louboutins, Bounce music, twerking—to question the ways status, race, and sexuality are communicated and celebrated visually.
I stopped by the artist’s New York studio to talk about the influence that the parties and performances of New Orleans have had on his career.
Antwaun Sargent: What was your practice like while you lived in New Orleans?
Rashaad Newsome: I was working in collage, but it was much more geometric. I was using hemp and colored paper and doing these weird geometric abstractions. I work so much in collage now but hadn’t really figured it out before I moved to New York to study film.
AS: Your work has often commented on vogueing and the New York ballroom scene, but, more recently, you’ve been looking at Bounce music culture. Is there a connection between the performative nature of New Orleans and the gestures you use in your work?
RN: Growing up in a city where performance is a part of everyday life—where people use it to survive—has had a profound effect on my work. Being around all those performative gestures instilled in me the notion of performance as a means to build community. Seeing the Mardi Gras Indians in the Tremé and how their costumes give voice and visibility to the community—the whole idea of social practice is in the work.
AS: Speaking of voice and visibility, how have the city’s queer communities influenced your work?
RN: Bounce has always been about queerness to me. I remember Katey Red, who is a trans rapper and grew up in the Melpomene Projects, and she was getting airplay and was very successful when I was growing up. I would go to Bounce parties and even see straight guys shaking their asses. I think those moments were when the seeds were planted.
AS: In your six-part video installation The Conductor, you’ve combined video clips from hip-hop videos with Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Do New Orleans artists show up in the piece?
RN: The Conductor was really about a feeling of epicness and starting with a piece of music and figuring out what that looks like in my community. I think New Orleans plays into that because there was a period when New Orleans rap changed the direction of hip-hop. When [Juvenile’s] 400 Degreez came out, that was the first time New Orleans’ rappers had transitioned out of the Bounce niche into hip-hop at large. The album came up in the survey, and I worked it into the piece because New Orleans had created this epic moment for hip-hop.
AS: Your work deals a lot with making the status politics of architecture visible. In New Orleans, the architecture is very vibrant.
RN: The architecture of New Orleans is so unresolved. There’s a lot of ornament, and then there are these really crazy colors that call to mind the Caribbean. And there’s this clash between the French and Spanish. So there’s this hybrid architecture that’s very much about excess and decoration. I look at architecture as a library. I think that the thematic tie between all of these styles is their baroque nature.
AS: I think about how you frame your work. They are very colorful and gaudy, and I can imagine seeing the details of the frames in the decorative excess of New Orleans architecture.
RN: When you talk about the frame, I’m thinking about how ornament frames architecture. Architecture brought me to heraldry, and my frames are where heraldry, architecture, and ornament collide. I cast an angel and mounted it to the top of one of the frames, and it reminds me of the central figures on Mardi Gras floats. My use of candy paint is something I took from New Orleans car culture. It functions as my version of gilt.
AS: After your solo show at NOMA, which included a second line for your Mardi Gras krewe, the House of Arms, outside the museum, Mayor Mitch Landrieu named June 21 “The King’s Day for Art in City Park,” in an effort to get people to express themselves artistically. What does that say about the legacy of your cultural labor?
RN: The holiday reclaims space in the city for the community. Now, on June 21, everybody can go to City Park and make some kind of artistic gesture. What I really want to do is create an app with a set of drums where anyone from around the world can create a drum sequence. My dream is to go to Congo Square, where the slaves used to drum on their day off, and host a global drum session with participants both in person and on the app.