By Kristina Kay Robinson
Speak so you can speak again read the placard in Mother Catherine Seals’s Temple of Innocent Blood. When writer, anthropologist, and ethnographer Zora Neale Hurston visited the site in 1928, it occupied an entire city block in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward. In her vignette “Mother Catherine,” Hurston describes the compound’s grounds and worshippers, and the ceremonies she observed—and participated in—during her time in the city. A room devoted to the Sacred Heart featured red, white, and blue striped walls and floors and paneled walls bearing a snake motif. Of particular interest to Hurston were the large tent containing Mother Catherine’s altar and the myriad candles and miniature objects that adorned it: Hurston counted 356 kerosene lamps that illuminated the ritual space, with Mother Catherine “conducting worship services from a raised platform upon which sat her bed, a piano, instruments for a ten-piece orchestra, a huge coffee urn, a wood stove, a heater, chairs and rockers and tables,” her handmade mud sculptures on the altar creating shadows that danced on the sides of the great tent.
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Mother Catherine’s altar belongs to a rich tradition of assemblage practiced in Black communities in New Orleans, one that extends beyond conventional understanding of the genre to encompass forms ranging from home churches and shrines to the suits of Black Masking Indians. The transformation of the ordinary into the ornamental and the cultivation of mystery associated with the mundane and domestic are currents that run through the history of the city’s community praxis and individual artistry alike. Here, assemblage as both a formal and informal practice has long served as a kind of reconstituted inheritance for those disenfranchised by mainstream power structures. This inheritance includes objects and the stories they hold, but also the traditions that dictate their arrangement and use: the snake motif on Mother Catherine’s wall, for instance, was a representation of Damballah, a major deity in Haitian Vodou. Damballah’s presence in a room devoted to the Sacred Heart was more than an adornment; it evoked a religious philosophy and a history of how this group of Black people understood their place between Christianity and the traditional religion of their elders. From this perspective, assemblage appears not as an “anti-aesthetic” practice, as in the work of canonical neo-Dadaists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, but rather as an “alter-aesthetic” reflecting a multifaceted archive of human experience.
Mother Catherine’s spiritual journey began with a kick to the stomach from an estranged husband so vicious that it induced partial paralysis. Seeking help, Seals, who had arrived in New Orleans from Kentucky as a teenager, visited a male folk healer working out of a Mississippi River houseboat. Brother Isaiah, as he was called, refused to treat Seals, insisting his ministry was only for whites. Propelled by rejection and illness, Seals eventually found her way to the woman regarded as the founder of the Black Spiritual church movement, Mother Leafy Anderson.
Spiritualism took hold of the middle and upper classes across the United States and Britain in the mid-nineteenth century. By the 1890s, the faith claimed millions of adherents worldwide, who began to organize along the lines of other religious denominations. Among the adherents’ chief beliefs was that spirits in the afterlife could communicate with the living, particularly through séances. In the early 1920s, Black members were expelled from the Spiritualist Association of Churches. As a result, many Black congregations would eventually drop the “-ist” from their names and rebrand as “Spiritual” churches to distinguish themselves from the white Spiritualist movement. Some Spiritual churches practiced a syncretic blend of Christianity, Hoodoo, and Voodoo influences, while others placed more emphasis on Christ.
No birth certificate for Anderson exists, but her obituary states that she was born in 1887 in Wisconsin. Her involvement in the Spiritualist movement began with her move to Chicago, where she established her Eternal Life Christian Spiritualist Church in 1913, before heading south in 1918, at the onset of the Great Migration that carried many Black Americans in the opposite direction. Anderson’s Eternal Life Christian Spiritualist Church on Amelia Street in New Orleans, where Seals worshipped before starting her own congregation in 1922, was filled with dozens of hand-painted statues of Roman Catholic saints, its walls adorned with crutches to evoke the healing power of both the sanctuary and Mother Leafy herself. She orchestrated elaborate church productions that fused worship, sculpture, and performance. In productions such as the “Spirit Cantata,” depicting life on a Native American reservation, and “The Life of Mrs. Leafy Anderson: Mortal and Immortal,” members of the church acted out scenes under Anderson’s instructions, with local musicians serving as accompaniment. Advertisements for “Spirit Cantata” said the performance was presented by Anderson’s primary spirit guide, Black Hawk, a historical figure of the Sauk Nation whom Anderson’s influence would make a fixture in the Hoodoo pantheon. As a trombonist, Seals embraced Anderson’s style of worship, which included the contemporary sound of Black New Orleans. Early jazz musicians like Ernie Joseph Cagnolatti, Harold “Duke” Dejan, and Frank Lastie all played in the Temple of Innocent Blood’s services. Lastie, who also played with Louis Armstrong in the Waif’s Home band, went on in the early 1940s to become a deacon for another congregation, that of the Guiding Star Spiritual Church, where multiple jazz musicians would find their footing while pursuing professional careers in music. Both Mother Leafy and Mother Catherine died young (in 1927 and 1930, at the ages of forty and fifty-six, respectively), and both women’s funerals were attended by thousands, with Mother Catherine’s followed by a procession through the streets. The traditional jazz funeral. as it would come to be called, became embedded in the local culture during this period, when the contemporary music of Black New Orleans was wedded with praise and worship. Indeed, the spiritual jazz of the ’60s and ’70s of musicians like John and Alice Coltrane, and productions like Sun Ra’s 1972 film Space Is the Place echoed the traditional music of New Orleans as well as the practices of Black women living on the edges of the city in the late 1920s and 1930s.
Just blocks from the site of Seals’s Temple of Innocent Blood, an Alabama-born painter, preacher, and musician, Sister Gertrude Morgan, established her Everlasting Gospel Mission around 1963. Morgan had arrived in New Orleans in 1939 following a religious epiphany, and in 1942, along with Mother Margaret Parker and Sister Cora Williams, she founded an orphanage and mission in the Gentilly neighborhood, later relocating it to the Lower Ninth Ward. Morgan’s ministry, like Seals’s, took place in her home as well as in the streets of New Orleans. During Morgan’s performances, she would project her voice through painted paper megaphones, often using a tambourine or guitar for accompaniment. In 1971 Morgan released an album, “Let’s Make a Record,” a compilation of well-known spirituals like “Way in the Middle of the Air” and her own compositions, in which she narrates her spiritual visions. Morgan also created the album’s cover art, featuring two self-portraits, in which she is dressed as the bride of Christ and as a nurse to his flock, alongside passages of her own writing.
Morgan began creating paintings and drawings in the late 1950s, using scraps of paper, wood, cardboard, Styrofoam, and other found materials. These works depict elaborate scenes that she said Christ had revealed to her, such as New Orleans transformed into a New Jerusalem. In these grand visions of personal salvation, Morgan often portrayed herself flying a plane over the New Jerusalem of New Orleans with Jesus as her copilot. Conceived as devotional pieces to adorn her ministry space and spread her gospel, Morgan’s artworks—paintings and drawings, as well as hand-painted fans and elaborately embellished lampshades—garnered the attention of figures in the art world like Andy Warhol, who featured her in the September 1973 issue of Interview magazine. That same year, more than seventy-five of Morgan’s works were included in the exhibition “Louisiana Folk Painting” at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, along with pieces by two other self-taught artists, Clementine Hunter and Bruce Brice. A group show at the New Orleans Museum of Art also included Morgan’s work. Shortly after these formal exhibitions, Morgan received a new directive from the Lord to cease painting and focus solely on preaching and lyrical writings akin to earlier illustrated texts like “A Poem of My Calling,” a handwritten account of her life produced on paper with easily accessible materials like graphite, crayon, and ballpoint ink. It features a self-portrait of Morgan with her guitar alongside her distinctive handwriting, this time in all capital letters. Morgan’s works present visual renderings of deep interiority that resist the oversimplifications of race and gender theory.
Though the theologies of Anderson, Seals, and Morgan differed, the three were similar in the self-directed nature of their worship, as well as their embrace of assemblage as both a devotional aesthetic and a philosophy of spiritual syncretism. Their churches and ministries enabled these women and their adherents to cultivate identities that ran counter to the dominant social order. Through their arrangements of paint, sound, and structure, Anderson, Seals, and Morgan all embraced a value system that assigned sacred worth to humble objects, and they in turn evangelized about the miraculous results of that practice. Their practice revealed a world in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward complex enough to sustain multiple Black women’s visions of this world and the next.
Facilitating an expression of diasporic culture, altars and shrines play an important role within the canon of assemblage and within the landscape of the American South, emblematizing the many cultural Souths the region contains. As major port and point of confluence, New Orleans has long fostered this practice. These composite altars and shrines enable believers to choose what is most important to them, and thereby manifest the power of their will through veneration. While monuments to Confederate generals sat on plinths in the public square and those that served their interests sat in government offices, dispossessed Black people erected in their sacred spaces their own sources of spiritual power and authority.
The intersection of aesthetics and ideology and the effect each has on social relationships have always been well understood in Louisiana. The infamous tignon laws of the 1780s, for instance, required free women of color in the state to cover their hair in public, forcing them to suppress any “socially disruptive” displays of attractiveness or wealth, and codifying the surveillance and restriction of Black women’s bodies. Today, the Black Masking Indians, a tradition with roots reaching back to the 1800s, challenge these same oppressive power structures through their intricately handcrafted suits and the public rituals that preserve their African and Native heritages.
Divided into various nations, each associated with a particular New Orleans neighborhood or family, Black Masking Indians pass down the story of their communities through their handmade suits, an art form immersed in a mix of performance, sound, and ritual objects. Each suit typically takes an entire year to construct and debuts for the neighborhood as a living, breathing sculpture. Street processions on Mardi Gras and a few other special occasions mark the passage of time for the community in a way that distinguishes its rhythm and flow from those on the outside. The Black Masking Indians’ songs and chants that fill the streets, and the scenes that highlight their suits’ extravagant beadwork function as an archive of cultural memory. Each nation has its own origin story and every craftsperson a distinctive mode of combining shared aesthetics and iconographies.
Queen Cherice Harrison-Nelson, a ceremonial dressmaker and Big Queen of Guardians of the Flame, uses narrative beadwork, featherwork, dance, and chanting with percussive instrumentation to channel principles of the outlaw culture that emerged in south Louisiana during the period of enslavement. Harrison-Nelson describes Guardians of the Flame as a contemporary maroon society, referring to the autonomous communities on the swampy outskirts of plantation society, where enslaved persons who escaped lived in a fugitive state of “marronage,” neither free nor bound. As she described in a recent interview, “we call ourselves a Maroon Society because . . . we’re not bowing down to conventional Carnival. We’re not bowing down to having a predesignated route and submitting that to the New Orleans Police Department. We’re doing our thing. It’s self-determination. It’s self-actualization.”
[Read More: Cherice Harrison-Nelson on her Mardi Gras suits and family traditions]
Five generations of Harrison-Nelson’s family have participated in the masking tradition; her late father, Donald Harrison Sr., masked for almost fifty years. He served as Big Chief of Guardians of the Flame, as did her brother, renowned jazz musician Donald Harrison Jr., and her son, Brian Harrison-Nelson. Her work skirts the edge of this tradition, preferring adaptation and innovation as its own form of inheritance; hers is a living tradition, and one open to change. A prominent theme is the relationship of the human to water and earth. Often, her suits link deities from the West African pantheon to city of New Orleans. In one 2021 suit, dedicated to the Yoruba deity Olokun (whose domain is the bottom of the ocean), Harrison-Nelson used the spiral pattern of her dress to guide her beading and placed appliqués of fish and dollar bills amid the swirls. Harrison-Nelson’s ceremonial designs are often less elaborate than those of typical Mardi Gras suits. With the counsel of her mother, Herreast J. Harrison, whom she credits with giving her the confidence to pursue her own relatively minimalist approach, Harrison-Nelson designs her suits through a careful editing process, including only the most essential components needed to tell the stories of their nation. The editing process, according to Harrison-Nelson, is to emphasize the importance of the narrative elements. While the suits can be seen as a form of worn assemblage sculpture, incorporating various materials ranging from the humble to the luxurious, the practice of masking also reflects factors integral to assemblage—the elemental, the hybrid, the imagined, and the mercurial—all of which help transform circumstantial values.
During its precolonial history, many of the Indigenous nations that occupied New Orleans referred to it as “Bulbancha” or “place of many languages,” suggesting that the city’s origins were as diverse as its contemporary cultural mélange. The influx of Haitians to the Louisiana Territory following the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) further complicated the intricacies of race, slavery, and freedom. The arrival of these Haitians doubled the population of New Orleans and created reverberations in language and social practices evident to the present day. Haitian born, Brooklyn- and Harlem-raised, and New Orleans–based artist Soraya Jean-Louis imaginatively extends that diaspora across the earth and the cosmos. Ruby’s Golden Bridges (2014), for example, is a small-scale mixed-medium collage about Ruby Bridges, who in 1960 entered William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward at the age of six, becoming the first Black student to integrate an elementary school in the South. At the center of the composition, emerging from a nebulous ground of layered and dripped paint, is a black-and-white image of Bridges as a little girl, schoolbag in hand, extracted from the historic photograph of Bridges walking toward the school escorted by US Marshals. The cutout image is affixed to a flat vertical strip of burlap painted gold, the “bridge” of the title, with five playing cards tucked behind it.
Jean-Louis describes the relationship between the mash-ups and remixes of diasporic communities she has experienced in her own migration (from Haiti to America, from south to north to south) as analogous to the way in which materials relate to one another when collaged and placed in an exhibition. For Subject Permanence: Black Stars (2010–11) Jean-Louis charts both her own and her ancestral journey by repurposing a door into the substrate of an altarpiece devoted to the artist’s place of birth, surrounding it with metallic string lights and silk flowers. Held up by clothespins at the center of the altar is a painted collage depicting her own parents, the year before their marriage, reclining on the beach amid gold-outlined cowrie shells. It is paired with “Haiti (Interlude),” a 2004 instrumental track by the Haitian American musician Gaelle, which incorporates the sounds of families on a beach. The catalytic power and political force of the Haitian Revolution, the most effective slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere, and its present-day relevance in contemporary politics are likewise foregrounded in the altarpiece We the People Know for a Certainty (2013–21). Resting atop a pedestal draped in the Haitian flag are bouquets of dried flowers and a weathered wooden chair adorned with a mirror and collaged images from National Geographic magazine. A partially burned American flag is suspended from the chair’s seat, on which Jean-Louis has collaged the phrase, “suffer the children” from the biblical book of Matthew. Jean-Louis focuses on emotional moments from history and religion in order to enlarge their scope for viewers. The Ruby Bridges episode, for instance, becomes a story not only of integration or civic engagement, but also of the cosmic leap of faith taken by everyone who preceded her and by all those who followed.
Black New Orleanians have continuously redefined and renegotiated their relationship to Blackness and class status. Rejecting the authority of the state, which equated “Black” with unfree, uncivilized, unwelcome, and uncultured, they have instead worked to maintain sociocultural traditions rather than to accumulate capital, and in so doing have steadily subverted prevailing social hierarchies and power dynamics. Generations have rejected the lure of moving to “greener pastures” in more industrialized parts of the country, in favor of remaining on ancestral grounds, where their excess capital is often invested in community aesthetic endeavors. Instead of looking for the art world’s validation, Black New Orleanians embrace not brick-and-mortar institutions but the “enthusiastic social vision” that Fred Moten, in his 2018 book Stolen Life, calls Blackness: an embrace of autonomy in response to social constraint, and improvisation creating the terms for constant regeneration.
Inheritance and enfranchisement are meted out not only through their legalities but also through aesthetics. Black Southern artists like Cherice Harrison-Nelson and Soraya Jean-Louis occupying the contemporary landscape of post-Katrina New Orleans, a place where dissent is an inherent function of survival, are doing the triplicate work of rendering not only their contemporary selves, but their past and future cultures as well. Expanding the parameters of genre and the terms of market participation, New Orleans artists use assemblage practices meant to be engaged in the public sphere while strategically embracing opacity: not every element of Jean-Louis’s collages or Harrison-Nelson’s suits or a shrine you may see in a public New Orleans space will be understood in its full context by those who reside outside the cultures where they are conceived—by design. Communicating through visual languages most legible to their heirs, leaving room to be unknown, even misunderstood is a necessary consequence of being, in effect, a “fugitive.” Taking the philosophy of marronage into the contemporary moment remains a priority for these artists, whose works reach out silently to the places in New Orleans where Mother Leafy Anderson and Mother Catherine Seals and others’ traditions continue—finding maybe not yet freedom but escape in the form of a meeting Moten calls “the presence of flesh” with the spirit.
This article appears in the November/December 2021 issue, pp. 82–89.
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