New Orleans wears its opinions and sentiments on its sleeve, just like its citizenry wears their fleur-de-lis-tattoos. Almost everywhere you look, graffiti and other homemade signage are spray-painted across buildings and nailed up on hand-painted placards: slogans shouting solidarity and encouragement (the “You are Beautiful” I bike past every morning); imprints of pride (“Won’t Bow, Don’t Know How”); entreaties both gravely serious (in violence-prone neighborhoods, “’Thou Shalt Not Kill.’–God”) and more light-hearted (in countless Crescent City bars, “Be Nice or Leave”); and yes, the ubiquitous “WHO DAT,” daring anyone to try to beat the Saints football team.
But one new text-art installation is, of late, shouting louder than all of them. Raised on scaffolding atop a commercial barge and lit up with an on-board generator, Tavares Strachan’s 20-foot-tall letters in bright pink neon cannot be ignored. “You Belong Here,” they declare, in glowing, curly script.
More than two years in the making, the installation debuted on October 25 as part of the city’s biennial Prospect.3 exhibition. Overseen by LACMA chief curator Franklin Sirmans, the show, whose theme this year is Notes for Now, features 58 influential artists from around the world, from Gauguin to Carrie Mae Weems. While much of their work is shown in public spaces, Strachan’s piece has been stopping art-fans and other bystanders in their tracks as it floats by on the Mississippi.
“There’s been a lot of commentary and reaction, however measured in the quality of the response,” says Strachan (33), a Bahamian-born New Yorker. On one occasion during the first week the installation was on display, the artist met a couple riding on bicycles at midnight along the city’s downtown River Walk. “I introduced myself,” he says, “and they said they were born-and-bred New Orleanians. It became this very emotional moment for them, as they had to leave the city for Katrina, and Rita that followed. They said that they thought that they’d never be able to come back. But they did. Looking out at the passing barge, both started crying, and I got a little choked up myself.”
While the installation wasn’t specifically rendered to symbolize the warmth and survival spirit of New Orleans, Strachan says the work couldn’t have been christened in a more apt port of call. “It’s a lovely, lovely city, and I return to it every year. To me, its sense of community is the richest I have experienced anywhere in the world.”
Like the couple, many choose to interpret the words at face value, as a warm and earnest welcome. And in many ways, the phrase echoes the open-armed sentiments not just of the city, but also Prospect.3: Notes for Now—which, with its off-the-beaten-path gallery locations and new app acts as an insider’s tour of New Orleans. Still, Strachan’s phrase is loaded.
“It’s rife for misunderstanding and misinterpretation—like most great poetry. It comes off as friendly and reassuring, but maybe it is asking of its viewers: ‘Who are you?’ It makes some people uncomfortable.”
As a natural cynic who returned to reside in the Crescent City part-time a few years ago, I read the work as almost cryptic, Orwellian in tone. And as Strachan points out, “It can be a question too: what does it mean to ‘belong?’ Where is ‘here’?”
Adding to the installation’s ambiguity is the fact that its gallery space is the wide and undulating Mississippi River. “Here” is literally changing by the second. “For me, the water is the most unknown component. And in the flow of the cargo boats, the fuel tankers and shrimp boats coming and going on its waters, it’s kind of mysterious. It looks different from every spot a viewer catches it passing.”
It would be an understatement, explains Strachan, to say that locals—myself included—would prefer that the artwork remain on permanent display, however it’s interpreted. Whether you’re a first-time visitor or one of the city’s many prodigal sons and daughters, you should treat You Belong Here as an invitation to see for yourself, before the installation is dismantled in late January.
You Belong Here is docked regularly at the Esplande Wharf, just off the French Quarter and river; for its location, and that of other Prospect.3 artworks throughout the city, go to: prospectneworleans.org.