By Bethany Ruhe
Pittsburgh Current Associate Publisher
It seems appropriate to be talking about an artist from New Orleans on Fat Tuesday, the kickoff to Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras, the bacchanal, week-long celebration is what a lot of people think about when they think about New Orleans.
But of course, it’s so much more than that. Photographer and writer L. Kasimu Harris lives and works in New Orleans, and his premiere exhibit at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, is a slice of something much more pressing.
Vanishing Black Bars and Lounges is a photographic exhibit that shines a light on the dwindling black-owned and black spaces in New Orleans.
The installation is a premiere for Harris, and the largest installation he’s done to date. Kilolo Luckett, curator of visual arts at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, happened across Harris during an event in New Orleans. He was photographing a dining event for famed chef, artist and writer, Tunde Way. The two stayed in touch, and when an opening came up for a new exhibit, Luckett knew just who to call.
Harris first started really thinking about dwindling black spaces during his student days at Ole Miss. He came across a book, ‘Juke Joint’, by Birney Ives, that chronicled through photos Ives travels across Mississippi Delta from 1983 to 1989.
‘By the time I came across this book, a lot of the places had already declined,’ Harris recalls. ‘I thought to myself, I should do this in New Orleans.” He was thinking specifically of St. Bernard Avenue. “I wrote in my book that I should do this in a few years, and then I noticed that in my youth there were 9 black-owned bars on St. Bernard. Then when I came of age there were three. And now there is one.”
The transformation happening right before his eyes inspired Harris to ramp up his project to the now. “This is a street in a Black neighborhood, where all but one establishment is now owned by white people.”
So he picked up his camera and started chronicling what was left, culminating in “Vanishing Black Bars and Lounges.” Harris’ photos capture various people and spaces with a candidness that conveys warmth and energy. The feel is made even more comfortable with the addition of a real bar, making the photos seem like they are even more alive.
Luckett, who helped to bring the scene to life, knew that the exhibit would have a lot of resonance for a Pittsburgh audience.
“I see strong parallels in what he is documenting in New Orleans and what has happened here,” says Luckett. “These gathering spaces, looking beyond the drink, is the social aspect. You pull that thread and you can see the lineage of these spaces. African Americans couldn’t congregate in public because of Jim Crow, so social clubs became our third tier to come together (after home and church).”
Justin Strong, a Pittsburgh promoter and owner of the former Shadow Lounge, agrees that there is something very familiar with Harris’ work. Last week Strong held his Dope Ass People (DAP) at Tana in East Liberty. According to Strong, “it’s one of the few black-owned places left in East Liberty.” The event is “Black music that’s sort of gotten away from Black culture.”
Using East Liberty as an example of a neighborhood where Black-owned businesses and spaces are becoming erased, Strong says “When you drive around East Liberty you don’t hear music, you don’t hear music coming out of the walls. You just see a lot of people sitting around eating. That’s why I have my party with a purpose.”
As to why spaces are vanishing, the reasons are as vast as the institutions that have been lost. Access to capital, gentrification, and plain-old apathy could be reasons. “Sure, things get featured during Black history month, but in the day to day, black-owned businesses don’t get covered. (We) might not be the trendiest, hand-crafted local, baby squirrel tears,” posits Strong, “so we don’t get the coverage.”
Luckett saw first-hand the impact Harris’ work has had on a local audience. “I’ve seen people moved to tears. This feels like my uncle’s bar, this feels like my grandmother’s place. There is this familiar component to Harris’ work that resonates beyond race or culture.”
For Harris himself, this work is larger than just one exhibit. “One of the driving forces for this exhibit is my love of ethnography.” He found it very hard to find information on Black-owned bars and lounges, and considers this work to be a part of a historical chronicle for spaces that would otherwise become totally erased.
“It could have happened with the Blues if it wasn’t for Alan Lomax, or could have happened with certain Mississippi dialects without Nora Zeale Hurston,” Harris says. When Black spaces shutter and history is lost, a disservice is done to all. “Black spaces and Blackness itself influences so much more than just Black America.”
Vanishing Black Bars and Lounges appears at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center through March 29.
- Kasimu Harris, Tunde Way and journalist Brentin Mock will participate in an Artist Talk, moderated by Kilolo Luckett, on March 1st at 2:00 pm. More info can be found at aacc-awc.org.