Drawing inspiration from a 19th century free woman of color, who broke from the family tradition of plaçage (non-white women becoming concubines for ethnic European men) to form an African-American congregation in New Orleans, Letitia Huckaby has produced a series of portraits honoring the modern-day nuns of the congregation, entitled “Bayou Baroque” and on display in the front gallery of Art League Houston. Founder Henriette Delille (1812-1862) was presented to the Catholic Church as a candidate for sainthood; she has achieved the first three phases: servant of God, venerable, and blessed, and only lacks a second miracle for sainthood. Huckaby also was inspired by the works of Kehinde Wiley, a New York-based painter who portrays people with brown skin in heroic poses against decorative or floral backgrounds.
After photographing the nuns either in front of a floral print fabric, or silhouetted behind, Huckaby prints the images onto fabric and cuts them into strips or squares, reassembling the portraits with gold, white or colored thread. The resemblance is obvious in Sister Canice and Sister Canisius – both subjects are at the same nursing home and carry the same last name – though the hands of one seem to have suffered more from life’s toils. Sister Rebecca, with her white socks and sensible shoes, seems a bit hesitant, as if she is not used to the spotlight; while Sister Bertha, her one good eye peering behind glasses, sports a stylish yellow brooch. Deviating from the floral print formula, Sister Francis is backed by batting and white lace and tulle; her tall, spiky hair and kind, knowing eyes speak of confidence and poise. The exhibit also contains a quartet of pigment prints on vintage sacks, with key words (water, clean) embroidered in red thread, but they pale compared to the strength and serenity of the floral-backed portraits.
Ethnological expositions of the 19th and 20th centuries where those who were born different – dwarves, albinos, microcephalics and hunchbacks, as well as indigenous peoples from other continents – were displayed in circuses, paired with animals or kept in cages or menageries, are the genesis for Lavar Munroe’s “Zoo at the Edge of the World” A Continuum of the Exotic” exhibit in ALH’s main gallery. The mixed media works combine sideshow banners, circus gaudiness, misshapen human forms and animals, creating an alternate history designed to shine light on the abusive nature of these human zoos and the voyeuristic craze of the viewing public.
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Munroe’s compositions are kind of like an automobile accident – you’re both horrified yet unable to look away. In The Zoo Keeper, a ghoulish one-handed purveyor of the absurd is tethered to a macrocephalic fire-breathing creature, while a severed helmeted head floats in the air over a nude one-armed woman with a frog in her mouth, wearing pointe shoe ribbons while some creature mounts her crotch.
Some of his works are messy and complicated, almost to the point of being indecipherable, but they’re all a colorful hot mess and successfully achieve his goal – as written in his artist’s statement – of pointing to the history of exploitation and cruelty faced by the underrepresented.
Bridging the hallway between both exhibits is a fun and whimsical video installation by Michael Menchaca, clearly a fan of video games who also draws inspiration from Pre-Columbian civilizations, Mesopotamia and the current events in Ferguson. Watch Luminous, Yet Devoid of Chroma long enough, and you’ll see fireballs, the devil and a nude cat-faced woman urinating profusely in the corner.
“Bayou Baroque”, “Zoo at the Edge of the World: A Continuum of the Exotic” and “Luminous, Yet Devoid of Chroma” continue through September 12, at Art League Houston, 1953 Montrose, open Tuesdays to Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m., 713-523-9530 or artleaguehouston.org.