French video artist Camille Henrot creates parallels between the mythical and the contemporary. In her first solo exhibition in the United States at the New Orleans Museum of Art, she investigates the legendary city of Ys in France and the vanishing coastal area of southern Louisiana that is occupied by the ancestral Houma Indians. Coastal erosion, in real and mythical tales, is at the heart of this exhibit.
For over two years, the artist interviewed and researched the acculturation of the United Houma Nation. The exhibit is composed of sculpture, prints, and nine new videos mostly shot in Terrebonne Parish, the home of approximately 6,000 members of the Houma Nation. The Houma have been in the process of seeking federal recognition as an American Indian tribe since 1979, when they first filed a letter of intent. That petition was rejected in 1994 and today the Houma are still waiting for recognition to be granted.
Henrot was born in Brittany, France, the home to the mythical city of Ys. According to legend, Ys was lost to the sea when the daughter of the king was tricked by the devil into opening the seawall, allowing the ocean to swallow the city whole. In southern Louisiana, over 2,000 square miles of marsh and swamp have become open water in the last seventy years. This landscape took 6,000 years to build and with the help of oil companies and navigation canals, it has been quickly destroyed. In the next two decades, parts of the Houma Nation’s land will be completely submerged.
Juxtaposing this reality, Henrot creates layered video of an oil pipe twisting on a computer display on top of a larger screen which shows Houma members being interviewed on their family history. Each video is displayed in sculptural settings, one embedded in a metal triangle with a wooden pane cut out in the shape of a pool. Another is framed with untreated wood, which is built both around and in front of the work, obscuring the full view of the screen. Henrot considers all the different videos to be part of one work and all videos have the same title. Seemingly random objects are posted near many of the videos. For example, in Plasmas plasma stealth (2013), a framed photo of a Wikipedia entry on lattes is placed below the screen, suggesting the malleability of information. How is culture recorded? If a culture is never recognized officially, who in the future will remember its loss?
Henrot draws an analogy between the physical loss of land in Ys and southern Louisiana, but there is also a religious suggestion. In another video of Plasmas plasma stealth (2013), Kirby Verret, a member of the Houma, recites bible passages for a Sunday sermon. Sliced into images of Verret is video footage of young girls getting dressed in traditional Houma costume, braiding their hair slowly and wrapping it in fabric and fur. This video poignantly shows the religious tidal wave of mainstream U.S. culture that has subsumed much of the original traditions of the Houma.
Camille Henrot’s body of work has focused on “intuitive unfolding of knowledge” through cultural and mythical explorations. One can only hope that her investigations of the Houma will lead to some sort of positive impact for the tribe. If not, this exhibition may become a historical documentation rather than a contemporary exploration.
Camille Henrot: Cities of Ys is on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art through February 23, 2014.