For nearly 20 years, Monique Verdin has documented what it means to live in coastal Louisiana. Working in photography, film, performance, and folk traditions, the New Orleans native and member of the United Houma Nation has regularly brought the stories of her people and place to light.
Keenly aware of the complexities of living along an eroding coastline, Verdin has never been shy about the challenges we face. Instead, her work addresses these challenges directly: this coming April, Verdin is collaborating on the first annual Fossil Free Fest with a dozen academic institutions, arts organizations, and nonprofits in the weeks before Jazz Fest.
As part of “Prospect.4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp,” The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC), 400 Chartres St., New Orleans, is hosting a retrospective selection of Verdin’s works. The exhibition is in two parts: a collection of two dozen black-and-white photographs, paired with large-scale, hand-woven palmetto tapestries containing photographic transparencies of yet more images.
Chronicling both the day-to-day lives of communities along the southeastern coastal parishes (Terrebonne, Lafourche, Plaquemines and St. Bernard), as well as their encounters with disaster, trauma and change, Verdin captures the reality of what it means to live permanently on the edge — not just of this country, but of a swiftly-vanishing way of life.
Recently, I met with Verdin to discuss her artistic and political vision.
Benjamin Morris: The works in the exhibition run from 2000 to 2009. What is the origin of your work?
Monique Verdin: I returned home to Louisiana in the late 1990s, which was when I started photography, mainly in Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes. During this time in my life, I was learning: learning about my camera, but also about my family, about our land, about our politics. I didn’t start sharing work until after Katrina in 2005, and never had the ambition to be in a gallery–to be an artist in that way.
My work came out of telling stories–I’m more concerned about the story than the medium or the form. Lately, instead of being conflicted about that, I’m trying to be more open to it. All of the projects I’ve been involved in, from the documentary [director Sharon Linezo Hong’s “My Louisiana Love” (2012)] to “Cry You One” [Mondo Bizarro/ArtSpot Productions (2013)] where I play myself — well, the story is real. That’s the most important thing: that people walk away not with appreciation for the craft but with deeper understanding of this place specifically.
BM: Looking back over your first decade of work, what have been your hopes for these images?
MV: That my family wouldn’t have to live next to a waste pit. That my cousin could continue his way of life and not get cancer. That was my hope — never that I would have an art show. I’d rather raise awareness that southern Louisiana has socioeconomic and racial injustices that we’ve…