There are three images in this powerful piece that particularly strike me. First is the tree at the center of the quilt containing the silhouettes of two people – exactly as survivors of the flood tried to climb to safety, often finding none. Second is the painted face, with tears streaming, whose mouth is covered by another hand, indicating to me the loss of voice that comes with second-class status, as many of these residents were seen and treated. Third is the black house with an American flag, a trio of skulls, and a $100 bill, communicating to me that America’s capitalist motivations in most scenarios reign supreme, regardless of the human cost – in this case, many lives.
While there were many neighborhoods in New Orleans affected by Katrina and the levee failure, a disproportionate number were traditionally African-American, neighborhoods where generations of families owned homes and lived happily and productively. Leak depicts these homes throughout history, with images of 19th and early 20th century inhabitants in some of the houses woven into the quilt. Many of these neighborhoods remain devastatingly empty 10 years later, due to the often labyrinthine requirements to establish ownership of property and regain rights to rebuild, as well as the severe lack of funds made available for rebuilding, if ownership could be established.
New Orleans is a particular town that America could not afford to lose, and which it treated poorly before, during, and after the events of Katrina. It is a city that gets into your blood in a most peculiar way, calling to you across miles and years, and Leak’s quilt evokes the anguish of this devastating event in those who “know what it means to miss New Orleans.” New Orleans, and the Katrina episode in particular, stands as a series of lessons we Americans must not allow to be washed away: that we must treat our history with care; must embrace the differences among us, celebrate them like a carnival, not simply endure them; and must allow freedom in all areas of our society – even regulated ones – because it enriches the culture rather than diminishes it.
To see the beauty and power of the Katrina quilt, visit our newly extended And Still We Rise exhibit, now through Sept. 1 in the Skirball Gallery.
-Gina Armstrong, IMLS Coca-Cola Museum Studies Apprentice