Interview to Richard Sexton on the occasion of the exhibition: "Creole World: Photographs of New Orleans and the Latin Caribbean Sphere" at Frost Art Museum of Miami

Why do you include cities that are not in the geographic area tradionally known as the Caribbean, such as Quito, for example?

To be honest, some things are circumstantial and fortuitous, rather than formulaic or “by the book.” In the early stages of this project, before the concept had fully gelled, I was merely revisiting Latin America for the first time since 1974. In some cases I was returning to specific places I had visited 40 years previously. My working method was simple: when I saw things in Latin America that reminded me of New Orleans, I took a picture and I didn’t think about it too much beyond that. It was a visceral reaction. When I went to Ecuador, I thought places other than Quito would be a more important focus. I went to Baños and Puno in the Amazonas because these were swampy, tropical places that theoretically, at least, would be like New Orleans, which is low and swampy and on a storied river as famous as the Amazon. Ironically, I didn’t get any photos I could use for the project from Baños or Puno. I also went to Riobamba, the colonial capital of Ecuador, because it is a city with a contemporary predicament much like New Orleans—a place of great importance during the colonial period, which has languished and is less important in contemporary times. And there are photos from Riobamba in Creole World. It was a place that worked, but not in the ways I was expecting. In New Orleans, we have a street that runs parallel to St. Charles Ave., which is named after a popular Spanish Colonial mayor of New Orleans—Carondelet Street. When Carondelet left New Orleans his next assignment was in Ecuador. Riobamba was the capital at that time. I was hoping there might be a Carondelet St. in Riobamba too. Or some other evidence of his presence there. But, I didn’t find one. But, in Quito I made a number of photographs that worked for the project, even though it was not the most likely candidate for inclusion

A project like Creole World can be akin to solving a crime mystery. You never know where the evidence will lead. In Quito, they have this wonderful old cemetery, San Diego Cementerio, which is very evocative of St. Louis I Cemetery in New Orleans. During the cemetery tours in New Orleans the tour guides tell the tourists that the reason for the aboveground tombs is because New Orleans is below sea level, prone to flooding, and the water table is so high that no one can be buried below ground. But, in fact, the deceased were buried above ground because they were Catholic and throughout the Catholic world, grand, monumental tombs were the norm in the 19th century. You find them everywhere in the Catholic world. So, the opportunity to photograph aboveground tombs in Quito several thousand feet above sea level, where flooding is unknown, is a great way to make a point. But, most importantly Quito is a Creole place. The Creole world is larger than the Caribbean. The Caribbean may be the heart of it, but the tentacles reach far out. The people of Quito are speaking a European language. The urban setting around them consists of European inspired architecture. But, many of the natives don’t look European. Their music, food, dress, and culture are just not quite right by strictly European standards. They are Creole—hybrid entities of the colonies. In the case of Quito there is a powerful Native American influence blended in with the Spanish Colonial influences. The essence of Creole is about blending things together to create something new and Quito has this. 

What moved you/compelled you to create this exhibition?

At a very early age (20) I traveled to Latin America. I visited every country in Central America; Roatan Island in the Caribbean; and Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, in South America. At the time I departed for Latin America I had only traveled in Georgia (where I lived), Alabama, and Florida. So, I experienced Latin America before I had fully experienced my own country. This trip was formative. I fell in love with Latin America at this early age. Then in 1991 I moved from San Francisco to New Orleans. Over the years I came to appreciate New Orleans, and all of south Louisiana, as a fractured piece of Latin America, marooned in the United States. New Orleans is known as “the northernmost Caribbean city.” An observation with which I agree. When I returned to Latin America in 2006, I saw it in a new light. It reminded me of home. I wanted to explore this connection, to conceptualize it, to historify it. In the end, I decided the unifying concept, the common denominator if you will, was Creole. This was the bond, the thing New Orleans shared with the Caribbean and with Latin America. Through a geopolitical accident (the Louisiana Purchase), New Orleans was severed from the Caribbean and Latin America and was incorporated into a different place, with a different history. I wanted to reconnect it to the world of which it was once a part.

What is your motive for this exhibition?

I do have an agenda. New Orleans, and south Louisiana, are not so unique anymore as Creole outposts in North America. There is no better example than Miami to exemplify that North America is evolving in new directions. The evolution is pervasive. There are always forces that resist change, that support the status quo merely because it is comfortable and familiar. Multi-culturalism and multi-lingualism are now part of the national discussion. What I would hope is that Creole World could be a positive example for the merits of hybridity and Creolization. For multi-culturalism and multi-lingualism.Creolization is related to Pan-Americanism. Adaptation and improvisation are about coping and survival. I think that’s one of the things you’ll see in this exhibit. You’ll see struggle and evolution. You’ll see vestiges of Colonialism and adaptations that seek a path beyond it. You’ll see the inherent beauty of an imperfect world. You’ll see hope and order emerging out of chaos. To conclude, I'll quote Russell Lord, curator of photographs at New Orleans Museum of Art, who wrote this about my project: Creole World reminds us . . . that where we come from profoundly informs who we are and who we might become. Hay solamente una América. 

Creole World:Photographs of New Orleans and the Latin Caribbean Sphere”. Frost Art Museum of Miami. June 13, August 23, 2015. www.thefrost.fiu.edu

Imagen courtesy: Richard Sexton