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Dawn DeDeaux: On the cusp of her NOMA retrospective, the artist talks about her work and her life in New Orleans

Dawn DeDeaux. Thumbs Up for the Mothership installation view. (Exhibition with Lonnie Holley at MASS MoCA, May 27, 2017–July 8, 2019.) Image courtesy MASS MoCA. Photo by David Dashiell. © Dawn DeDeaux

By Sue Strachan, Mid-City Messenger

New Orleans is a city of immersion, be it in the culture or as part of the constant battle against water. To fully understand the city and its citizens, experiencing this immersion is essential.

Artist Dawn DeDeaux understands this. A native New Orleanian, she has been creating her one-of-a-kind multi-media pieces for 50 years, blurring and creating new boundaries with her art and what and how she wishes to express it, immersing viewers in her message.

On Friday (Oct. 22), New Orleans Museum of Art will present a career retrospective, “Dawn DeDeaux: The Space Between Worlds.” Her work is also among the exhibitions around New Orleans that are part of Prospect.5 “Yesterday we said tomorrow.”

“She is one of the most influential artists in the region,” said Katie Pfohl, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art.

“DeDeaux lost virtually all of her art during Hurricane Katrina and hasn’t had a major museum exhibition to showcase the full range and scope of her art,” Pfohl said.

The exhibition gave DeDeaux, Pfohl and the museum an opportunity to put DeDeaux’s archive together to share it with the public. “Many people who know her work will be surprised by some of the early pieces that haven’t been on view since the 1970s,” Pfohl said.

Organized around a series of immersive installations, the exhibition includes a new 70-foot video installation entitled, “Where’s Mary.”

Dawn DeDeaux, CB Radio Booths, 1975-76. Installation of nine CB Radio
Booths at various locations across New Orleans. © Dawn DeDeaux

A few of the other pieces include DeDeaux’s “MotherShip” series, “CB Radio Booths” and “Flood Then Fire.”

DeDeaux’s works include video, performance, photography, sculpture and installations that wrestles “with the social, political, and environmental impacts of the Anthropocene and responds to the unique threats facing her home state of Louisiana,” states the museum press release.

“Dawn DeDeaux has long grappled with existential questions surrounding earth and humanity’s survival,” said Susan Taylor, Montine McDaniel Freeman Director of NOMA.

The timing for the exhibition was thematically apropos. The show was originally supposed to open when Prospect.5 was in fall 2020, but the Covid-19 pandemic and then Hurricane Ida delayed it.

Pfohl said it will be interesting to see how people respond. “The show really captures the challenges of our current moment,” adding that it “creates an environment in which people are entering into an experience rather than a typical exhibition with art on the wall.”

And, there is a catalogue — the first showcasing DeDeaux’s work.

America House, 1990-91. Digital images, doors, framing. Photo by Dawn DeDeaux. © Dawn DeDeaux

What does the artist think of the exhibition? Mid-City Messenger posed some questions to DeDeaux.

What do you want people to think about while looking at your exhibition — as well as after viewing the exhibition?
I want people to feel the vibrancy of life. The preciousness of existence. The strength of our collective New Orleans resiliency and the call for global stewardship. The enduring miracle of Love, particularly when “in the Ruins.”

What drew you to creating in multi-media art — not being confined to one type of material or way of creating art?
Early on I thought of myself as a painter, but my impulse to build and engage with community pulled me off the canvas. This desire is what drew me to shift my studies to mass media — the most impactful tool of our time to reach audience.

These multi-layers of media are now synchronistic with our evolutionary process, the new building blocks within the matrix goop that furthers our Jungian-like collectivity.

As we witness in nature, all life forms have and apply an aesthetic language. In my own multimedia practice, I never lose sight of this extraordinary tenet, so regardless of the media chosen; I try to make my works more sensual and less didactic. So perhaps I am still “painting” within multi-dimensional spaces.

In what way has your art evolved through the years?
I have no idea. But I have come to recognize that I am a conceptual artist first, choosing from diverse media to best deliver my tale.

I have a strong narrative undertow and I try to visualize my prayers. I find I often turn to the devices of theater, hoping to engage and surround my audiences in visceral experiences, and to this end I prefer to work to the human scale.

Daisy Space Clown in
Black Field, 2013, Digital drawing on
polished acrylic. © Dawn DeDeaux

You grew up in New Orleans — how do you think the city informed and still informs your work?
New Orleans is among the American cities longest in the melting pot, a slower simmering stew, with a complex medley of people with place. Born here, of here, I feel in constant contact with its history.

I am less concerned about being “contemporary,” and I am more interested in producing “timeless” art that can bridge the tightropes between the past and the future.

Beyond our city’s past history, geologically, it directs me towards the future. The frontline of climate change is within our immediate view as the Gulf gets closer and closer to our doors. Together with an onslaught of devastating storms, New Orleans is a ground zero site from which to address the serious challenges ahead.

What role does your compound in Gentilly play in your art and life?
I have set up what is likely my last base of operations in a cluster of four small houses with connecting grounds, near the dead end of railroad track and a Popeyes Fried Chicken sign. It is fittingly called “camp” — Camp Abundance — because “camp” describes a place of less permanence, a place more suited for the growing need of nomadic life in this time of uncertainty.

But this camp is also a place of Abundance: I love my quirky neighborhood, my large garden, my cats, rooster and myriad other creatures who just showed up on their own years ago. My banana trees produce the best ever tasting bananas, and the citrus trees are happy, too. The ginger and jasmine prevail over the waft of fried food and crawfish boils.

Currently, befitting a camp, a few of the roofs are under tents of tarp, covering all the dislodged shingles in Miss Ida’s aftermath. But here at the Camp, we anticipate disaster and celebrate the good times in the spaces in between the next storm or plague’s arrival.

When did you start working on this project with NOMA and Curator Katie Pfohl?
On behalf of NOMA, curator Katie Pfohl approached me more than four years ago, in the fall of 2016, extending an invitation to present the upcoming retrospective.

Little did we all know that we would actually live out the themes of the works — for who would have imagined four years ago the back-to-back cluster of challenges we have faced in a such a short span of time?

Any fictional aspects of my past works have morphed into something more akin to documentary. It’s been a bumpy ride for us all but we are all proud to now cross the finish line and to offer the citizens of New Orleans a few key icons of our collective experience.

I am honored and grateful to have this showcase at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
I love my town.

Oct. 22 – Jan. 23, 2022: “Dawn DeDeaux: The Space Between Worlds,” New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 1 Collins Diboll Circle, noma.org.

Prospect.5: “Yesterday we said tomorrow” is Oct. 23 to Jan. 23, 2022, in locations throughout the city, Propsectneworleans.com.

Dawn DeDeaux, The End, 2013. Digital drawing on archival paper. Artist’s proof. Photo by Dawn DeDeaux. © Dawn DeDeaux

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