|THE LOWER 9TH WARD|
September 15, 2008
Before flying out of New Orleans, back to drier, less stormy land, we spent a morning in its forever-ravaged Lower 9th Ward. Driving slowly up and down the streets of the abandoned neighborhood - which wasn't exactly a wealthy suburb before Katrina - is haunting. Twelve-foot tall grass grows over cement slabs where simple family houses stood three years before. Stop signs and street signs are hidden; cement staircases lead to nowhere. Except for a handful, the houses that still stand are abandoned, broken. While a new, 15-foot-tall cement levee has replaced the version that cracked wide open on an August morning three years before, the place would appear beyond saving.
Water is everywhere here. Stand atop the levee and it laps near the top, even on a calm, hurricane-less day. From here all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, one hundred miles away, this region is linked - more than by jazz or crayfish, corrupt politicians or steamy days and nights - by water. The most common and elemental of resources and yet here in the Bayou State, we have seen it is incredibly at risk.
The British-born, internationally renowned, urban grafitti mystery artist was leaving his one-of-a-kind mark all over New Orleans while we were in town. By chance at first we glanced a trio of his social commentaries painted on walls of a few of the still-standing buildings in the Lower 9th.
Here's how the NEW YORKER described his art, in a 2007 profile: "Having fashioned himself as a sort of painterly Publius, Banksy surfaces from time to time to prod the popular conscience. Confronted with a blank surface, he will cover it with scenes of anti-authoritarian whimsy: Winston Churchill with a Mohawk, two policemen kissing, a military helicopter crowned by a pink bow. Typically crafting his images with spray paint and cardboard stencils, Banksy is able to achieve a meticulous level of detail. His aesthetic is clean and instantly readable-broad social cartooning rendered with the graphic bang of an indie concert poster. Since street art is ephemeral, he occasionally issues books filled with photographs of his work, accompanied by his own text. He self-published his first three volumes, "Existencilism," "Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall," and "Cut It Out." His latest, "Wall and Piece," was published by Random House and has sold more than two hundred and fifty thousand copies.
As his renown has grown, Banksy has parlayed his knack for reducing ideas to simple visual elements into what a critic recently termed "red nose rebellion." He is both a lefty and a tweaker of lefty pieties. At a London antiwar demonstration in 2003, he distributed signs that read "I Don't Believe In Anything. I'm Just Here for the Violence." Later, he produced revisionist oil paintings (Mona Lisa with a yellow smiley face, a pastoral landscape surrounded by crime-scene tape) and, disguised in a trenchcoat and fake beard, installed them, respectively, in the Louvre and the Tate. For the Natural History Museum, it was Banksus militus vandalus, a taxidermy rat equipped with a miniature can of spray paint. In 2005, Banksy travelled to the West Bank, where he painted the security fence at Bethlehem with a trompe-l'oeil scene of a hole in the concrete barrier, revealing a glittering beach on the other side; it looked as if someone had dug through to paradise. Banksy sometimes satirizes even his own sanctimony. "I have no interest in ever coming out," he has said. "I figure there are enough self-opinionated assholes trying to get their ugly little faces in front of you as it is." Still, he posts news clips on his Web site, alongside video footage of successful stunts."