Sunday, October 16, 2011

'Waveland: A Meditation' Exhibition Opens

More photographs from the exhibition are available on Flickr.
Location, Space, Identity

Valerie Oliveiro is up front - she's not from Waveland, Mississippi. It's not who she is.

A year and a half ago, she'd never even heard of the small town that was the actual ground zero for both Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill.
She considers herself a tourist in some ways.  But residents of Waveland reminded her that many people know the Gulf only as tourists, "and that's ok." It was part of the local economy and mindset about the town.

When she began the project a year and a half ago, she had two words in mind - location and space.

Originally, she wanted to work with these concepts in Lousiana, but on the way through Mississippi, she heard about Waveland for the first time on the radio, and later from a friend who worked relief in Baton Rouge.

Her friend used to steal Red Cross supplies and take them to Waveland, returning to Baton Rouge before dawn.

Val felt drawn to Waveland, so she stopped in for a visit.

Why Waveland?

The story of New Orleans is part of our national story now. Americans have heard about issues of governmental irresponsibility, the horrors of the stadium, the hubris of levies, and questions around what "Nature" is telling us by ravaging our manmade cities.

Racial inequality was able to rise in public awareness as media displayed how the poorest neighborhoods in New Orleans with majority black populations were the hardest hit. Katrina is legendary.

But Waveland is a smaller town, and Val speculates that demographics plays a part in the media silence around its suffering.

She found that the mostly white, middle class folks of Waveland wouldn't have wanted to be in the spotlight, even if it was available to them. The people of Waveland are private. The guilt they felt prevented them from wanting their loss recognized in the same way as New Orleans' Ninth Ward, for instance. Val says, "There's a silence around the cultural disaster there."

The BP oil spill was a cataclysmic insult added to injury. Rebuilding from a category 5 hurricane is a slow process anyway, but those who have made it through any of the economic turmoil have to create their livelihoods and homes in a new way.

"People build their houses on 26' stilts now," Val says. "They look down on you from their porches and wonder what you're doing."

Valerie Oliveiro presents her work.
The Photographs

The reality of who has returned and who hasn't (and many haven't) is written all over the landscape. "It's how we organize the land we own," Val says. And this is what she captured in 10 carefully selected photographs, which she describes as "meditationally, a distillation replicated several times."

Many of the long-exposure photographs were taken between the hours of midnight and dawn. Her meditation on this landscape goes far to accomplish the same as her friend who delivered stolen first aid supplies... a secretive redistribution of healing to a place that was brutalized and then ignored.

Val tells the audience gathered at the Y's Murphy gallery that if you google Waveland, you see photos of sandy beaches and tourist attractions... and then you see utter devastation. The juxtaposition is almost too stark. She wants to add her photographs to this story, which is why she considers them to be relevant even years after media coverage has dissipated. Continuing the story in this way is her message about recovery and loss.

Her photographs are so quiet. You can peer into them and find details or find yourself there in the South, soaking up darkness. They make you feel an empty loneliness. But true to the title of the exhibition, the emptiness is spacious and meditative.

When the layers and meanings of place are stripped bare, when the devastation is untold or forgotten, the most powerful message in her photographs is "This place exists."

Prints are available on Valerie Oliveiro's website: 

Exhibition description and more about Art @ the Y:

No comments: