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July 30, 2008

‘Signs of Life’ and the undercurrent of NOLA culture

“I’d like to tell the story they want told.” 

Charles Silver has found himself called to the African Americans of New Orleans. His photographs in “Signs of Life: Subcultures of New Orleans Post-Katrina” are about the Black Carnival (Carnaval Noir), a celebration that starts in January and ends just before Mardi Gras, and focus on certain components of the African-American parades, such as the Skull and Bones Gang (“Skeletons”), Black Mardi Gras Indian Tribes (with their costumes of beads and feathers) and brass bands. 

In the broader sense, though, Silver’s photographs are about survival. 

“Gate Keeper Ronald W. Lewis and Big Chief Bruce ‘Sunpie’ Barnes of the North Side Skull and Bones Gang” by Charles Silv: Part of the “Signs of Life: Subcultures of New Orleans Post-Katrina” exhibit at the Cressman Center for Visual Art Gallery, Hite Art Institute, University of Louisville.
“Gate Keeper Ronald W. Lewis and Big Chief Bruce ‘Sunpie’ Barnes of the North Side Skull and Bones Gang” by Charles Silv: Part of the “Signs of Life: Subcultures of New Orleans Post-Katrina” exhibit at the Cressman Center for Visual Art Gallery, Hite Art Institute, University of Louisville.

“A lot of material is relatively unknown to the majority of the public,” he tells LEO Weekly. “Things arose because of segregation. Mardi Gras is not my main interest; there’s so much more than Mardi Gras that is unique to New Orleans. These things feed out to the larger culture, like R&B and jazz. We don’t know where the source is. Well, it’s here.”

Silver hadn’t been to New Orleans before this year. He had wanted to help after Hurricane Katrina flooded 80 percent of the city on Aug. 29, 2005, but found it difficult to volunteer, to penetrate the (dis)organization of relief efforts. Then he read about Andy Levin’s Mardi Gras 360 Degrees, a Web photography project that began in January to document the city’s recovery. 

Through that project he met Ronald W. Lewis, historian and gatekeeper of the North Side Skull and Bones Gang. They had an instant connection. “He got the ball rolling,” says Silver. “I wanted to know what stories Ronald wanted told.” 

Silver’s plan now is to divide his time between Louisville and New Orleans, to continue photographing the endangered traditions of disenfranchised groups. “Soon I’ll try to set up a place there and probably spend about half my time here and four to five months a year down there,” he says. New Orleans has become home to him, as it “felt real familiar and comfortable, felt like I’ve been there before.”

During the Aug. 1 First Friday Gallery Trolley Hop, the Cressman Center will be showing the film “All On a Mardi Gras Day” by Royce Osborn at 7 p.m. Osborn is a member of Skull and Bones who has filmed the history of the Black Carnival.  

“Second Chief — Mohawk Hunters” by Charles Silver: Part of the “Signs of Life: Subcultures of New Orleans Post-Katrina” exhibit at the Cressman Center for Visual Art Gallery, Hite Art Institute, University of Louisville.
“Second Chief — Mohawk Hunters” by Charles Silver: Part of the “Signs of Life: Subcultures of New Orleans Post-Katrina” exhibit at the Cressman Center for Visual Art Gallery, Hite Art Institute, University of Louisville.



‘Signs of Life:

Subcultures of New Orleans Post-Katrina’

Through Aug. 9

Cressman Center for Visual Art Gallery

Hite Art Institute, University of Louisville

100 E. Main St.

852-0288

www.art.louisville.edu