New Orleans has historically been known as one America’s most diverse cities, but people might not know that our rich history was greatly impacted by a hybrid third race between the French and Spanish Colonial slave masters and their slaves. This is the focus of a new exhibit coming to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art this January. “New Orleans Free People of Color and Their Legacy” uses contemporary portraits by artist José Torres Tama to shed new light on particular individuals who were prominent figures in the evolution of this hybrid culture.
The project has been in development for over four years and began through the Ogden Museum’s educational outreach program called “Artists and Sense of Place,” which put local artists in New Orleans public schools for one month. “José lives in the Marigny, and he realized that the church, the school, and all the places around him had all this historic significance for free people of color. Some of which was known and a lot of which wasn’t,” says exhibit curator David Houston. “He undertook this project of research with the kids at McDonogh 15, and discovered Edmond Dede, Marie Laveau, and others.”
“Les gens de couleur libre,” which literally means free colored persons, are considered the first multicultural people in the United States and also happen to be native to Louisiana. “New Orleans has a unique distinction of having free people of color during the dark days of slavery.” says José Torres Tama. “Because of the French and the Spanish mixing with the African mulatto women, this third race was born, and these liaisons were tolerated yet illegal. But nonetheless they occurred, and through these arrangements, there was an understanding that whatever offspring came from these liaisons were born into freedom.”
These “free people of color” contributed culturally, politically, and artistically to the legacy of New Orleans in the 18th and 19th centuries. Through his research, Torres Tama found archival photographs that became the inspiration for his expressionistic portraits. “Two of the people who I’ve depicted based on these archival photographs are Creole free men of color musicians from this very interesting past, “ says Torres Tama. “One being Edmond Dede, who was a child prodigy violinist, and the other being Basile Barres, who has the distinction of being the only slave to have a piece a composition published while he was still in bondage at the age of seventeen.”
The exhibit runs at the Ogden Museum of Art from January 10 through April 13, 2008. For more information on artist José Torres Tama and his current and upcoming projects, visit TorresTama.com