How Can We Reclaim the Story of a Place?
Architects V. Mitch McEwen and Emanuel Admassu craft alternative visions of architecture in New Orleans and Atlanta.
May 27, 2021
It wasn't until my early twenties that I was able to visit the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in my hometown of Jacksonville, Florida—and it’s not out of a lack of interest or time. I never visited the Cummer because no one told me it even existed. Between repeat field trips to historical sites like Fort Caroline and the Museum of Science History, none of my teachers ever thought to take us to North Florida’s only art museum.
When I reflect now on my relationship to museums, I carry feelings of not belonging. Because like many places across the United States, art museums in particular have a history of refusing Black and brown people.
Installation view of Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 27–May 31, 2021
R:R, or “Republica:Reconstructed,” is V. Mitch McEwen’s project that considers an alternative outcome to the German Coast Uprising of 1811, during which nearly 125 enslaved people marched to New Orleans, Louisiana, setting fire to the prisons, also known as sugar plantations, along their path. McEwen uses this historical event as a launching point to ask, “What architecture would Black people have already invented if we had been truly free for the last 210 years?”
Based on a conceptual framework developed by New Orleans–based artist and collaborator Kristina Kay Robinson, R:R proposes an architectural imagination of Republica, the capital city of an independent Black nation-state founded from the success of the 1811 Rebellion.
What architecture would Black people have already invented if we had been truly free for the last 210 years?
V. Mitch McEwen
When asked to describe her vision for Republica, Robinson responds with lucious poetry: “Republica smells like rain, oud, bakhoor, trinity seasoning, frankincense, coffee, and fresh bread baking. It is hot and wet. People live on land and water. It is advanced architecturally, though what constitutes the basis of ‘advanced’ might be different than in the rest of the continent. Their system for building on land and water prioritizes the environment’s integrity. ...There is always a lot happening in public space. Socializing, learning, working and celebration is kind of a continuum.”
Evoking this rich description, R:R brings together architectural models of multiple scales, film and moving image, photography, and textiles to illustrate the different textures of Republica. Digital drawings show foundational structures equipped to collect flood waters; public spaces that have been elevated to heights that protect people’s homes and communities. Felt wrapped around bamboo and the braided plastic of swampland photographs indicate one way we can be (and have been) the builders of our own communities despite the continued displacement of Black people from public landscapes and architectural histories.
Together, R:R’s components offer new ways of seeing New Orleans—as a city teeming with legacies of Black resistance and the possibilities of liberation.
Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America is on view through May 31. You can now enroll in MoMA’s new online course, Reimagining Blackness and Architecture. Through original films, audio interviews, and short readings, the course will introduce learners to the ways in which Black artists, architects, scholars, and writers have responded to these histories of violence and exclusion to create new ways of being, reimagining the spaces that have refused us.
The exhibition is made possible by Allianz, MoMA’s partner for design and innovation.
Volkswagen of America is proud to be MoMA’s lead partner of education.
MoMA Audio is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.
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