To celebrate the bicentennial of statehood for Louisiana as well as the official subdivision of the Moreau-Prevost-Tremé plantation into Faubourg Tremé in 1812, historian/author Roulhac Toledano has organized an exhibition entitled Creolizing Currents: Bambara: From the Senegal and Gambia Rivers in French Colonial Africa to the Alabama and Mississippi Rivers in French Colonial Louisiana, 1719-1763, with Art from Their Homeland in Mali. The objective of the exhibition is to present an aesthetically significant historical and educational investigation of the ethnic origins of the earliest Africans brought to Louisiana. The exhibition will attribute specific African retentions to the specific African cultures of the original Africans brought to Louisiana, primarily the Bambara since the Wolof and Mandingo have few traditional artifacts that are collected.
The exhibition will focus on the culture and traditions of those captifs brought to Louisiana on slave ships between 1719 and 1743 during the French Colonial Period. Terminology for this exhibition will be, because of the time frame and subject, French Colonial. These men and women were what the French records referred to as Bambara (Bamana), Malinka (Mandinga), Diaulouf (Wolof), Fon, and Ewe. Drawn principally from the Senegal River basin, the Gambia and the Niger Rivers region in West Africa, they were loaded aboard French ships that had sailed first from St. Malo, Lorient, La Rochelle, Bordeaux and other French ports. These French ships then sailed with their captifs, variously, from Arguin, Gorée, Elmina, Whydah (Juda or Ouidah) Cape Verde and Port Louis, landing at Ile Dauphine (Massacre Island) on the Mississippi Sound south of Mobile, at Biloxi, or at the Balise on the Mississippi, after which most were brought to New Orleans. The first French ship, that of Captain Herpin, was instructed by French Governor Bienville in New Orleans to purchase captifs in Judah; they were set ashore first at Ile Dauphine in present day Alabama in 1719. Thus the large figures, Gu warriors and Asen altars in the exhibition represent the Fon captifs, among the first slaves in Mobile and New Orleans.
Who were the Africans who arrived during the French Colonial Era? We have detailed ship and cargo records about their arrival, first compiled by Gwendolyn Midlo-Hall. Between 1719 and 1743, altogether 25 slave ships made the voyage from the west coast of Africa to Louisiana. Eighteen ships sailed from Senegal, six ships from Benin/Dahomey and one ship from Kongo. Most were from the Senegambian region, of Bambara (Bamana) ethnic background and they spoke Bambara. Many of these Senegambian people were rice farmers, used to a basic diet of seafood and rice. The people of the Senegal River and Niger River basin had been rice farmers for several thousands of years and introduced their basic staple to Louisiana. In the marshes and wetlands of Southern Louisiana, Europeans could not cultivate the grains they were used to (wheat, barley, rye, oats) and became dependent on African agricultural expertise. The main diet in Louisiana is, to this day, rice-based, and was introduced by this early African population (e.g. red beans and rice; gumbo; jambalaya; crawfish etouffée).
The exhibition will be mounted at the New Orleans African American Museum in historic Faubourg Tremé. It will be housed in the Villere Gallery, a historic nineteenth-century double shotgun building transformed in the interior into a beautiful large two-room gallery space. Ritual African art (head dresses, sculpture, textiles, utility objects, ironwork, etc.) from the Bambara and Fon reflecting the cultural, scientific and spiritual heritage of these African groups will be displayed in cases. Along the walls will be reproduction maps, 18th-century manuscripts and documents illustrating French Colonial African and French Colonial New Orleans commonalities of tradition and culture that extended through the centuries.
Creolizing Currents: Bambara in French Colonial Louisiana, 1719-1763 will include approximately 28 objects of African art loaned from the collections of the Robbins Center, Asif Shaikh, Gilbert Jackson, and David Ackley, Rand Cheadle, and Mona Gavigan and Kitten and Mark Grote of New Orleans. These original African art objects will be contextualized by reproductions of documents and images depicting the African presence in French colonial Louisiana, thus documenting the continuity of African heritage in early Louisiana.
Funding has been arranged with assistance from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Foundation and the Arts Council of New Orleans.
Scholars and Consultants
Most of the objects in this exhibition are on loan from the Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication. The Robbins Center was established in Washington DC. in 1963 by Warren M. Robbins, a former state department official and cultural attaché in Germany and Austria, as a prototype educational institute, integrating the insights of the social sciences and the arts to foster both inter-cultural and interracial understanding. The first major undertaking of the Robbins Center was the establishment in 1964 of the Museum of African Art on Capitol Hill, created from a block of houses on Capitol Hill, including the residence of Frederick Douglass. In 1979, the Museum of African Art became the Smithsonian's 13th museum. Relocated to the National Mall in 1987, it was renamed the National Museum of African Art. Warren Robbins passed away in 2008. His widow, Lydia Puccinelli Robbins, former curator at the National Museum of African Art, manages the Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication and has arranged the loan of art objects displayed in this exhibition.
New Orleans and Pelican Publishing Company readers are familiar with Roulhac Toledano and her books. Working with photographer and writer Betsy Swanson and Mary Louise Christovich, she developed the New Orleans Architecture Series, and she co-authored five books in the series with other authors Sally Kittredge Evans Reeves and Pat Holden and volunteers, besides their venerable mentors, architects Samuel Wilson and Bernard Lemann. Volume V: The Esplanade Ridge won the Society of Architectural Historians' award for the "most distinguished work of Scholarship in the History of Architecture published by a North American Scholar November 1, 1975-October 31, 1977." Louisiana State University Press published Roulhac's first biography in 1972 — on southern artist, William Aiken Walker, republished in full color by Pelican in 2008. The International Furnishings and Design Association presented Roulhac with their Trailblazer Award in 2002 for significant contributions to the design industry. She has had a dozen works published on port cities and southern architecture and art.
Over four decades, she published some 14 books on Southern Art and Architecture and hundreds of articles, in addition to curating art exhibitions at the Louisiana State Museum and the New Orleans Museum of Art that served as catalysts for the revival of southerners' interest in their own art and architecture. Along the way she won an International Book Award from the American Institute of Architects for her National Trust Guide to New Orleans, followed by the National Trust Guide to Savannah. Among her articles was one on Warren Robbins, written for Washington Roll Call. Subsequently she compiled Warren Robbins' Epistolary Biography.
As Warren Robbins wrote in his "Original Prospectus for the Museum of African Art," September 1963, "If widespread misconceptions about African culture can be supplanted in the public awareness by historically grounded knowledge of its past richness and by public understanding of the meaning of its cultural forms (sculpture, dance, folklore, etc.) the [African American] struggle for equality will be greatly enhanced."