(At right, "Queenie," from the "Organic Watermarks" exhibition on view at Community Folk Art Center (c) Gus Bennett, Jr. Used with permission.)
Gus Bennett, Jr. was heading directly back to New Orleans to get ready to shoot the main stage photos at this year's Essence Music Festival. Internationally known for his entertainment, celebrity and magazine cover photography, Bennett's work has appeared in publications such as "Essence," "Ebony," "Jet," "Upscale" and "Tribe." But his new exhibition is something of a departure and he was happy to chat about that recently over coffee at the Genesee Grande.
Bennett was in town on June 27th for the opening reception at Community Folk Art Center (CFAC) on East Genesee St. of "Organic Watermarks," 22 portraits overlaid with digitally layered images of watermarks on concrete and other surfaces, leaves, textures, fabric, and remnants left behind by Hurricane Katrina. Certain images recur -- the X's marked on buildings when first rescuers checked them for survivors and bodies, a school's water-stained concrete floor, fabrics, even the pattern made by repeating the burner coil of an electric stove. Most of the subjects are women because the subjects self-selected in that way (there is one portrait of a young man in this selection and Bennett says ten altogether in the thousand images he's shot for this project). Many of the subjects have disrobed above the waist, which Bennett says they also chose to do for this project.
This is actually Bennett's second trip to Syracuse for a CFAC opening. He was here in April 2007 for an unusual gallery exhibition of the restoration effort that occurred after Katrina's flood waters -- and then Hurricane Rita's -- engulfed the 9th ward campus of the Southern University of New Orleans, which housed a collection of about 1,000 African antiquities. Many of these were sacred objects. In an interview for Women's Voices Radio at that time, curator Linda Hill told me that Bennett was her first choice when she sought a photojournalist to document her rescue and restoration project, which took 18 months. Hill said the collection had been underwater for 55 days when the celebrity photographer waded right into the muck with her. That exhibition's link to Syracuse was New Orleans native Redell Hearn, a recent museum studies graduate student at SU, who was also working with Hill on the antiquities restoration. After Katrina, CFAC's director Khelli Willetts had telephoned Hearn to make sure she was alright and in a second phone call offered CFAC space for the eventual exhibition.