On February 3, 2023, five women dancers and cultural leaders gathered on Tulane’s campus for a panel on “African-American Women Affecting the Arts in New Orleans,” as part of a larger biannual program, Women and Movement, which highlights the diverse cultural, professional, and community work of New Orleanian and Gulf South women. The event was organized by the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South and Dr. John “Ray” Proctor, professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance.
Panelists were Ausettua Amor Amenkum, Mariama Curry, Jarrell Hamilton, Kai Knight and Greer Goff Mendy, all of whose full credentials can be found below in more detail. Moderating was Lauren Turner-Hines, creative director of No Dream Deferred, who guided conversations around representation, exploitation, mentorship, and the history of the creative arts in New Orleans. The speakers connected on personal and professional levels alike, speaking in front of an intimate, passionate audience while seeking solutions for long-held frustrations like lack of infrastructure and funding support for arts organizations in New Orleans.
One of the questions posed by Turner-Hines was regarding experiences seeing Black art commodified in the city of New Orleans, which given time of year, immediately brought Mardi Gras into the conversation. This was particularly with regard to Black Masking Indians, who have paraded for over two centuries and are central to the city’s history of Carnival. The women spoke of how members of these tribes put their own money, physicality and intellectual property into these performances year after year (as well as all year) without any expectation of compensation. But if a photographer gets a photo of the performance, they may earn a significant amount of money, and usually the subject never sees a dime.
The women also spoke to their location at Tulane, acknowledging the roles played by former Department of Theatre & Dance Chair Barbara Hayley and Carolyn Barber-Pierre, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs, in their time with the university. Amor Amenkum recalled the day Hayley called to offer her a teaching position on campus after seeing her perform, explaining that “From that one chance, that one opportunity, it opened up decades of teaching over here that I’m grateful for because it has allowed me not just to touch the lives of young people, but I have access to space where people can practice.”
A notable frustration within the entire room was the critical component of physical space. While the lack of funding for current or new spaces to be created was discussed, the greater concern was the absence of existing Black-owned spaces that should be maintained and operate to build generational wealth—which was echoed by several. When support for culture bearers is lacking and women of African descent in the dance community of New Orleans are still expected to perform culturally for outside visitors, what is the solution? As Mendy so eloquently put it, "Culture doesn't make people, people make the culture."
Rebecca Snedeker, Clark Executive Director of the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South agrees, and emphasizes, "We continue these annual panel discussions to introduce the Tulane community to arts leaders of New Orleans, and to make space for truth-telling around their lived experiences and challenges. Gathering women arts leaders by discipline and going deep in dialogue reveals shared dynamics that then can lead to revelation and organized actions. This year's event—featuring powerful dancers and leaders—continues this tradition."
The way New Orleans is sold to the world, it's a ‘culturally’ rich city, and when you use the word 'culture,' (people) immediately think 'culture, free.
- Ausettua Amor Amenkum — Big Queen, Washitaw Nation Big Indian Tribe, Artistic Director and Founding Member, Kumbuka African Drum and Dance Collective; Adjunct Professor, Tulane Department of Theater and Dance
- Mariama Curry — Founder/Artistic Director of Culu and N’Kafu Traditional African Dance Companies
- Jarrell Hamilton —Founder/Artistic Director of Jarrell Hamilton, Inc.; Director of De La Sol Dance Company; and Alum and Adjunct Professor, Tulane Department of Theater and Dance
- Kai Knight — Artistic Director, Silhouette Dance Ensemble and Breathe!; choreographer/performer/instructor, Kumbula African Drum and Dance Collective, Bamboula 2000; Adjunct Professor, Tulane Department of Theater and Dance
- Greer Goff Mendy — Director, Tekrema Center for Art and Culture
This event was supported by the Department of Theatre and Dance, the Africana Studies Program, TU Libraries, and the School of Liberal Arts. For more information on the Women and Movement series, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please visit Women and Movement #11: African American Affecting the Arts in New Orleans: DANCE to view this series.