When Jana Napoli returned to New Orleans two months after Hurricane Katrina and the collapse of the levee system had ravaged her native city, she found the sodden and damaged remnants of people’s lives cast out on the sidewalks. Though they were signs of a painful salvaging of life by returning inhabitants taking stock of their homes, they represented as well the radical obliteration of their past. Every day for the next four months, Napoli wandered amid the rotting and moldy debris of the city’s neighborhoods, first instinctively and then deliberately, gathering household drawers. The 710 drawers that she retrieved, from dressers, kitchen cabinets, desks and bureaus, empty of their contents but suffused with memories, are the bricks of this installation.
Napoli constructs her installation in three ways. When it stands as a wall, 8 feet tall and stretching as much as 192 feet, Floodwall is a monument of immeasurable loss; when it lies in serried array on the floor like tombstones in a cemetery, it is a memorial, a sentinel of the past; and when it is configured as a room that envelops the spectator in close intimacy, it has the unutterable loneliness of deep mourning. At all times, this is Napoli’s floodwall against the erasure of the ordinary people and the everyday rhythms of life from which great cities are formed. Click to see these configurations.
If the floodwalls of the levee system did not contain the rising waters, this one does not restrain its city either. Its stories spill out of these empty drawers still redolent with the textures of daily life — quotidian systems of order, sly and delicious secrets, dusty neglect, absent-minded forgetfulness, beloved mementos and childhood treasures. Napoli labeled each drawer with the address from which it was retrieved. Over the past three years, she and her colleague, Rondell Crier, have numbered, photographed and catalogued each drawer to create an interactive databasewhich contains information about its condition, its provenance as well as the fate of the flooded household from which it was discarded. They have also begun to collect oral histories from the original drawer owners, a project that is on-going and grows daily wider with the migration of New Orleanians to other parts of the country. The audio recordings of these interviews form part of the exhibition, releasing poignant yet unsettling presences into this immense installation of aching absence.
About the Artist
Jana Napoli was born and raised in New Orleans and continues to live there. Originally trained as a painter, Napoli is a mixed-media artist and a creative entrepreneur deeply concerned with civic and community engagement. In 1988, she founded the internationally acclaimed non-profit arts and social service organization, YA/YA Inc. (Young Aspirations/Young Artists) which seeks to empower artistically talented inner-city youth to find their professional life in creative self-expression, and served as its full-time Creative Director for 12 years. Napoli has exhibited both nationally and internationally and has received several awards for her work, among them, the Oprah Winfrey ‘Use your life award” (2002) and a President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities award (1999). Floodwall continues her long-standing dedication to the intersection of art and community-building but also integrates the themes of the unspoken and the unseen that are part of her own artistic preoccupations.
Digital Database and Technical Direction: Rondell Crier