Death Magick Abundance: three words which, according to American photographer Akasha Rabut, perfectly encapsulate New Orleans and provide the title of the work she has devoted to the city. “Witnessing how the people of New Orleans adorn themselves in a dizzying array of hallucinatory fashion, observing how music and style disseminate from the streets instead of from a supposed elite influencer class, and cultivating friendships with the people who comprise the heart of this book—these experiences have forever changed my life,” she writes in her afterward.
The candy pink on the cover and the stars by local artist Pauly Lingerfelt that adorn it set the tone: this is still a post-Katrina New Orleans, granted, but a glowing one. “All of my photos are inspired by the post Katrina culture, by people’s resiliency and ability to continue celebrating their city and heritage,” she explains. “Even though Katrina was naturally devastating and also weaponized, used as a mechanism to shut down the public school system and dispose of public housing, people brought New Orleans back to life; that has driven my photography for the past decade.”
Street parties as a social catalyst
A compilation of this decade of images, Death Magick Abundance is an ode to the people of New Orleans and to a distinctive culture characterized by laughter and celebrations—a culture of “second lines,” i.e. improvised Sunday parades whose ranks swell as they march through the city, picking up new participants with extravagant costumes, instruments and broad smiles along the way. “Second lines happen every Sunday. It’s a social aid and pleasure club who celebrate on Sundays. Second line culture is super important because dancing in New Orleans was illegal for black people before slaves were freed. They were only allowed to dance on Sundays,” the photographer says.
The structure of the book echoes this constant effervescence. “It’s a loose narrative of the city of New Orleans that I wanted to take you through, to give a picture of the place and of the beautiful thriving culture within.” At the beginning and end of the book are photographs of the city and its people—surprising, colorful scenes and bodies in motion in a variation of curves that give the book a heady rhythm.
In the midst of this festive vibe, two lengthy chapters dwell on alternative groups: the Caramel Curves, a group of black girl bikers decked out in high heels, and the Southern Riderz, a group of urban cowboys inspired by the Buffalo Soldiers. Beyond their performative and undeniably spectacular aspect, these groups display above all a social ambition: the horses are a lesson in empowerment, the roaring engines are a means of raising funds for the most disadvantaged.” When we started out, we just wanted to be these cool biker chicks. A couple of years in, we started doing more things with the community. We’ve helped prepare meals and donated supplies to Covenant House, and we support Habitat for Humanity. We’ve done coat drives and prom giveaways for less-fortunate families,” says Shanika “Tru” McQuieto, the co-founder of Caramel Curves. Her interview was taken from the archives of another local initiative, co-founded by Rachel Breunlin and called The Neighborhood Story Project, whose mission is to compile a fund of nuanced life histories about and from Louisiana.
New Orleans Unveiled
The dynamism of Rabut’s images serves the same purpose of telling a story about New Orleans that greatly differs from the one-sided, often cliché image prevalent in the press and among tourists. “What the media shows is so different from what I’ve experienced here. What we saw on the news after Katrina hit and basically wiped out the whole entire city was only dark and tragic. And that’s not what’s happening down here; what’s happening is a community of people who are all fighting to survive in this place.”
New Orleans is located in an area prone to natural disasters that is eroding irreversibly. Built on a swamp, it sinks further down into the ground one third of an inch each year and is regularly ravaged by hurricanes. On top of that, there are the social challenges of a non-existent public school system and a minimum hourly wage of $ 7.25. Nevertheless, “the culture is proud and vibrant, and it’s a great example of a place that’s for the people, by the people, even though our government is oppressing them.” They are reclaiming their culture and their land with an energy that will make a lasting mark.
For at a time when water threatens to make the city disappear forever, this way of living together, this way of enjoying each day as if it were the last, to make the most of your experiences with other, is inspiration for the future. As journalist Anne Gisleson writes at the end of the book: “Before we commit to living with water, we need to confront how we live with one another.”
By Laurence Cornet
Death Magick Abundance, Akasha Rabut
Published by Anthology Editions