- Echoing AbundancePublic Art and Mutual Aid in Pandemic New Orleans
New Orleans is a city of murals. The walls of the city—stores, abandoned buildings, electric utility boxes, warehouses, highway underpasses—are swathed in images, stories, and dreams for the city. Just as New Orleans has a distinct sound (to me, of trumpets, car horns, feet stomping, the roar under the elevated I-10 highway), it has a similar optical noise that encompasses the visual landscape. Public art tells the story of New Orleans and its people, at every turn.
In the weeks after the initial COVID-19 stay-at-home order was issued in New Orleans, the city went quiet. Gone were the cacophonous sounds of Mardi Gras, replaced with an intense, reverberating quiet. Even Bourbon Street was empty; the city had transformed into a ghost town overnight. New Orleans was struggling. The virus was spreading rapidly across Louisiana, and cases in the city were some of the highest in the nation. The stark inequalities in New Orleans were painfully laid bare for all to see. The underfunded public health infrastructure in the city couldn’t support rising cases. COVID-19 was spreading at rapid speed in jails and prisons. Houseless individuals had no place to isolate. Hopelessness was leaking out everywhere, and the quiet in the city was resounding.
Six months later, in December, driving down Washington Avenue near Cajun Seafood, a bright mural emerged in my line of sight. It stands a story high, covering the side of the Fast Stop Meat Market and overlooking an empty parking lot. Three bright fists—blue, purple, and pink—rise out of an alligator-occupied garden. Butterflies flit between the clenched fists, and beneath it, a banner waves, reading: “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” (Figure 1).
Observing the mural, completed by artist Zac Maras in July, one can almost hear the echoes of the protests that wrapped through the streets this summer and fall. Following the horrific killing of George Floyd, [End Page 97] protests shattered the reverberating quiet in New Orleans, and residents poured into the streets to advocate for a city without policing, alongside protections for workers, accessible healthcare, and an end to evictions. The butterflies, darting between saturated fists, appear as a symbol of the transformation that might grow from the fertile ground of protest. Maras’s mural stands as a testament to the people of New Orleans coming together to envision and demand change, arms outstretched, united.
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New Orleans is, of course, no stranger to catastrophe or hardship. Nor is it a stranger to the values that have kept the city afloat during difficult times: community, care, and connection. New Orleans has a long history of mutual aid, centered around historically Black Mutual Aid and Pleasure Clubs. As the pandemic has reinforced long-existing inequalities in the city, new systems of care have formed to support New Orleans’ most vulnerable residents. Since the pandemic began in March, mutual aid networks have erupted in New Orleans, filling the gaps in community needs and giving neighbors the tools to support one another. These networks have emerged as Facebook groups for individuals to offer or request aid, organizations making and distributing meals to houseless [End Page 98] individuals, and individuals sharing plants and seeds for others to grow their own food.
Mutual aid is a political act, not a charitable one. Mutual aid is a project of community care and collective liberation, of working cooperatively to meet the needs of one’s community. Like in many cities across the nation, mutual aid in New Orleans has developed as a radical alternative to abandonment, hopelessness, and despair. Mutual aid operates on the principle that we have the skills and resources to care for one another even when our government can not or will not, and that these acts of care can serve to cultivate abundance and community. These projects begin the work of building a new world where everyone has enough. In New Orleans, public art...