JTF (just the facts): Published by Anthology Editions in 2020 (here). Hardcover, 216 pages, with 169 color reproductions. Includes texts by the artist, Sam Feather, and Anne Gisleson. Also includes oral histories by Rachel Breunlin of the Neighborhood Story Project. Cover art by Pauly Lingerfelt; cover design by Alex Tults. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: The work of Akasha Rabut, a New Orleans based photographer and educator, examines the American South, its culture, and its traditions. Rabut moved to New Orleans from California about ten years ago, after visiting the city with her friends and immediately falling in love with it. She was inspired by the resurgent post-Katrina culture, particularly the “people’s resiliency and ability to continue celebrating their city and heritage,” and has spent the past decade documenting New Orleans and its communities. Rabut was approached by Anthology Editions, the book publishing arm of Brooklyn based label Anthology Recordings which focuses on “music-related or counter-cultural subject matter,” and her series was recently published in a photobook entitled Death Magick Abundance.
Death Magick Abundance is a square format book. The title and artist’s name appear in the middle in a glossy red font, with an elaborate pattern of ornamental purple stars around it. The art for the book cover was created by Pauly Lingerfelt, a New Orleans artist and tattooist, and the artwork hints at some magic mosaic likely inspired by Haitian folk art. Rabut says that the title of the book represents the way she sees New Orleans and the cycle of life: “Things die in order to grow, which is magic. And when growth happens, abundance is inevitable.”
The photobook has a simple design, aimed at keeping our full attention on its content. With just a few exceptions, there are two photographs per spread, and the visual flow is interrupted with yellow pages with texts. A portrait of a young man in a red t-shirt standing outside with a finger held to his lips opens the book. This gesture suggests that we are about to learn a secret, and indeed, Rabut’s series offers a unique window into the life of New Orleans.
The book brings together a diverse parade of characters who represent the distinctive resilient spirit of New Orleans. In one group of images, Rabut focuses on the city’s tradition of second line parades – while the “first line” includes the brass band, the family, or the organization being honored, the second line includes the people who have joined the parade in support. She shows us a range of revelers, dancers, and partiers, including various folks with big snakes; two men from the Cheyenne tribe in striking yellow outfits; people sitting outside a house in beach chairs with a massive sound system; and a dog with frizzy hair dyed pink. Rabut is close with many of the people she has photographed, and her images are full of heartiness, tenderness, and respect.
Rabut also features several lesser known subcultures of New Orleans. The most striking photographs are portraits of the members of the Caramel Curves, an all female, all African-American biker gang. Cofounder Shanika “Tru” McQuietor says that the club is based on “women’s empowerment: women knowing that they can do something that people thought they could not do.” They wear stilettos, pink shirts or leather jackets, white leggings with pink side stripes, and helmets ridged with fluorescent pink mohawks, and when they stunt, their tires send off plumes of magenta-hued smoke. Many of the images capture women smiling and posing on their big bikes, alone or in groups, often surrounded by matching clouds of smoke or dark tire skid marks on the pavement. The photographs consistently reflect the energy, confidence and supportive camaraderie of these women.
Another series of portraits documents the Southern Riderz, a group of urban cowboys who ride through the city’s streets on horseback every weekend. (This unlikely activity recalls a 2017 exhibit at the Studio Museum in Harlem called Black Cowboy, reviewed here.) In most of the images, they pose with their horses in urban environments, a few rearing up with dramatic energy. There are group portraits, a group shot at a gas station, and even one of a rider looking at his phone while sitting on his horse; there is also a shot of female bike riders together with a member of the Southern Riderz, connecting the two communities.
Rabut is aware of her position as a photographer and an outsider, and focuses on making sure her work impacts the community in a positive way as much as possible. She is the founder of the Creative Council, a mentoring program for young people in New Orleans pursuing careers in the arts, and she also worked to ensure this photobook was affordable. Rabut’s series brings to mind the work of Jono Rotman who used a similarly collaborative approach to document the subculture of the notorious Mongrel Mob in Mongrelism (reviewed here).
Rabut notes that “I see photography as a very extractive thing so it’s really important to me to give back to the people who allow me to photograph them.” Awareness, humility, and sensitivity are present throughout Rabut’s approach, and ultimately, Death Magick Abundance is an authentic celebration of New Orleans and its spirited people.
Collector’s POV: Akasha Rabut does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).