A Tourist In Africatown, Alabama

While looking for things to do in Mobile, Alabama, on itself an important place in the history of both the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement, and considered the birthplace of Mardi Gras, I stumble upon the remarkable story of Africatown. In 1860, the last ship with enslaved people strands in the harbor of Mobile. A successful bet proved that more than 50 years after the abolition of international slave trade (1808), it was possible to purchase and hide 110 enslaved Africans in a specially build (schooner) boat named Clotilda, and bring them to the US. Once on land the last slaves of African descend were split up for the course of the Civil War that broke loose almost immediately after their arrival (1860-1865). 60 people were kept on a piece of land owned by Timothy Meaher, who had arranged the illegal expedition. Once they were freed at the end of the Civil War they first tried to get back to Africa. When it became clear that that was not an option they purchased the land on which they were living from their former slaveholder and decided to build the next best thing: Africatown, the first self-governed city by people of African descend. When the other people who arrived on Clotilda heard about Africatown they all came down and managed for a long time to hold on to their way of living, including language, medicine, law and traditions.

While talking with people in New Orleans where I am doing a residency, it seems nobody has heard of the place, so I decide to go and visit Africatown to see this remarkable place with my own eyes. In the History Museum of Mobile, I get a map of the African American Heritage Trail, highlighting locations and persons who played an important role in African American history. The map includes Africatown, just a few miles out of Mobile, in the middle of an industrial zone. I start with the Welcome Center. What I find is beyond any possible expectation or even imagination. The sign indicating the presence of the Welcome Center is so old and made in such a home made style that the curled up letters nearly fall off. Of the Welcome Center itself only the brick stairs and the metal handrails leading to the door, are still standing. The rest of the building is turned into a pile of rubble. After visiting the Historic Mobile Preservation Society in the Minnie Mitchell Archives Building, I learn that the building was hit hard by hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the following neglect caused it to collapse entirely. Next to the visitor centre a monument was erected in 2007 by two African filmmakers Thomas Azinsou Akodjinou from Benin and Felix Yao Amenyo Eklu from Togo, who placed two busts in honour of Cudjo Lewis, the last slave of African descend and the last survivor of the Clotilda who passed away in 1935, and one of late Prichard Mayor John H. Smith, who took an major role in the establishment of the Africatown Folk Festival.

Africatown welcome sign-web

Africatown welcome center-web

Africatown monument

Both busts were decapitated in the middle of the night in 2012 leaving a very grim monument representing horror rather than honour. This horrible start of my visit is however only the beginning of what I can only describe as a blunt attempt to erase this unique place from history. The graveyard in front of the ruins of the Welcome Center, which includes most of the remains of the original enslaved people arriving on the Clotilda and their direct descendants, is slowly sinking in the ground and being taken over by nature. Graves are disappearing in the ground, some only leaving a cavity in the hillside.

Where are the surviving family members? Why is the city not taking care of its former inhabitants? Some graves contain soldiers who served in World War I an II and many other wars the US was engaged in since. Why do they get a different treatment after serving their country? Is the amended LD 1662, “An Act to Clarify the Laws Governing the Maintenance of Veterans’ Graves,” signed by Governor Paul LePage on the 6th of April 2014 and made law on the 1st of August 2014 not applicable to them? The site looks like a bombed hill, full of craters, where the dead would be turning in their graves if only they could find the space.

Africatown graveyard1-web

Africatown grave1

Africatown grave2

According to LD 1662, municipalities must ensure that grass is “suitably cut and trimmed,” “keep a flat grave marker free of grass and debris,” and “keep the burial place free of fallen trees, branches, vines and weeds.” As defined in law, it should also be considered and treated as an ancient burying ground, as it is a private cemetery established prior to 1880. What a shame!

Africatown graveyard3-web

The fact that the whole graveyard is sinking in the ground and slowly disappearing is made even more visible by the presence of a new graveyard, just next to the old one, levelled nicely at least 6 foot higher up. The contrast is mind-boggling.

Africatown graveyard2-web

I decide to go for a walk into what is left of Africatown. Almost half of the houses are abandoned, caved in or burned to the ground. I can but wonder what happened here. As a tourist destination it could not be more eerie and shocking at the same time. Although people are friendly, it is clear that a white tourist walking in the streets is like seeing a man walk on the moon; a very rare event. Cars drive by slowly and people ask if I’m fine or what I’m doing there. Another survey perhaps to shift taxes or resources around without making any difference on site? ‘An artist from Brussels?’, a woman asks surprised after she pulled over for the second time, ‘you make sure you leave town before dark, ok?’ When I ask her if I should be afraid of the people living there she sais: ‘oh no, it is the people from out of town who come here at night to cause trouble and make it unsafe’.

Africatown houses

Africatown house2

Africatown house1

Why isn’t Africatown part of National Heritage? Or even International Heritage? A UNESCO World Heritage Site perhaps? What am I missing? This should be an attraction or pilgrimage site like Santiago de Compostella, or Lourdes. It should be commemorated both by black and white Americans for it represents the ultimate American (self made!) dream of self-governance. It’s a story of pride and perseverance in the most difficult situation one can be in and it represents a pivotal moment in American history. In 1985, the Alabama legislature officially recognized Africatown as an historic area and made provisions for its establishment as a State park with the name Africatown USA. To please the opposing industrial companies surrounding historic Africatown, a compromise was made pushing Africatown State park 3 miles away from the historical site. It was also decided that there were no original structures left from the early settlers, forcing historic preservation authorities to deny its recognition as official historic district. What an incredible mistake or set-up.

Due to a political shift the plans were never put in motion. Now, in the beginning of 2016, Mobile launched the Africatown Neighbourhood Plan in order to redevelop the site entirely. It looks good on paper, again, but what about the reality?

Africatown Alabama

The inhabitants of Africatown are still fighting against the surrounding industrial lobby. On the16th of March 2016 there was a public hearing, again, to protest against the Above Ground Oil Storage Tank Zoning Amendment. Or plainly put: against the extension of big oil storage tanks in their backyard. Why isn’t Mobile fighting with them, why is Alabama not stepping in, and why is the United States overseeing this unique historic treasure go down the drain by allowing Oil companies to build storage tanks between the town and the river? Fossil fuels are part of the past. There is no need to store more oil since the majority of the already extracted oil worldwide can’t and won’t be used because of irreversible climate change. In addition, last year a turning point took place, making alternative energy become cheaper that fossil fuel energy. Wind power is now the cheapest electricity to produce both in Germany, the U.K. and Australia, even without government subsidies. In California, Chile, Australia, Turkey, Israel, Germany, Japan, Italy, Spain and Greece, solar energy is cheaper than fossil fuel for residential power, as well as Mexico and China for industrial power. Or as Sheikh Ahmed-Zaki Yamani, the veteran Saudi oil minister, said already in 2000: “Thirty years from now there will be a huge amount of oil – and no buyers. Oil will be left in the ground. The Stone Age came to an end, not because we had a lack of stones, and the oil age will come to an end not because we have a lack of oil,”. The end of the Fossil Fuel Age is near; do not invest in a corpse!

Invest in the sun, and not oil, and let it shine on Africatown, a historic landmark that should be part of the future and that will generate more revenue on the long run than any industrial investment.

Maarten Vanden Eynde - Oil Peak4

A volunteer at the Minnie Mitchell archives explains why he never goes to Africatown because it is so tense and he feels he is not supposed to be there. He is doing his yearly duty however to count the homeless people that live under and around the Cochrane–Africatown USA Bridge, that opened in 1991, cutting Africatown in half. I ask him how many there are and he replies: I don’t know, I just count them’.

‘Are you talking about a dozen, hundreds or thousands?’, I insist. ‘Rarther thousands’, he answers reluctantly, ‘for sure also including some the descendents of the original Clotilda arrivals’. I sure hope there is room for them as well after the planned gentrification of Africatown. I hereby pledge to come back as a tourist again in a few years to see if history is repeating itself.

Maarten Vanden Eynde, April 2016

Triangular Trade

For centuries, goods and people, for a long time considered as commodities as well, have been shipped around the world. Triangular Trade focuses on the trade between Africa, Europe and America, i.e. the North Atlantic trade route. For my research I narrowed the triangle down to the Kingdom of Kongo (representing Africa), New Orleans – and the Southern States (representing America), and Belgium (representing Europe). In my search for traces of African culture in the Southern States I am looking at material remains and influences. Besides music (Congo square, Blues, Jazz, Rap and Hip-Hop), religion (Voodoo) and ceremonies (Mardi Gras, Second Line) there are not many physical materials that are still visible today. Cotton however, which due to its economic impact in America and Europe can be considered as the most important driver for the Triangular Trade, is still dominantly present. Fields of cotton are part of the landscape in the Southern States and people wear a wide variety of cotton cloths and pay with paper dollars that are made with cotton. After the invention of the cotton gin and the start of the industrial revolution in the United States, the import of enslaved people peaked, as well as the export of raw cotton to Europe. The finished product was sold around the world, including Africa, completing the triangle in an unsettling way.

American cotton production soared from 156,000 bales in 1800 to more than 4,000,000 bales in 1860 (a bale is a compressed bundle of cotton weighing between 400 and 500 pounds). The number of slaves in America grew from 700,000 in 1790 to 4,000,000 in 1860.


Most plantations are not in use anymore, while some are turned into museums. Together with the other residents of Deltaworkers and the always present assistant Maggie, we visit both Oak Alley plantation, one of the biggest and most known plantations along the Mississippi, which at the time was completely divided in plantation plots, and Whitney plantation, the self-proclaimed ‘only slavery museum in the United States’.

Although I appreciate the effort to tell this very sensitive and complex history, the way in which it is done, raises serious questions. The tour guide is a bored African American with dreadlocks hanging almost to his knees who tells the same jokes over and over again while we visit one memorial after the other. He speaks slow as a teacher in front of an ignorant class full of children and leaves regular spaces that need to be filled by the cleverest and toady student. Most of the time he fills in the blanks himself since nobody speaks up. His claims are sometimes questionable (The only three slave monuments in the United States can be found here) or just false (Mardi Gras Indians came about due to the incorporation of escaped slaves by Indian tribes – a long debunked myth). We are guided past lists of names carved in marble, contemporary monuments, stories and portraits embedded in stone, and again names and dates. To make things more ‘real’, the founder John Cummings, asked a local artist to make statues of enslaved children based on original photographs, that are spread through a church building like mass produced fashion dolls. Some are exactly the same cast coming from the same mould. In their attempt to make them look real, Whitney plantation moved from historical representation to theme park disneyfication. Most of the site consists of fakes, including objects and buildings. New trees and bushes are being planted, paths paved, sprinklers installed, ready to create the scenery for future history telling. I wonder if the emphasis on the interpretation and creation of history is the best way to show that same history. Especially when you take it upon yourself to be the only slavery museum in the US. Would this obscured past not benefit more from an objective approach?

children of whitney high res

After the tour we wait in the shopping mall of slave souvenirs and an old man comes to us and wants to now if we liked the tour. Thinking he is waiting for the next one and wants to get a heads up, we answer his question. When we ask him whether he is taking the next tour, he comes forward as the founder himself! He is intrigued about our honest comments and takes us to a new section of the museum that is under construction. ‘Look here’, he said, while he grasps a hyper realistic black slave head from a big cardboard box. ‘This is for a new sculptural addition in the garden, a special ‘Adult Only’ area where heads will be put on metal spikes, by the same artist who made a children in the church’. We stand there, flabbergasted, with the head in our hands. He is clearly convinced of his approach and leaves us empty handed when he takes back the head after a long monologue about the importance of education and throws it back in the box filled with heads.


A few days later I go with Maaike Gouwenberg to the Cotton Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, where another strange encounter magically presents itself. Along the way we visit Vicksburg, arguably the turning point in the Civil War, opening up the Mississippi to New Orleans and splitting the confederate states in two. On the surrounding hills where the fight for the city lasted several years, the post mortem inaugurated monuments are so abundant that they almost add another geological layer to the historic site. The typical American drive-through approach helps enormously to make this memorial highway bearable. Contrasting to this gravestone overdose is Poverty Point (what’s in a name…), a World Heritage Site since 2014 where it is hard to see any trace at all of this past civilization which claims to be ‘an engineering marvel, the product of five million hours of labor and one of North America’s most important archaeological sites’.



We stop briefly in Clinton, a small town just outside of Jackson that is not at all, but seriously should be, known for having the largest scale model in the world. German and Italian prisoners of war created the whole Mississippi delta in concrete slabs on a scale of 1:100 vertical and 1:2000 horizontal, to do tests with water elevation, dams and canals to predict floods and change floes in the system. It is now completely deserted and taken over by nature, leaving a strange landscape behind.



Along the way we tried to contact Calvin Turley, the founder of the Cotton Museum, without success. On arrival in the hallway an old man pulls up in front and starts to unload musical instruments, enough to form a small one-man band. He asks us if we are looking for something in particular and after explaining who we are looking for he grins and says: ‘Are you Police?’ He avoids answering our suspicions that he is just the guy we are looking for, until we help him get all the instruments out of his car and into the elevator. He promises to come back and answer all our questions. Just before he closes the car, we see the name ‘Calvin’ on his coffee mug. He does come back however and gives us a very elaborate tour in the former Cotton Exchange, in which he worked himself, until it was not desirable anymore to mark the value of the separate bales of cotton in chalk and the computerized trade took over.



Calvin generously donates a bag full of cotton to work with before he disappears again. We visit the artist Greely Myatt in his beautiful and inspiring studio and have the best BBQ in town before we head back down on route 55. Empty fields of once harvested crops washed down by a Dutch drizzle rain, giving us the blues. We are welcomed back in New Orleans in an ‘old fashioned’ way, with bourbon, bitters and a garnish with orange slice, and a cocktail cherry.



Boucherie / 03-04-2016

Boucherie–a community gathering in South Louisiana at which a hog is butchered and the meat is divided among all who share in the labor. In addition to the various foodways folk traditions that are practiced at a boucherie, it may also involve such musical traditions as Cajun and zydeco music.

In the old days, the pig was slaughtered in the winter days, in cold weather at a time where fridges didn’t exist. It is now a way to gather around a good beer with friends and family, far from the hard necessary labour of ancient times. Toby Rodriguez, the master butcher, used to be an art student at the Univeristy of Lafayette. He sees the Boucherie as a sculpture performance, actions of substruction, theater and melodrama resulting in beautiful boudin, another local speciality.

bouch1 boucherie01 boucherie02

boucherie03  boucherie05













Photos continue here.

New Orleans and the Dark Prince of Finance


Having spent a month now in New Orleans, I found that there aren’t many places that wear their history on their sleeves the way New Orleans does. A rich and difficult history  stretching over hundreds of years, making it a place where a constant and often painful dialogue with past is present. A past that is still hard to deal with while simultaneously informing its rich culture. Throughout my stay here at the Deltaworkers this history presented itself to me in very real and visceral ways.

Connected, but less viscerally present, is perhaps the role New Orleans and Louisiana played in the development of our current financial system. New Orleans served as the ‘subject of investment’ of what we might call the first modern financial bubble in history. As it turns out, the founding of New Orleans has a peculiar relationship to our current global economic system.

To understand this we have to go back to the year 1716. Louisiana was already under French rule, but the city itself, New Orleans was yet to be founded. The Louisiana territory stretched out all the way in the Mississippi River valley of North America and was believed to be full of potential, ready to be discovered and mined for resources. By that time the french economy was in ruins. The wars waged by Louis XIV left the country completely wasted, both economically and financially. France was desperate for an answer, and in 1716 the John Law, a Scottish economic theorist, and financial wizard established the Banque Generale in France. Law proposed to stimulate industry by replacing gold with paper credit, increasing the supply of credit, and to reduce the national debt by replacing it with shares in economic ventures.

So under the control of Law the Banque General obtained the authority to issue notes. A decision Influenced by the time John Law had spent in Amsterdam. During his time there he was impressed by the share system of the Dutch East Indies Compagnie and the Bank of Amsterdam. He noted its contribution to the prowess of the Dutch in their trade and commercial endeavours, (despite having no more natural advantages than for instance his native Scotland). Furthermore The Bank of Amsterdam had created an internal system where merchants could settle their accounts by direct cashless transfer. Although impressed John Law simultaneously felt the system fell short – The Bank of Amsterdam never issued bank notes to the public.

Determined to improve this Law concocted a breathtaking modification of the financial institutions he had encountered in Amsterdam, combining the properties of a monopoly trading company like the Dutch East-Indies Company and a public bank. If these were in place the sky would be the limit, or so he thought.

Law had moved to France and had worked his way up in French society which was run at that time by the Duke of Orléans, who functioned as a regent for the youthful king Louis XV who was not yet of ruling age. With the support of the duke, Law was ready to unleash a whole new system of finance on a unsuspecting nation. A year after they founded the Banque Generale, they established the Compagnie de l’Occident which obtained the exclusive privileges to develop the vast French territories in the Mississippi River valley of North America. New Orleans, named to flatter the susceptible Duke of Orléans,  was to become the flourishing harbor town trough which all the goods would be exported to Europe. Law’s company soon monopolised the French tobacco and African slave trades.  By 1719 the Compagnie des Indes, as it had been renamed held a complete monopoly of France’s colonial trade. Law took over the collection of French taxes and the minting of money and in effect controlled both the country’s foreign trade and its finances.

Frenchmen regardless of rank were encouraged to buy shares into the new company. In Law’s vision the whole nation of France would become a body of traders. The huge profits would come from the development of Louisiana,  which he projected as a garden of eden, taking the success the dutch east-indies as an example. The stockprice of the Compagnie des Indes soared. Scenes of frenzy took over the streets of Paris and a classic stockmarket loop unfolded – the more expansive the share price became, the more people wanted to buy them.

However, to pay out the returns promised to the first buyers of shares, Law could not use the profits of the company as these were yet to be made. He instead used the money earned by selling even more shares, while simultaneously pumping more money into the economy through his Banque Generale. France was in the grip of a mania.



Meanwhile in Louisiana the new colony still lacked settlers. As the frenchmen were more interested in stockmarket speculation than colonisation, John Law recruited men from the franco-german borderlands to colonise Louisiana. Several thousands of bold germans signed up and set sail to the promised land. But Louisiana did not turn out to be the land of riches that John Law had painted it to be. Instead they ended up in a insect infested swamp and it turned out that the monopoly in trade with Louisiana was worthless. Soon rumors started to circulate in Paris and the share price started to drop, rapidly. Angry crowds started gathering at Law’s bank. And by December, only a month after the stocks had launched, the shares had lost more than 90 percent of their value. The Mississippi bubble had burst.

The anger of the crowd started to direct itself towards Law and he was forced to flee the country and soon became europe’s most hated man. Not only did the Mississippi Bubble take down the French economy but it took the rest of Europe with it. The world’s first global stock market bubble had suddenly burst and along with it destroyed the dreams and fortunes of speculators in London, Paris, and Amsterdam overnight. Law became the subject of ridicule and mockery as he became the posterboy for everything that was perceived to be wrong about speculation within this new stockmarket system.



A document that seems to be a perfect testament to this can be found in the Williams Research Centre here in New Orleans – a book of Dutch of satirical prints, plays, poetry, commentary, and financial prospectuses entitled Het groote Tafereel de Dwaasheid (The Great Mirror of Folly). Flicking through the book one can see scenes of desperate tradesmen holding up signs containing cries of help. A Devil who by means of bellows inserted into the rectum of a trader, inflates him to the point where he starts to vomit share-papers over a cheering crowd. The drawings are as dense as they are crude and filled with an incredibly dark sense of humour. We see John Law triumphantly feeding a desperate man while he simultaneously shits stock papers over a frenzied crowd. It is perhaps the first document to so viscerally depict the anger towards the failure of a financial system. It perfectly illustrates the folly and misfortune of speculators in a unique and lavish record of the financial crisis and its cultural dimensions. The book presents incredibly effective metaphors. Stocktraders are consequently named is ‘windverkopers’ and “windkopers” which translates as windsalesman. Referring to the wind that is necessary for the boats to make trade possible, while at the same time referencing the game of gamble and the empty promises of John Law.



I cannot help but draw a curious parallel in these metaphors when thinking about the role of wind in the economy, when considering New Orleans. As Katrina it blew away the homes and lives of people it simultaneously paved the way for a wave of privatisations while citizens were too emotionally and physically distracted by the disaster. A logic that perhaps sound too crude, but is perfectly exemplified by the article Milton Friedman wrote for the Wall Street Journal only weeks after Katrina. In this article called The Promise of Vouchers’ he wrote that the chaos hurricane Katrina left behind, offered the perfect opportunity to privatise the school system. To this the Friedmanite American Enterprise Institute would later add “”Katrina accomplished in a day what Louisiana school reformers couldn’t do after years of trying”. The logic not only effected the school system but for instance also the public housing, of which large parts were replaced with mixed income housing with Goldman & Sachs being one its main investors. Perhaps it is fruitful to attempt to connect this history of New Orleans and the criticism and metaphors present in Het Groote Tafereel der Dwaasheid, to understand the current tenets of capitalism in relation to the changes it engendered in post-katrina New Orleans.

To be continued…

To Live in the South, One Has To Be a Scar Lover

Thursday April 14 from 6PM to 8:30PM, book presentation by Deltaworkers, at the Stacks.


To Live in the South, One Has To Be a Scar Lover is an essay bundle that aims to deconstruct the romantic and mythical image Hollywood has created of the Southern States. Editors and Deltaworkers founders Maaike Gouwenberg and Joris Lindhout will read fragments from the different essays and introduce their story of the South. 

Dutchies Gouwenberg & Lindhout came to the South in 2010 on an investigative road trip exploring the Southern Gothic. They never really left and are currently running the Deltaworkers international residency program in New Orleans.

To Live in the South, One Has To Be a Scar Lover is designed by Erik Kiesewetter who has been pivotal in introducing the South to Gouwenberg & Lindhout and is a board member of Deltaworkers. Kiesewetter will dedicate a few words to the beautiful design he made for the book.

We Could Dance in Circles Around the Campfire by Night, Disappearing as Fume Into a Distant Day

Tuesday March 29th from 12PM to 6PM, finissage by Oliver Bulas, at PARSE NOLA


Traveling into the Future
If we leave the earth in a spaceship traveling close to light speed and we return after a duration of travel, then a longer period of time will go by on earth than on the ship. The cause for this phenomenon is time dilatation, which occurs at high speeds of this kind according to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.
Essentially, we could reach any distant future on earth in an arbitrary short amount of traveling time with sufficient traveling speed and acceleration. If we use an acceleration that is suitable for humans, than we will need a traveling time of over a year (from the perspective of a spaceship crew) to achieve a time shift of years.

Access to the exhibition is limited to 1 visitor at a time.
Please schedule an appointment between 12 and 6pm through info@deltaworkers.org.
Thank you.

Oliver Bulas (Shanghai 1973) creates ‘constructed situations’ in which the visitor immerses. He uses performance and prefers to work in the public space. He is wondering if the public space is a place where differences clash and are negotiated. A place where maybe a short flash of social space can incidentally shine up as a utopian moment. His work is a continuing investigation into what constitutes the social and the public spaces in our capitalist times in which everything is exchangeable. He previously exhibited at Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, Yvon Lambert Gallery in N.Y.C and Swell Gallery in San Fransisco.

Supported by:

Goethe institut

Research session Maarten Vanden Eynde

Tuesday March 22nd from 7PM, private research session by Maarten Vanden Eynde, at Studio Dawn DeDeaux.


Next to our public program we organise invitation-only events that aim as a catalyst within our residents’ investigative processes. A small number of specialists is invited to respond to a short presentation the artist gives around a specific question that arose while being in New Orleans. 

Maarten Vanden Eynde focusses on the Triangular Trade that connects Africa, America and Europe at large; and more specifically Congo, Belgium and the Southern States. He is looking at material remains and their ability to recall, rewrite or manipulate history and history writing. Cotton (and cotton trade) is one of the main materials he is looking at during his residency at Deltaworkers. His question for this research session are related to the specific influence the enslaved people from the Kingdom of Kongo have had on American culture while using the complex story of Africatown (near Mobile, AL) to talk about the difficulty of historical representation, fetishisation and commemoration.

For this research session we invited author Moira Crone, curator Bill Fagaly, artist Elizabeth Shannon and collector Mercedes Whitecloud.