Exhibit explores connections to Louisiana’s Creole culture
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Oh, the questions Kathe Hambrick would ask Norbert Rillieux.
In the 19th century, the chemical engineer invented a device to crystallize sugar. His multiple-effect evaporator pumps steam back into the system allowing the vapor boiled off in one vessel to be used to heat the next.
“It’s the same system that’s used today,” Hambrick says. “And a lot of people don’t know that the inventor, Mr. Rillieux, was Creole.”
Hambrick, the West Baton Rouge Museum’s new curator of exhibits, decided Ulrick Jean-Pierre’s portrait of Rillieux would be the perfect centerpiece for her first show, “Creoles du Monde.”
Rillieaux illustrates how worldwide cultures merge and connect to Louisiana’s Creole cultures in an exhibit that runs through May 6.
Its focus isn’t bloodlines, but the convergence of language, agriculture, food, music, art, religions, customs and commerce.
“These are the things we have in common,” says Angelique Bergeron, museum director. “These are the things we celebrate.”
“Creole” has taken on different spellings through the centuries. The Portuguese were the first to use “Crioulo” to identify the enslaved born in the West Indies and Latin America.
The Spanish later used the term “Criollo,” meaning “new creation,” for the mix of Spanish, French then other ethnicities born in the New World, meaning the Louisiana Purchase territory.
But Hambrick didn’t want to only tell the story of Louisiana’s Creoles.
“That’s been done so many times,” she says. “We know about Natchitoches and New Orleans and Opelousas. We wanted to open it up, to talk about the Creole culture in the world.”
So the show takes a different point of view, focusing on the origins of and contributions to Creole culture from throughout the world, then tracing those contributions through time.
Which is why Jean-Pierre’s portraits are an anchor for this show. The artist is a New Orleans-based contemporary painter born in Roseaux, Haiti.
His portrait series of historic Creole personalities highlight their accomplishments. Standing along with Rillieux is Haiti-born Jean Baptiste Point Dusable, who also had Hollywood good looks, and founded what became Chicago.
Artist and naturalist John James Audubon, born in what has become Haiti to a Creole woman and a French plantation owner, also is a part of this collection, as is “The Three Musketeers” author Alexandre Dumas, son of a French military officer and Haitian mother.
There’s also a portrait of A.P. Tureaud Sr., attorney for the Louisiana NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund who was instrumental in nearly every desegregation and civil rights case in Louisiana from the 1940s through the 1960s.
The exhibit also explores the culture’s resourcefulness through its entrepreneurs, especially women. New Orleans’ Rose Nicaud supported her family by selling coffee, pralines and calas, or rice fritters, from a cart. By 1949, she owned her own café.
“Here was a woman of color who had her own business in the 1940s,” Hambrick says. “That’s an amazing story in itself.”
“Creoles du Monde” also looks at traditional Creole fashion, such as the tignon head wrap, whose origins are found in Africa. Louisiana law once specified that women of color had to wear tignons in public.
“But they owned it and made it a part of their fashion,” Hambrick says.
Connections with the Afro-Mexicans of Veracruz, Mexico, and the Gullahs of South Carolina also are included, along with the story of the Creole Cowboys.
Creoles were the original cowboys,” Hambrick says. “They were herding cattle long before the cowboys in the west.”
“In his 2012 study, “Black Ranching Frontiers: African Cattle Herders of the Atlantic World, 1500-1900,” historian Andrew Sluyter concluded that Creoles of African descent were among the first cattle ranchers in Louisiana.
A few of the treasures to be found in this show include a miniature portrait in watercolor on ivory of a young Creole man.
“It’s rare, because most of the time you see miniatures of women,” Bergeron says.
There’s also the accordion played by Amede Ardoin, one of south Louisiana’s first recording artists, and the Mardi Gras suit worn in 2010 by Big Chief Clarence Dalcour, of the Creole Oscelolas of New Orleans.
But Hambrick’s favorite artifact is the portrait of Rillieux. For her, he sums up the spirit of “Creoles du Monde.”
“You know, after he worked as a chemical engineer, he went to Egypt and studied Egyptology,” she says. “He accomplished so much, and he never stopped learning. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to sit down and talk about his life?”