Martos Gallery, September 8 – Saturday, October 22, 2022
For her third solo exhibition at the gallery, Jennie Jieun Lee has conceived of and assembled a sculptural tableau connecting mausoleal, historical, spiritual, personal and quotidian artifacts alongside themes of memory, travel, ritual and life and death.
The centerpiece of the installation is a recreation of the tomb of Marie Laveau, a legendary figure in New Orleans history with a complex and near-mythological biography. Popularly known as the third female Voodoo Queen, Laveau was a free woman of color born in 1801 who also practiced herbalism and community activism and was something of a cross-class healer and confidant. As a hair dresser for wealthy New Orleans elite, she was privy to gossip and personal details which she used to augment her apparent clairvoyance in personal advice, and manipulate local politics. Laveau was also known to advocate for death-row inmates, offering spiritual counseling as well as successfully seeking pardons for some. Though there is no precise record it is generally believed that, following her death in 1881 Laveau’s remains were entombed in Saint Louis Cemetery No.1, a miniature city of tombs and weather-beaten memorials rising out of a New Orleans City block, above-ground like all local cemeteries due to the impracticality of subterranean burial in the swamp.
The tomb in plot 347 became a destination for visitors to the city and the cemetery and a ritual emerged: mark ‘X’s’ on the tomb, make a wish, knock three times and leave a small offering to the queen to grant their wish from the grave. Those whose wishes were granted would return and circle their ‘X’s’.
In the summer of 1994, in the middle of a heatwave, Lee and some friends drove from Boston to New Orleans. Venturing into Saint Louis No.1 to film a super-8 horror movie, they discovered Laveau’s tomb and were immediately struck by the accumulated objects and energies surrounding it. Lee writes:
Her tomb was surrounded with flowers, coins, every miscellaneous object you can think of on the ground in front and around this holy space. Some of the X’s were written with pencil, pen, brick dust, lipstick, etc. The moment I saw this monument, I was affected by the collective energy held within the tomb as well as all the markings of thousands of visitors over the years coming to her site creating what I saw as a collective work of art.
In the years that have followed Lee’s original visit to New Orleans and Saint Louis Cemetery No.1, overzealous visitors have caused the cemetery to close to the public except for ticketed guided tours. Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city in 2005 and in 2013 a saboteur covered the entirety of Laveau’s tomb in pink latex paint. Though now restored, the vandalism and now hyper-supervision over the cemetery has permanently altered the tomb’s function as a site of pilgrimage. The artist spent the onset of the Covid pandemic in 2020 learning how to farm flowers, as a direct reaction to the feeling of impending doom rising all around.
For Marie, Lee has recreated Laveau’s tomb and the environment surrounding it based on her memory of that 1994 visit. Ceramic vessels hold flowers from Lee’s Puhpowee Garden and Elm Garden Design, Lee’s friends and neighbors in Sullivan County, NY. Wooden plank structures hold and support ceramic dresses and busts, garlands and other offerings to the spirits who may be joining the space.
Visitors are encouraged to mark the tomb, make a wish, and leave an offering.
Special thanks to Graham Collins, Brendan Carney and Nancy Loeber.