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Lewis Watts @ SFMOMA Artists Gallery

Museum of the History of Immigration Paris, 2014
 
At the beginning of the film Round Midnight, Dexter Gordon, playing a character very much like himself, is asked who he’ll see first when he lands in Europe.  Standing on the tarmac, about to depart New York, the soon-to-be-expatriate saxophonist looks puzzled.  "You," his friend answers. Something similar happened to the documentary photographer Lewis Watts when he arrived in Paris in 2013 to present his work at a black arts conference.  He came with no preconceptions of what he might find or later photograph, but he soon found himself immersed in familiar things, the most prominent being the lingua franca known as jazz.  The music, as every fan knows, enjoys a far greater audience abroad than it does here, and so it does in France, along with other American exports like blues and hip-hop.  
 
Sebastopol Saint Denis, Paris, 2014

Having photographed extensively in West Oakland, Harlem, South Central LA, New Orleans, the Caribbean and other parts of Europe, Watts, a professor emeritus of art at UC Santa Cruz, knows the territory.  Closer to home and to the point: he’s also the co-author of a brilliant photographic history of the Fillmore District, Harlem of the West – The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era, a book that details what a powerful force in jazz San Francisco was in the 1940s and 1950s — before redevelopment, known then as urban renewal, destroyed the scene and drove out many of the neighborhood's African-American residents.   

Given those interests, it’s little surprise that Watts found in Paris a thriving black art community populated by stylish young people doing what Parisians do best: living life in public.  His pictures of them – in streets, sidewalk cafes, and clubs — affirm the popular notion of the city as a bohemian paradise. That image, almost of necessity, also includes food. Watts’ pictures of an outdoor market in Belleville, for example, form a mouthwatering spectacle of edible delights, reminding us of where today’s much-hyped farm-to-fork movement originated, and how Bellville, a slum in Django Reinhardt’s day, has become a bustling hub of artistic experimentation, populated, now, as then, with immigrants.  Early in the last century they came from other parts of Europe; today they hail from the Middle East and Africa and are readily distinguishable, says Watts. by their clothing and by “how they present themselves.”  Some of those characteristics, clothing especially, are obvious; others, like belief systems and customs, are not.  Thus, the prevalence in Watt’s photos of backward baseball caps, ripped denim and other accouterments of hip-hop fashion point more to the ubiquity of American cultural influence than to the assimilation pains of the arrivistes

L'Opera Bastille, Paris, 2015

Watts maintains that his inability to speak French hampered his work, and I have no doubt that it did.  Yet in the pictures he displays there’s scant evidence of it actually having done so.  His subjects reveal themselves openly or else carry on as if the camera weren’t there.  Still, that doesn’t mean language wasn't a problem.  One symptom is a notable absence of images depicting discord, racism, poverty and strife.  Here Watts’ interactions with refugees hit closer to the mark; yet even in these, which were taken far outside Paris, in Calais, there’s a defiant optimism, evidenced in posters, improvised games, and scenes of caring and camaraderie. Watts shot them in a camp known as The Jungle, which, since 1999, has served as both a detention center and point of departure for refugees trying to illegally board trains, cars and trucks headed to the UK.  These pictures succeed precisely because they defy expectations. 

One photo that doesn’t involve refugees and does point to some of the darker forces coursing through French society comes from a metro station.  It shows a well-off middle-aged woman walking past a black child; he’s dressed in a school sweater (replete with insignia), and is, quite clearly, not a member of the underclass.  Her expression is one of quiet disgust.   Are we looking at a subtle display of racism or just a picture of two people lost in thought?  The ambiguity of it is worthy of Robert Frank or Garry Winogrand.  
 
Ironically, the images that best reflect the refugees’ plight come from Paris proper, and they are not portraits.  One is of a sculpture of a man swimming. Painted bright red and set in tall grass outside Museum of the History of Immigration, it resembles the figures George Segal made to represent Holocaust victims.  This one, in a near-literal sense, represents the journey undertaken by those fleeing conflicts in Africa and the Middle East.  The other is of an outdoor stage filled with cardboard figures representing the 276 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria. A banner at the lip of the stage carries the hashtag: #bringbackourgirls, a message obviously aimed at a global audience.  
 
Metro Station, Paris, 2015
 
Watts has similar aims.  He hopes his work will do for 21st century people of African descent what de Tocqueville’s words did for Americans in the 19th.  That's a tall order but one well within his reach.  The books he co-authored on post-Katrina New Orleans and on the Fillmore District’s jazz scene stand as definitive accounts.  This show, unfortunately, only hints at what could be.  The problem?  Only a handful of prints are displayed on the walls.  Another 250 or so run in a loop on a computer monitor, making it difficult, if not impossible, to tease out relationships that no doubt exist among the images. Given Watts’ record, both as a photographer and a curator, the decision to present his work this way, and in a space that so clearly could accommodate more, is mystifying.  Granted, the overwhelming majority of photos these days are viewed online, on electronic devices, but that’s no excuse.  Watts deserves better and so do we. In his archives there’s an opportunity waiting to be plucked.  Memo to MOAD: Take heed!    
–DAVID M. ROTH 
Lewis Watts @ SFMOMA Artists Gallery through January 3, 2016. 

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