The concept of "Creole" is far more complex than most people who only had a passing interest in their 8th grade history courses might recognize. To most Miamians, it's a language spoken in Haiti and among the burgeoning Haitian population of the city. That's far too much of a simplification, even if you only want to look at Creole languages, which are defined in one Wikipedia line as "a stable, full-fledged language that originated from a mixture of two or more languages." And while that's a simplification as well, it should give you a sense of the greater scope of culture and people that the term "Creole" encompasses.
From the island of Haiti, to the parishes of New Orleans, to the mountainous villages of the Central American isthmus, the roots and tendrils of Creole identity in the Americas and the Caribbean have been growing and becoming more and more a part of their respective home cultures.
That process and the results thereof have been of great interest to Richard Sexton, a photographer and resident of New Orleans for almost 25 years, whose most recent work is called Creole World: Photographs of New Orleans and the Latin Caribbean Sphere. Saturday night, he'll give a reading at Books and Books in Coral Gables. New Times sat down and got acquainted with Sexton in order to get you acquainted with Sexton.
For Richard Sexton, his interest in Creole culture started some 40 years ago with a long journey and an array of cultures he wouldn't see again for almost 20 years.
"It started when I was 20 years old and in college," Sexton said. "I did this grand car trip to Latin America. I was gone for six months and I made it all the way to Bolivia and back over land. I visited every country in Central America, I visited Roatán Island, and I went to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia."
Classical Revival villa, Getsemani neighborhood; Cartagena, Colombia, 2010; ©Richard Sexton, "Creole World: Photography of New Orleans and the Latin Caribbean Sphere"
Courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection
After his time outside the country, Sexton returned to the states and lived in San Francisco until 1991. That was when he moved to New Orleans, where he has remained ever since and where he has come to call home.
"I became very attuned to New Orleans and its connection to the Caribbean and to Latin America," Sexton said. "So in 2006, I returned to Latin America for the first time since 1974, which is kind of what initiated this final phase of the project...Creole World is a combination of a handful of very early photographs from 1974, photographs from the entire 23-year period that I've lived in New Orleans, and eight years of photography from around the Caribbean and Latin America going up to the present."
The collection is not simply limited to the photographs, which are striking in their color palette and their vivid cultural content, but also contains essays by Jay Edwards and John H. Lawrence that add even greater context to the visual richness of Sexton's work. The desire to create this collection, according to Sexton, was a result of his adopted home in Louisiana.
Spiral staircase, Charbonnet House, French Quarter; New Orleans, 2004; ©Richard Sexton, from "Creole World: Photography of New Orleans and the Latin Caribbean Sphere"
Courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection
"The core element was living in New Orleans and being a part of it there," Sexton said. "When you live in a place where this is a part of the culture and has these exotic connections outside of the country, I think you naturally want to explore them."
"I think that's probably true of the Latin American population of Miami," he continued, "where a fair amount of the population might be removed from the immigration process itself, but because they know their family is from Cuba or Haiti or Dominican Republic or wherever, there's always going to be this curiosity about where you came from."
For Sexton, Miami has become a great interest as far as the future of the Creole world goes. He says that while his work up to this point may not incorporate a great deal of the U.S. immigrant population, including Miami, he thinks that the work he has completed and compiled for this collection speaks to many of our roots as something of a Creole city.
"The perspective that I put on it is that New Orleans was kind of the only Creole place in North America, historically..." Sexton said. "It took on this real foreign element with a completely different history. So, New Orleans was the lone historical example of kind of a Creole-Caribbean place getting assimilated into the United States and an Anglo Saxon culture with a different history.
"In modern times, Miami is the modern version of that. New Orleans is the historical example; Miami is the modern example. I look at Miami and New Orleans as being sister cities in many ways, one historical, one modern."
In that same vein, Sexton also contended that Miami might look to New Orleans not only as a reference for its past, but also for its future.
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"I think New Orleans is a really good example if you want to think about what Miami's going to be like in another hundred years," Sexton said. "It's going to be a lot like that where the language and the culture and the ethnicity of the people are going to be blended together into a kind of a mix that's very much akin to what you have in New Orleans today."
To hear Richard Sexton discuss his "Creole World" in his own words, head to at Books & Books in Coral Gables (265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables) on Saturday, August 23, starting at 7 p.m. Visit booksandbooks.com or call 305-442-4408.