Looking at Herbert Singleton’s “Leander Perez” A Powerful Visual Metaphor for Institutionalized Racism

Herbert Singleton (1945 – 2007), Leander Perez, 1992, enamel paint on wood. Gift of the Roger H. Ogden Collection, 2003.1.487

Herbert Singleton was born on May 31, 1945, and grew up in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans. As a child, he would play along the Mississippi River, sculpting forms out of the river mud. It wasn’t long before he looked for a more permanent medium, and moved from mud to wood. In the years that followed, Herbert Singleton became an accomplished carver, creating some of the most powerful and socially relevant works to be found in contemporary art of the American South.⁣

Singleton’s personal life has been the subject of much discussion – the brutal murder of his sister by New Orleans police officers, his subsequent torture while in custody and his 13 years spent in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for narcotics related offenses. What is most important about this narrative, though, is how that history informs the work, how his vision and talent translated and transformed a life spent in cycles of oppression, personal trauma and self-destruction into a legacy of significant works of contemporary art.⁣

One of the strongest works in the Ogden Museum Collection, “Leander Perez,” is a powerful painting depicting a disturbing scene from the career of the segregationist and political boss of Plaquemines Parish. The scene is set at the ferry leading into Plaquemines in the aftermath of Hurricane Camille, a storm that ravaged the coast in 1969. The cast is divided into three groups: Black relief workers from New Orleans, the Black community suffering from both the chokehold of Perez and the destruction of Camille, and Perez with his police officer. Not only does this painting depict the real event of Perez warning relief workers about promoting ideas of equality in his community, it also serves as metaphor for the institutional racism that stands in the way of progress in communities across the South, the nation and the world. With hammer, chisel and enamel paint, Singleton captured a painful moment in our history while creating a powerful visual metaphor for institutionalized racism.⁣⁣