When somebody says, “Guess you hadda be there,” they usually mean you’ve inadequately described an experience. Explaining New Orleans’ enigmatic, celebratory culture, including indigenous, Afro-centric music, Cajun and Creole foods, po-boys, second-line funerals, Mardi Gras krewes, Baby Dolls, Indians, costumes, masking, umbrellas, multicultural diversity and complex history, to anyone who’s never been here is, well, challenging. And what about visitors arriving in the Big Easy when everything is literally shut down, such as now, during the pandemic? The architecture’s still here, but where’s the spirit?
JAMNOLA (Joy-Art-Music New Orleans) is the answer. When words fail to deliver, Jonny Liss devised the perfect solution for sampling the city’s unique personality safely in a curated, 5,400-square-foot labyrinth at 2832 Royal St., in the heart of the Bywater, where visitors can wander through 12 artistically designed and themed exhibits, including the sparkling Bling Bayou, enchanting Feather Forest, Joy of the Crawfish with a human-size boiling pot, and the Bead Goes On, using 22,000 recycled Mardi Gras beads. The multicolored Spirit Tree made from Mississippi River driftwood was inspired by a West African legend that glass bottles hung upside down can capture and contain evil spirits.
For almost 30 years, Liss, formerly a New York cosmetics industry executive, was a JazzFest regular before moving to New Orleans to develop this one-of-a-kind play space. He hooked up with Chad Smith whose experience encompasses photography, cinematography and art direction to become co-founder and creative director, while collaborating with Collin Ferguson and Cat Todd, founders of Where Y’Art artists collective. The space appears as a combination fun house and pop art museum.
When I was a kid, I was enamored by funky Coney Island fun houses, but JAMNOLA is high-end, educational, multimedia, high-tech and experiential, y’all. While providing many selfie opportunities for sharing, it is also a sophisticated, interactive, artistic exploration of the city. Jon Sherman’s Flavor Paper designs create continuity room to room with wallpapered images of crawfish barbecuing and lounging on yard furniture, celebrities wearing headdresses and Op art designs.
Too-numerous-to-list artistic collaborators include Fulbright scholar, educator, editor, performance artist Cherice Harrison-Nelson; social justice advocate and food blogger Dr. Nicole Caridad Ralston; researcher and writer Terri Simon; and educator, author Kim Vaz-Deville; muralist Courtney “Ceux” Buckley; sculptor and portrait artist Carl Joe Williams; cluster map muralist Josh Hailey; and costume designer Julianne Lagniappe, among a dozen others.
Liss’s initial concept was very tactile, which proved impossible considering Covid-19. He had envisioned crowds dancing through the rooms, feeling amidst a parade, surrounded by revelers filmed in Royce Osborn’s documentary, “All on a Mardi Gras Day,” strutting past Ceux’ mural to the rhythms of New Orleans music curated by Meters legend George Porter, Jr., including Tank and the Bangas and Big Freedia.
Liss’s mission is spreading joy through the experience of art, music and culture. Who can find fault with that? And given current circumstances, it seems like a pretty good mission to have.
Due to Covid-19, face masks are required and registrations must be made in advance on ShowClix.com limiting the number of attendees to six every 10 minutes. Louisiana residents get a 15% discount with the coupon NOLAVLOVE on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Tickets are $29 for adults, $20 for kids 3-12 years and free for 2 and under. Students, seniors, teachers, military, first responder, health care providers are $20.