By Ray Funk
Mystery in Motion: African American Masking and Spirituality in Mardi Gras – a major exhibit – recently opened at the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans. The exhibit is open through November 28.
Besides the physical exhibit, there is an extensive online exhibit showcasing the various displays with text and images, hours and hours of oral history videos, an extensive resource list and more. A catalog is forthcoming. The Louisiana Lt. Governor recently called it “a groundbreaking exhibition highlighting the vibrant carnival traditions of the Black community in New Orleans.”
The primary focus is on Mardi Gras Indians and related traditions that have evolved in New Orleans and the underlying African spirituality behind these traditions. Mardi Gras Indian traditions in New Orleans which have active for over a century but have become prominent in the past few decades.
They are the subject of over a dozen books, dozens of articles, a couple dissertations, numerous film and video documentaries and many recordings going back to the 1940s. The first exhibit on these traditions occurred in 1965 at the New Orleans Public Library when only eight tribes were active and represented. The Louisiana State Museum first exhibited a Mardi Gras Indian suit 50 years ago and they have had a museum presence ever since.
The Mardi Gras Indians are a strong and vibrant tradition with over 40 tribes and hundreds of members participating at Mardi Gras and on St Joseph night and Super Sunday, mid-March events. Now the tribes participate in more concerts, gigs, funerals as well as being featured at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Decades ago, there were simpler suits but they have evolved into elaborate works of art that the maskers themselves create spending months sewing and beading.
The early origins of the Mardi Gras Indians are subject to debate, but they are now an iconic part of the New Orleans cultural landscape. They were a central focus in the landmark TV drama Treme (2010 to 2013) where a big chief who struggled after Hurricane Katrina is a central character. Spotify offers an eleven-hour playlist of Mardi Gras Indian music not just from the tribes themselves but many others.
From “Iko Iko” which became a hit in 1965, the iconic Wild Tchoupitoulas (1976) album involving the Neville Brothers, to many albums since to a third album by the group Cha Wa that was just released, Mardi Indian music permeates the jazz, soul and rock music of New Orleans.
In the last decade, there has been extensive local news coverage such as when members of the Wild Tchoupitoulas band stood at street corner last November urging people to vote or Big Chief Melancon putting his suit on Carnival Tuesday where a statue of the president of the Confederacy had been.
They are in a real sense connected to the Black Indian traditions of Trinidad Carnival. One of the Mardi Gras Tribes, the Guardians of the Flames band led by Cherice Harrison-Nelson came to Trinidad in 2010, did performances at Queen’s Hall, in San Fernando and Tobago as well as participated at the Old Yard at UWI’S Department of Festival and Creative Arts and did various workshop appearances.
Mystery in Motion co-curator Kim Vaz-Deville noted that the ideas for the exhibit started when she went to Havana, Cuba, and was showing some photos of Mardi Gras Indians and locals noted the color scheme and all represented tributes to certain Orishas, spiritual forces in the Yoruba religion, a prominent ethnic group in West Africa.
The exhibit opens with two red, Indian suits. One is in tribute to the spirit of shango and the other is in tribute to Nana Buruku. Further research led her to the vision of this exhibit.
“The people who are in this show consciously introduced spirituality into these traditions.”
She noted this is not an academic gloss on their artwork but what the maskers themselves have stated repeatedly is part of their sanctified performances. It can represent complex layered traditions from Catholicism, the Black Spiritual Church and Pentecostalism, Islam, Rastafarianism, Voodoo and Yoruba and Congo spirituality.
These masking bands also focus on resisting systemic oppression that black New Orleans have faced since slavery. The elaborate suits are all about storytelling through images on the various panels on a suit.
Connections to Native American culture “is rooted in Native American resistance. Many of their suits showcase battle scenes depicting victorious Native Americans at war with U.S. soldiers”.
Suits by Big Chief Alfred Doucette of the Flaming Arrows have featured stories from the Bible, tales of lynching, slave auctions and feature the presence of the Marie Laveau the 19th Century Voodoo practitioner in New Orleans who has been an inspiration for Doucette and whose spirit he is sure protects him on Mardi Gras Day. Chief Casby of the Mohawk Hunters has twice “incorporated President Barack Obama in symbolic battles with flying dragons.”
Beyond the Mardi Gras Indians, there are other groups represented in the exhibit from the Northside Skull and Bones groups with Haitian roots, the Mystic Seven Sisters led by Voodoo Queen Kalindah Laveaux, Black Hawk tradition in the spiritual churches of New Orleans, notably represented by the Chief of the Black Hawk Voodoo tribe, The Divine Prince Ty Emmecca. Parading krewes such as the Krewe of Oshun and the recently formed Krewe of Nefertiti look to Yoruba and Egyptian traditions for inspiration. There is a Baby Doll tradition also part of the exhibit, distinctly different from the Trinidad Carnival tradition.
The exhibit also features African and Haitian objects on loan from the African Art Collection at Southern University at New Orleans and from the Musée du Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac in Paris to show the connections to those traditions. An expanded version of the exhibit, adding additional context to the New Orleans traditions is planned to open in Paris at the Quai Branly museum in the Fall of 2022.
This museum exhibit with its extensive online presence offers an amazingly detailed view of complex Carnival traditions in New Orleans with their deep connections to traditional African spirituality and is not to be missed.
Virtual exhibit is at http://mysteryinmotion.xavierdghu.org