Magazine article School Arts

Celebrations Public and Private

Magazine article School Arts

Celebrations Public and Private

Article excerpt

When I lived in Louisiana, the Jazz Festival in New Orleans, held on the grounds of the racetrack, was a much-anticipated event we attended every year. There were ongoing performances at many stages but my favorite stage was the one where the groups known as the Mardi Gras Indians sang, played, and strutted in their fantastic bead and feather costumes.

The New Orleans tradition of African-Americans masquerading as Native Americans dates back to the early nineteenth century. During dance performances in the Congo Market, the only place Blacks were allowed to congregate at the time, they sometimes added feathers, animal skins, ribbons, and bells to their costumes and acted as Native Americans. This was a form of emulation and identification with the local indigenous people.

In the 1880s, after emancipation, African-Americans formalized this practice by creating tribes and parading in costume. Now the costumes, handmade over the course of a year, resemble giant birds of paradise, outfitted with colorful billowing ostrich feathers and intricate beading (see cover). Though the regalia are primarily made and worn by men, often entire families or other groups will appear in coordinated costumes. My favorites are the ones worn by tiny children.

The extent to which Mardi Gras will be celebrated in New Orleans this year is uncertain as I write this, but I have absolutely no doubt it will go on and include, as usual, the Mardi Gras Indians. Mardi Gras, known in New Orleans as the Greatest Free Show on Earth, may be the most jubilant celebration of Carnival in the United States. It is not about to admit defeat to the forces of nature.

Another proud survivor of the hurricanes is the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA). Its staff refused to leave the museum unattended; the only damage that resulted was to exterior sculptures. …

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