Mystery in Motion: African American Masking and Spirituality in Mardi Gras

Exhibition
Black Masking Indian of New Orleans

© Audoin de Vergnette

The Presbytère
751 Chartres Street
New Orleans, US 70116
Until November 28, 2021
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The Louisiana State Museum’s new exhibition "Mystery in Motion: African American Masking and Spirituality in Mardi Gras" at the Presbytère on Jackson Square in New Orleans examines multicultural spirituality in the carnival traditions of Black New Orleanians.

Guest curators Kim Vaz-Deville and Ron Bechet of Xavier University of Louisiana explore this topic through the presentation of more than two dozen Black masking Indian suits, carnival costumes, and masking objects juxtaposed with extraordinary artifacts from the African continent that are representative of the cultures, religions, and artistry that influenced their creation. Those objects are on loan from the collections of the Musée du Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac in Paris and Southern University at New Orleans.

African Americans in New Orleans have long used Mardi Gras as the framework for spiritual expressions drawn from African, Islamic, Native American, and European belief systems. Mystery in Motion celebrates how Black masking Indians, skeleton gangs, Baby Dolls, and the traditional parade krewes Oshun and Nefertiti incorporated spiritual themes from a variety of sources to create profound Mardi Gras masks, costumes, and rituals grounded in shared experience. “There is so much happening on Mardi Gras day, it is impossible to take in all the sights, sounds, and experiences. The intent of the exhibition is to offer an opportunity to contemplate the spiritual dimensions of African American Mardi Gras masking that are hidden in plain view,” said guest curator Kim Vaz-Deville.

The exhibition features Black masking Indian suits on loan from their creators. For example, Big Chief Alfred Doucette’s Marie Laveau suit depicts the voodoo queen’s tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 surrounded by the Spy Boy, Wild Man, and Flag Boy of Doucette’s tribe. It also shows the Flaming Arrows as well and the queen awakening her spirit on Mardi Gras morning. Golden Eagles Spy Boy Floyd Edwards’s tribute to Mansa Musa, the 14th-century emperor of the Mali Empire in West Africa, points to recent Islamic inspirations. Spiritual healing traditions inform the suits of the Mystic Medicine Man, who looks to both the Congolese Nganga and the Haitian Vodou Erzulie family of spirits, and Janet “Sula” Evans, Medicine Woman of the Spirit of Fi Yi Yi and the Mandingo Warriors, who based her 2018 suit on the West African spirit of Nana Baruku.

Mystery in Motion is on display in New Orleans through Nov. 28, 2021. After the exhibition’s run at the Presbytère, it will be integrated into  a larger exhibit, Les Black Indians de La Nouvelle-Orléans, at the Musée du Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac. That exhibit is scheduled to open in fall 2022. For more information about the exhibition and associated programming, visit louisianastatemuseum.org.

This exhibition is funded in part under a grant from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

Author: This article was written by the Louisiana State Museum Staff and published in 64 parishes, the quarterly magazine of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.

Link to original article here.

For further information on the exhibition, visit the Mystery in Motion website to consult its digital resources.