For the past three decades, Louisiana-based artist Demond Melancon has created highly detailed Mardi Gras Indian suits using millions of hand-sewn small glass beads. Each suit takes several months to create and features custom patches that tell stories about African and American history.
Images of Nyabinghi warriors, Haile Selassie, African nature scenes, and slavery are strung together bead by bead to form decorative costumes that weigh up to 150 pounds and are worn from 9am to 6pm on Mardi Gras. Frills and feathers frame the complex beadwork and sequins to complete the one-of-a-kind single purpose suits.
Melancon tells Colossal that in junior high school his friends “masked Indian” and that he followed them into the craft. He was chosen by the elders to learn sewing techniques as well as the history of Black Masking Culture in New Orleans when he was 14 years old. After masking as a Spy Boy for 15 years with the Seminole Hunters, Melancon earned the distinction of becoming Big Chief to his own tribe. In addition to leading his community and passing on traditions to the next generation, the honor is expressed through the size and intricacy of his suits, which can take over 4,000 hours to complete and are only worn once.
“I study our history and historical narratives to create my pieces [with] many different references,” Big Chief Demond Melancon of the Young Seminole Hunters explained. He added that as a “bead master,” his style involves using the smallest beads available to pack in as much detail as possible.
Melancon’s work has been exhibited in galleries around the world. A new documentary short about his life and art titled “All on a Mardi Gras Day” (dir. Michal Pietrzyk) was the Documentary: Grand Jury Prize Winner at Seattle International Film Festival and has been shown at other festivals across America, Germany, and Denmark. For a list of upcoming screenings and to see more of the Big Chief’s suits, visit his website and Instagram.
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Precisely Calculated Sculptural Embroideries by Devi Vallabhaneni Turn Beads and Sequins into Fields of Flowers
After a successful career in accounting and higher education entrepreneurship, Chicago-based artist Devi Vallabhaneni reconnected with her youthful passion for creativity and working with her hands. Vallabhaneni now brings together her twin interests in fashion and mathematics in her botanical beadwork. Using an algorithm she created in Excel, and working with haute couture materials like French sequins and beads, she creates dense fields of color and texture. “I innovated embroidery to be sculptural expressions that breathe new life into traditional materials, enabling them to live in unexpected spaces,” the artist explains.
Vallabhaneni works within the constraints of squares and rectangles, and more recently has moved away from abstraction and towards realism with her garden series. Inspired by fashion designer and garden enthusiast Hubert de Givenchy, Vallabhaneni situated her recent artworks in the Hollywood Hills, documenting each piece nestled amongst natural plants and flowers.
Over the past several years, the artist has delved into her creative practice with the same fervor she brought to her business career, and has completed coursework in weaving, textiles, embroidery, and apparel construction. Vallabhaneni is in the current cohort of artists in the Center Program at Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center and is represented by Galerie Bettina von Arnim in Paris. The artist shares new work along with her wide-ranging visual inspirations on Instagram.
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In her series Trading, Saskatchewan-based artist Ruth Cuthand creates a visual metaphor that outlines how early settler/Native relationships influenced First Nation people’s living conditions and wellbeing in Canada. The colorful works are created from beads which were traded by European settlers for furs in the Americas. Although dazzling aesthetically, the work’s content reveals images of deadly viruses passed on by settlers as a result of this trade, such as influenza, bubonic plague, measles, smallpox, typhus, cholera, and scarlet fever.
“Beads are a visual reference to colonization; valuable furs were traded for inexpensive beads,” explains Cuthand, an artist of Plains Cree and Scottish descent, in her statement about the project. “On the plains beads were a valuable trade item, they replaced the method of using porcupine quills. Preparing the quills for decorating clothing was a long process that consisted of sorting the quills, preparing vegetal dyes and flattening the quill to sew down in patterns. Obviously beads were quicker to use, covered large areas and came in a wide variety of colors.”
Trading explores the tragic impact of European disease through the lens of one import. You can see all of the works in the series, and learn more about Cuthand’s practice, by visiting her website. The artist will also be a part of Beading Now!, a group exhibition at La Guilde in Montreal, Canada, which runs from May 16 to July 21, 2019.
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Jim F. Faure, who goes by Jim Skull, introduces his decades-long practice with his pseudonym. The Paris-based sculptor focuses exclusively on human skulls. Using innumerable strands of colorful thread, Murano glass beads, rope, and even porcupine quills, Faure creates an entirely new “skin” for the skeletal forms. Each skull’s covering also trails off into dramatic cascades that shape-shift depending on how the skull is displayed.
Faure transforms the surface of an object that often strikes fear into a visually enticing decorative object, inviting the viewer to study the divots and contours of our shared anatomical structure. In an artist statement, the sculptor cites his upbringing in New Caledonia in the South Pacific, followed by wide-ranging international travels in New Zealand, India, and Hong Kong as informing his fascination with the ritual and cultural aspects of the human experience. You can see more of Faure’s work on his website.
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Embroidered and Beaded Coral Sculptures by Aude Bourgine Honor the ‘Lungs of the Oceans’ in Protective Glass
French visual artist Aude Bourgine’s work is informed by her love of the environment and a sense of guilt for what humanity has done to the natural world. Using textiles, beads, and sequins, the artist creates displays that capture the beauty and fragility of coral for a series called “Poumons des océans,” which translates to “Lungs of the Oceans.”
Bourgine’s sculptures mimic the unique shapes, intricate textures, and vivid colors of living coral. Encased in glass bell jars, they are simultaneously isolated as objects of wonder, and also protected from harm caused by the hands of humans. “If we do not rapidly change our relationship with our environment, oceans will be dead by 2050,” the artist said in a statement on her website. “Their disappearance will entail a disastrous imbalance on all ecological, climate and human levels…We must take heed for this universal cause, which concerns each and every one of us.”
Bourgine has an upcoming solo exhibition at the Saint Julien Chapel in Le Petit-Quevilly in northern France from June 7 through 30, 2019. You can see more of Bourgine’s sculptural works of the sea on Instagram. (via The Fiber Studio)
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Artist David Chatt explores his past, family, and memories in all-white works created using found objects and minuscule white beads. Whereas earlier work was more purely decorative, like his colorful Breakfast Set (2004), over the last several years Chatt has simplified his color palette and plumbed the emotional depths of his life for more emotionally-engaged work.
In pieces created over the past several years, Chatt has drawn specifically from his personal and family history, selecting meaningful objects like a boombox from the early 1980s, the contents of his late parents’ nightstand, and the tools his mother used to create innumerable meals. Using glass beads and thread, the artist carefully covers each object, and he describes the act of covering as a means of both sealing off and protecting his memories. He shares with Colossal, “This process has the power to transform an object that, might as easily be relegated to land fill, into something precious and a record of a time, place or experience, something that encourages my audience to reflect on their own experiences and complete the story that I have begun.”
Chatt studied design at Western Washington University, Bellingham, in the late 1980s, where he recalls that a 6-foot-five male pursuing beadwork was not warmly embraced. Over the years, he has continued to refine his beadwork through post-secondary study. You can see work from Chatt in a group exhibition at Denmark’s Glasmuseet Ebeltoft in 2019, and in “A New State of Matter: Contemporary Glass” at Boise Art Museum in Idaho from November 3, 2018 to February 3, 2019, a group show which includes work from Steffan Dam (previously) and Amber Cowan (previously). (thnx, Diana!)
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Artist Betsy Youngquist creates three-dimensional mixed media utilizing beadwork, crystals, and found doll parts like eyes, mouths, and hands. The elements merge to create surreal creatures that exist between human and animal, mixing animated facial features with long tentacles or hooves. For the works, Youngquist and her partner R. Scott Long first cut apart antique doll heads to determine what sort of animal the face might inspire. Next, Long sculpts a form for the sculpture and Youngquist adheres an assemblage of glass beads, stones, and eyes.
“History and the energy of times past are contained in old materials, in addition to bead color and bead variations that you can’t find among contemporary beads,” the artist explains about her decision to use vintage beads in her mosaic-like pieces. “While playing in my studio I love the intuitive dance of selection, when everything starts humming along and I know which bead choices to make. Beads as a material are ancient and primal. I love that about them. There is also definitely a meditative quality to working with beads.”
Youngquist runs the New Orleans-based Gallery Two with fellow artist Ann Marie Cianciolo, and has work in the exhibition Season of the Surreal at Patina Gallery in Sante Fe, New Mexico from November 2 and through December 2, 2018. You can see more of her beaded sculptures on her website and Instagram.
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Editor's Picks: Street Art
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