Through intricately woven displays of minuscule glass beads and rhinestones, Big Chief Demond Melancon continues a legacy. He belongs to the tribe of the Young Seminole Hunters in New Orleans, where he was born and raised, and is a leader in the tradition of creating Mardi Gras suits. The “wearable sculptures” are elaborate and celebratory, and Melancon’s works are known for their immense nature and for exhibiting his deft technical skill. Extremely labor-intensive, the garments tend to envelop their wearer in multiple layers and contain more than one million glass beads precisely stitched into evocative narratives of American history.
For nearly three decades, Melancon has also developed a unique visual language that is both entrenched in the 250-year tradition and working to expand the scope of the practice. “The elders, the Indians, and the Black maskers that masked before me, they never saw this as a contemporary art form in the way that I do,” he tells Colossal. “To me, the elders are watching me, and I think what they taught me is different from what I’ve evolved it into.”
Often encircled by feathers, many of Melancon’s suits revolve around portraits of reggae icons, people who were enslaved and subsequently led revolts, and Mardi Gras Indian Big Chiefs who came before him. He’s also started to separate these figurative elements from their more comprehensive counterparts in recent years and has produced an extensive series of standalone portraits. The ongoing collection includes people who have been influential in his life and who have broad cultural relevance, including artists like Basquiat and Frida Khalo, ancient Egyptian queen Nefertari, and Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman killed by police in 2020. “I like to teach with my work, and I want to make something that’s very meaningful,” he says. “It’s going to tell you something. It’s going to hit you in your heart.”
Sometimes years in the making, Melancon’s portraits exemplify his commitment to transforming the small, tactile materials into compositions evocative of painting. He references artists like Kerry James Marshall (previously) and Kehinde Wiley (previously) as inspiration and is equally drawn to those working today as he is to the art historical canon. His style emerged “through studying Botticelli and Caravaggio. I like the light in the old-school paintings, in the Florentine art, in the art from the 1700s.”
Beginning with a black-and-white sketch, Melancon always completes his subjects’ eyes first to “try to bring people back to the living stage with the portraits… so they can live, and they can look at me while I’m beading the rest of the piece.” For the artist, this spirited energy and sense of vitality are directly derived from his bold color palettes that compose a floral blouse or radiant, crown-like headdress.
Although Melancon didn’t mask for this year’s Mardi Gras—instead, he helped garner grants for those participating in the festival through his work on the New Orleans Tourism and Cultural Fund board—he’s currently in progress on a suit titled “Amistad,” in reference to the historic 1839 revolt on the slave ship by the same name. He also plans to continue his portrait series and will see “Say Her Name,” the striking rendering of Taylor acquired by the International African American Museum, on view at the institution when it opens this fall in South Carolina. It’s one of many works that Melancon sees as part of his duty to pass down stories to future generations and teach them about those who’ve profoundly shaped the world today. “That’s another piece that I think in this time very important,” he shares. “People should remember her situation, and that’s why I bead.”
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A former product designer turned bead artist, Jan Huling begins each sculpture with a blank form in the shape of a miniature horse, giant praying mantis, and eager monkey perched on a box. She then glues small glass pieces in meandering lines, concentric circles, and other elaborately constructed motifs. “I don’t sketch out designs beforehand,” she tells Colossal. “Rather I let my designs grow organically and let the work itself inspire me.”
Each embellishment is a study of color, texture, and form, with some patterns structuring facial features like the radiant eyes of the nine-foot “Das Bug” and others adding hypnotic ornaments like the intersecting patches that span the length of the tail in “KoKo.” Although Huling shares that she doesn’t translate any specific motifs, she’s drawn to Huichol traditions and the fantastical alebrije sculptures of Mexico, in addition to Indian artists, Nick Cave (previously), and Tim Burton.
Huling, who’s based in Jersey City Heights, will have sculptures on view at Art Market San Francisco this April through Duane Reed Gallery, and her billowing dress titled “The Gown” is headed to the Museum of Beadwork this summer. Explore a collection of her intricate creations on her site and Instagram. (via Women’s Art)
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From small shells and Amazonian beads, Brazilian-Mexican artist Fefe Talavera strings together elaborate masks that fuse ancient mythologies and contemporary urban culture. The mixed-media works are part of an ongoing series—Talavera shares more on her site and Instagram, along with vibrant silhouettes painted in acrylic and her large-scale murals—that embellish expressive faces with stripes, symmetries, and various geometric patterns. Sometimes spanning upwards of ten feet or featuring a long tuft of straw, the masks are an amalgam of color, motif, and material that blur cultural boundaries and the tenuous distinction between humanity and nature.
The São Paulo-based artist tells Colossal that the series “developed when my government opened the doors to cattle ranchers, when forest fires began, putting an end to Indigenous tribes, exotic animals, and trees,” and initial iterations used açaí seeds, shells, and mirrors to explore birth and death through a mystical lens. “When we looked at our reflection in the work, we would be seeing ourselves with respect and love, and it is this look that we should have with the Amazonia,” she says.
Currently, Talavera is working on a larger-scale piece using 20,000 beads, and she has a solo show planned for May 2022 at Paris’s Bandy Bandy Gallery.
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Anatomical Embroideries Use Precise Stitches and Beads to Portray Muscles, Organs, and Bodily Systems
A single skeletal muscle contains hundreds of thousands of individual fibers stretched in long rows, an anatomical fact that the textile artist behind Ambroidering recreates in an unusually fitting manner. Based in Shropshire, England, the artist stitches precise embroideries of the human body, defining circular systems with sinuous threads, conveying the distinct layers of skin with sparkling beads, and translating the brain’s spongy matter into thick, puffy pockets. You can find many of the biologically focused pieces shown here on Etsy, and for similarly scientific works, check out Amber Griffith’s punch-needle pieces and Emmi Khan’s bodily systems.
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A Monumental Bas-Relief Sculpture by Nick Cave Connects Senegalese and U.S. Cultures in a Web of Beadwork
Innumerable pony beads, pipe cleaners, sequins, and objects gathered from two continents overlay a web of rainbow mesh that’s suspended in the U.S. Embassy atrium in Dakar. Installed in 2012, the expansive work by Chicago-based artist Nick Cave (previously) is composed of amorphous swells and circular patches of multicolor netting that stretch 20 x 25 feet. Physically connecting pieces of both U.S. and Senegalese culture, the webbed, bas-relief sculpture symbolically stands as “a unifier that brings people together,” Cave says in an interview.
Virginia Shore and Robert Soppelsa curated the project for Art in Embassies, a program led by the U.S. Department of State that fosters cross-cultural exchange through visual arts and spans more than 200 venues in 189 countries. “When you think about Art in Embassies and cultural diplomacy, what is interesting for me, as an artist, is, how can I facilitate that within the work that is developed? Yes, I will create the piece for the embassy, but I was also interested in ways to integrate the artists that live and work here,” he says.
Cave developed the structural portion of the work in his Chicago studio, and after meeting Sengalese artists, scholars, and students, he utilized pieces from three locals—Seni M’Baye, Loman Pawlitschek, and Daouda N’Diaye—once on site. The resulting installation, which weighs nearly 500 pounds, took Cave and ten assistants more than three months to complete.
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Arresting Sculptural Reliefs by Artist Anne Samat Layer Everyday Objects with Meticulously Woven Threads
In her fiber-based reliefs, Malaysian artist Anne Samat disrupts classic woven patterns with unusual objects: toy soldiers, rakes, and plastic swords are intertwined in the multi-color threads that fan outward and billow down onto the floor. Comprised of a trio of wall hangings and a free-standing sculpture, “Follow Your Heart Wholeheartedly” meticulously juxtaposes beadwork and traditional South Asian weaving techniques with common items, a project that questions the boundaries of craft and art.
Each section is incredibly complex and infused with references to Samat’s family, identity, and experiences with loss. The largest work, for example, features five sections, with the innermost piece paying homage to her late brother who recently died after a long illness. Flanking the central portion are two stately pillars with pink and blue details that represent her mother and father. The outermost layers that sprawl from floor to ceiling evoke the artist herself and her sister, who are the only two living members of her family. Even the title is derived from advice Samat received from her father before he died.
“Follow Your Heart Wholeheartedly” is on view through February 7, 2021, as part of the Asia Society Triennial.
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Highlights below. For the full collection click here.