with Demond Melancon
‘All on a Mardi Gras Day’ Follows Big Chief Demond Melancon as He Creates His Beaded Suit for the Annual Celebration
“Who are the Indians? This is the old stories that were told to me. The slaves ran away through the routes in the Underground Railroad, and the Indians gave them refuge in different spots. So the Mardi Gras Indians pay homage to them,” says Big Chief Demond Melancon at the opening of “All on a Mardi Gras Day.” The short, intimate documentary, directed by Michal Pietrzyk, follows the artist as he prepares for the annual celebration, which involves painstakingly beading the vibrant suit he’ll wear during the festival.
Melancon, who we spoke with last spring as he worked on an ongoing portrait series, is a leader of the tribe of the Young Seminole Hunters in New Orleans, the city where he was raised. Much of Pietrzyk’s film centers on place and community, describing how gentrification has pushed the artist out of his neighborhood and how his role as Big Chief turns him into a sort of father figure to some of the younger members.
“All on a Mardi Gras Day” also reveals Melancon’s immense sacrifice for and dedication to his art, from waking up before dawn and retiring well after midnight to living in a neighborhood with cheaper rent so that he can afford the beads, feathers, and other materials he needs to create his suits. As the celebration nears, he sequesters himself at home for fear of missing the parade, which once happened when he was detained by police.
Although a centuries-long tradition, Melancon is quick to point out that being a Black Masker, the name he prefers to Mardis Gras Indian, continues to hold relevance today. “Because of not being able to participate in Mardis Gras originally, we made a carnival for ourselves. We made Black Masking. You can’t forget. You can’t forget because of the injustices that are still going on, so when I put my suit on, when I sew my suit, I’m sewing my suit in rebellion to that,” he says.
After showing at several festivals, “All on a Mardi Gras Day” has garnered numerous awards and nominations. Watch the documentary on Pietrzyk’s Vimeo, and find out more about Melancon and his work on Instagram.
Share this story
Invoking Black Masking Traditions, Artist Demond Melancon Beads Elaborate, Celebratory Portraits
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.”
To explore Melancon’s full portfolio, visit his site and Instagram.
Share this story
Editor's Picks: Science
Highlights below. For the full collection click here.