Presenting the first international exhibit on Mardi Gras Indian artworks at Palazzo Mora

Away from its context and presented in a different setting, 300Forward brings to Venice at Palazzo Mora an installation filled with colours and meaning that shines a light on the history, identity and culture of the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans

The mission of 300Forward is to support and promote the economic sustainability of New Orleans traditions through cultural preservation. The multi-faceted creations of Mardi Gras Indians are some of the most important African American art in the United States ー they endure as carriers of their ancestral heritage. As a way to elevate their voices and share their stories beyond the North American context, 300Forward showcases at Palazzo Mora a beautiful exhibition and Ruth Sladovich Chouest, Founder of the gallery, shares some insights on the show.

Why was it important for 300Forward to participate in Personal Structures – Reflections?

It is important for the Mardi Gras Indians to tell their own story, culturally and individually. This is an old and hidden culture whose traditions are richly expressed through music, song, tribal structure, rules of engagement, procession, and dress, with unique expressions that connect with ancestral African roots.  While each costume they prepare, known as a “suit,” is unique and tells a story rich with symbolism and meaning, often only those close to the Indian’s inner circle will ever come to know the true intentions behind it. Moreover, very few exhibits of Mardi Gras Indian suits and artworks have been presented outside of New Orleans. Although Mardi Gras Indians have travelled and performed internationally, the exhibit at Palazzo Mora is the first international exhibit of multiple Mardi Gras Indian creations.  

An invitation to present the artwork of a little-known culture to the art world at the Venice Biennale in Palazzo Mora is a special honour. Mardi Gras Indians don’t create their costumes in pursuit of the art community.  In this spiritual and meditative endeavour within their tradition, the suits are the individual creative manifestations of their larger culture. 

It is important to give the Mardi Gras Indians recognition for their contribution to the art and culture of New Orleans. This cultural treasure would not be sustained but for the deep commitment of the individuals who comprise the many tribes. In addition to thousands of hours spent on creating an individual suit, each Indian will spend thousands of dollars on materials including glass beads, pearls, rhinestones, velvet, ostrich plums, feathers and trim.

Being this the first time to present in Venice, how has this experience been for 300Forward? What were the challenges as well as satisfactions to present such work in a different context?

Time was a serious challenge in compiling the artwork for presentation. Although beadwork and construction are ongoing endeavours, the invitation to participate at Personal Structures came during the busy sewing season: while concepts are usually sketched out and developed in a month or so after Mardi Gras, the lengthy process of beading and construction continues in earnest during the winter and ultimately the attention is focused on the upcoming Mardi Gras.  

Funding was another hurdle. We were fortunate to find a benefactor in Greg Keller, whose foundation funded our most critical expenses.

However, the most rewarding aspect was the success in bringing recognition to a relatively unknown and underserved culture to the global art world featured at Palazzo Mora during the Venice Biennale.

You are bringing to Venice a living memory, a beautiful culture and a rich history. For a public unfamiliar with Mardi Gras Indians and their traditions, what is the key message or reflection to capture?

The social and cultural activities of Mardi Gras Indian tribes continue throughout the year and they endure as carriers and preservers of their ancestral heritage. The culture challenges the authority of historical racial prejudices using art, music and community alliance as cultural resistance to racial violence and oppression.  

The origins of Mardi Gras in New Orleans come from French settlers. In the New World French colonies, everyone was required to be Catholic, including the enslaved, yet historically, people of colour were prohibited from masking during Carnival season. The 150-year-old Black Mardi Gras Indian culture evolved organically partially in response to the exclusivity of “white” Mardi Gras, as an expression of resistance and as a tribute to the Native Americans who assisted the escaped enslaved surviving in the swamps around New Orleans. The French Code Noir allowed the enslaved to gather in Congo Square, outside the ramparts of the old city, on Sundays to practice their African traditions of food, dance, ceremony and market. When the escaped enslaved living in “Maroon” camps with Indigenous Indians would go to Congo Square, they often dressed like the Indigenous with whom they lived. They were perceived as Indian and therefore perceived as free people. 

Early on Carnival morning, the Mardi Gras Indians emerge from their houses to reveal for the first time unique “Suits” of beads, sequins, and feathers that have taken the entire year to make. Each participant makes their own suit. It is a centuries-old tradition with mysterious beginnings and complex oral history.  The act of “Masking Indian” is an expression of Freedom, Resistance and triumphant cultural Resilience.

What can visitors find in your installation at Palazzo Mora?

You will know you are in the right room with the explosion of vibrant colour in the artwork and on the walls. Mardi Gras Indian imagery is all about sparkling colour and exuberant celebration. There one can also hear the energetic music of Mardi Gras Indians.

Every piece in the exhibit tells its own story. The installation at Palazzo Mora presents two complete suits demonstrating the two distinct styles of Mardi Gras Indian suits defined by their geographic neighbourhoods. Uptown Indians sew flat beaded narrative panels while Downtown Indians have adopted a 3-D technique which includes geometric or figurative elements often with Afrocentric themes. 

The yellow suit was created by Chief Howard Miller of the Creole Wild West tribe with Uptown-style narrative beadwork. ChiefMiller has been creating suits for over 50 years and the one exhibited at Palazzo Mora depicts the White Buffalo which, for Indigenous Americans, is a sign of life’s sacred loop.

The other suit present, the spectacular “Circle of Life” lavender-coloured 3D suit, is made by Big Chief Darryl Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas as a tribute to his dear friend and fellow artist, John Scott. As a young boy, Chief Montana worked in a body and fender shop, where he saved his wages to buy materials to make his first suit at nine years old. He has masked Indians for over 50 years and he is fourth generation Big Chief.  The 3D Downtown style is attributed to his father, Big Chief Tootie Montana.

Along the suits, the room is filled with visual elements and sounds. What do these represent?

Also by Chief Montana’s suit, hangs on the wall the Crown and Apron of one suit along with the Crown of another suit by Big Chief Tyronne Casby of the Mohawk Hunters in the west bank Algiers neighbourhood.  In addition, there are 12 “patches” representing portions of seven individual suits. In one case, there is a complete set of patches compromising one suit by Spy Boy Lloyd Keeler.

On the same wall as Mr. Keeler, there are two beautifully crafted large Aprons by Flag Boy Ronnel Butler: one Apron is a memorial to his late brother and depicts two warriors paddling their canoe to the last resting place with a setting sun in the background; the other Apron represents the sacred Peace Pipe ceremony.

Additionally, two video screens take you further into the visual experience of Mardi Gras Indian procession. One screen contains images of over 400 participants parading on Super Sunday. The other screen has three exuberant videos, provided by Charlie Steiner and WWOZ community radio, of a procession and the ritual of one Big Chief and some of his tribe getting dressed to venture out on Mardi Gras day.

There are hundreds of photos showing the different styles and kinds of suits at Palazzo Mora. Looking at the slide show you can try to spot all of them.

Photo credits: Federico Vespignani

Each piece is unique and must require a lot of work. What is the process for each suit and how does it connect with the Mardi Gras tradition?

As in the lyrics of an Indian song, “every year I make a new suit,” it really does require that amount of time, energy and concentration, and one can only wear the suit that one year.

In the early days, when resources were scarce, suits would have been made from less archival materials.  At one time the scales of gar fishes were dyed and sewn to suits, and sometimes found ornaments such as costume jewellery pieces, or beads from cast-off dresses. In those days, the suits would have been dismantled of the reusable components and the remains burned.

Today, the suits are made with canvas, satin, velvet and carefully selected beads, pearls, sequins and feathers. Traditionally people learn how to bead, sew and construct their suits from their Big Chief and others in their tribe, and each Indian has their own technique for beading. After all, the suit must withstand the rigours of parading all day, dancing and the actions of mock battle. They are quite sturdy and heavy, usually upwards of 46 kilos, over 100 pounds.

How are these different tribes and what figures constitute these?

The culture is complex and fully formed, with music, song, patois, and dress with a hierarchy of tribal structure and engagement. Big Chief is the leader of his tribe, Wild Man is the spiritual leader and protector, Flag Boy carries the colours and symbols of his tribe, and Spy Boy is the scout. Each of these positions has its own style of suit. Big Chief is of course the most elaborate. Wild Man always has horns on his headdress. Flag Boy has his staff. As Spy Boy ventures out first in search of rival tribes to engage, he must be nimble in his smaller trimmed suit. He will send a message using a variety of signals to the Flag Boy as to the whereabouts of rival tribes. The Flag Boy signals the Wild Man and Big Chief.  The Big Chief will decide if the tribe will engage in mock battle or tribute or pass around. Only Big Chiefs talk to Big Chiefs.

Also important to notice that despite historically it has been a male-dominated activity, in recent years women have participated as tribal Queens whose suits continue with the theme of the tribe.

Photo credits: Federico Vespignani

How do the works present relate to the concept of reflections?

I think this is best answered by Chief Tyronne Casby of the Mohawk Hunters: “As a proud member of the Mohawk Hunters and a culture bearer, I humbly recognize, appreciate and celebrate the passion, patience, sacrifice and persistence that is required to mask and inspire generations to continue to produce our culture. The Mardi Gras Indian masking tradition is grounded in African cultural expressions, such as music, dance and spirituality. Our Suits, chants, dances and songs express and symbolize our spirit of resistance and celebrate our individual and collective resilience to overcome the evils of racism, oppression and hardship. I was called to mask Indian by the ancestral spirits in the drumbeats and songs I heard as a boy. I continued to mask as a man because I endeavour to uplift the spirits of individuals living in the Algiers community. My hope is that my over 50 years of masking can be used to enhance our understanding of positive Family and Community values and can inspire us to keep our cultural tradition alive”.

Currently, there are approximately 40 Black Masking Tribes in New Orleans, whose members perpetuate one of the oldest and uniquely African American art forms. We hope recognition brings inquiry for acquisition to help sustain the culture and craft. 


You can visit 300Forwards's installations at Palazzo Mora until the 27th of November or discover their work by exploring the virtual tours online. Discover more about the gallery and exhibit on its profile online or website.

Presenting the first international exhibit on Mardi Gras Indian artworks at Palazzo Mora

Away from its context and presented in a different setting, 300Forward brings to Venice at Palazzo Mora an installation filled with colours and meaning that shines a light on the history, identity and culture of the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans

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