An exhibition at Paris’ Quai Branly Museum has put the rich culture of New Orleans in the spotlight, with a striking display of carnival costumes and an in-depth look at the city’s history and traditions.
Titled Black Indians de La Nouvelle-Orléans, the show celebrates the “cultural and artistic creativity of African Americans in New Orleans”, say the organizers, who include experts from the Louisiana port city. “The most spectacular form of this creativity is the Black Indians carnival parade,” they add.
“Behind the dazzling costumes of beads and feathers lies a story of violence and resilience.”
The exhibition not only presents the colourful artistic creations that are paraded during Mardi Gras festivities, but it takes visitors on a historical trip that starts before the 1718 creation of New Orleans and continues to the present day - highlighting the role France and other European states played in colonizing this region of the Americas. The impact of the mass arrival of Haitian refugees in Louisiana in the early 1800s, following the Haitian Revolution, is equally explored.
This comprehensive perspective demonstrates that the show was designed “in partnership with representatives of Black Indians communities”, as the curators point out. It achieves the stated aim of providing both a “geographical journey - from Europe to Africa and America” - and a historical timeline with key dates and personalities.
Visitors aren’t spared a discussion of the brutal aspects of this history, and the exhibits include a film about the French slave ship Aurore, for instance, whose “arrival in the Gulf of Mexico on 6 June 1719 announced the birth and horrors of the slave-owning society of New Orleans”.
In fact, during the 18th century, New Orleans and the Caribbean together were the leading producers of sugar and coffee, from the labour of enslaved people, as the exhibition details.
“Artists who adopt this style see, in the indigenous people’s claims, a form of resistance to US society’s hegemonic power - and to them, this resistance resembles their own struggle,” he added.
Associate curator Kim Vaz-Deville, a university professor in New Orleans, explained that for the show she worked closely with the artists, or maskers, as they’re called.
“I interviewed those in the exhibition to learn about how they came to the tradition, their creative process, and their motivation to undertake such major projects every year,” Vaz-Deville stated. “I collaborated with them to ensure the text we included in the show accurately reflected their messages and intentions for participation in the tradition.”
Visitors to the exhibition will no doubt come away with lasting images of the stunning costumes on display, but they will gain insight as well into New Orleans’ history and current challenges (especially after Hurricane Katrina in 2005) – issues that are also addressed in this memorable exposition.
Photos, top to bottom: a poster of the exhibition; costume titled The Taking (La Capture), of Big Chief Dow Michael Edwards, 2019.