Big Chief Demond Melancon explores history, passes the art and attributes of beading to the next generation of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians.
New Orleans is a gumbo of people of all different nationalities and races and all those people show a lot of love to each other,” says artist and Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief Demond Melancon. “I’m part of that gumbo.”
Melancon, who resides with his wife Alicia in the city’s Bywater neighborhood, is a prominent “contemporary bead artist” and Big Chief of the Lower 9th Ward Young Seminole Hunters Mardi Gras tribe. His beaded portraits and exquisite Mardi Gras Indian costumes called suits — all made with thousands of tiny colored beads — are mystical symbols of an African American Creole culture that courses through the city’s veins and historic neighborhoods like the rhythmic motions of the Mississippi. To him, they are spiritual connections to the African diaspora and to elders who keep those traditions alive.
Born and raised in the city’s Lower 9th Ward, Melancon has come a long way in recent decades. His intricately composed and sewed beaded Mardi Gras suits and portraits, depicting greats such as Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin and Professor Longhair, have gained him international acclaim with exhibitions at major museums in New Orleans, New York, Chicago, Miami and, most impressively, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In addition, a 2019 documentary about Melancon’s work premiered at New York’s prestigious Tribeca Film Festival and the Berlin International Film Festival. Last October the Joan Mitchell Foundation awarded Melancon a four-month artist residency at the foundation’s national center in New Orleans.
The 42-year-old Melancon, who studies the works of Italian Renaissance and Dutch masters as well as African American artists, says his bead art has given him purpose, a recognized place in the city’s art world, a sense of self-reliance and broken barriers. He now passes these attributes on to younger generations in his tribe.
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