'Big Chief, You da Prettiest!'
A subtle nod to the longevity and cultural relevance of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition
Reviewed by Kate X Messer, Fri., July 10, 2009
'Big Chief, You da Prettiest!'
Julia C. Butridge Gallery, Dougherty Arts Center
through July 27
I remember when Darryl Montana came to Bastrop. Son of famous Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief Tootie Montana and famous big chief in his own right, Montana the younger spoke of how, after Hurricane Katrina, Mardi Gras Indians searched for their precious handmade suits amidst the devastation – suits that took a year to sew, sew, sew, so many feathers, beads ... so much history. Once pulled from the muck, the suits were nailed to the fronts of houses. I remember reading about this in Chris Rose's jarring, hypnotic Katrina memoir, 1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina. Rose described the ghostly sight of these evidences of survival. I remember the jolt I felt when I recognized Tootie Montana, though I had never seen Tootie Montana nor any picture or likeness. Still, I recognized his face flocked in a halo of yellow feathers and weathered features on a massive mural along Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans. I remember the next day sobbing, watching the documentary in the Mardi Gras museum, when Darryl's face appeared testifying to the history of the suits, as he had in Bastrop. Pieces put together, like so many yellow feathers. The feathers of his father. Of his tribe.
Memories have a way of penetrating and running deep. Deep enough to know how weird it felt to see the Mardi Gras Indians room at the New Orleans Museum of Art – looming, larger-than-life mannequins, freakish and harrowing, in an air of Smithsonian. Positively ethnographic! Like an exhibit on the history of man or some great white hunter's trophy case. What the fuck, living history? Not to be disrespectful: NOMA's was a gorgeous and powerful exhibit, but the context was confounding and impersonal.
Austin photographer Gene Vandiver and videographer Donna Pardue each have ties to the Big Easy and spent time there after the storm. Pardue got to know Jermaine Cooper, flag boy for New Orleans gang Trouble Nation. Cooper shared his history with Pardue as she filmed his path gathering his own tribe, taking the name of his grandmother (Bossier), and emerging as big chief of the 7th Ward Creole Hunters. The film shows in a loop along the Butridge Gallery's east wall. Vandiver, who worked construction post-K, documented Mardi Gras Indian neighborhood parades against backdrops of highway bridges, gas stations, and shotguns draped in Mardi Gras beads. His photos ribbon the gallery, providing their own rainbow history. The show is subtle, hardly as flamboyant as its subject. But it stands as quiet tribute. Together, Vandiver and Pardue have put together a new chapter, a nod to the past and a testimonial to the future, to the longevity and the cultural relevance of this continuing tradition – an exploration of the roles of flag boy, spy boy, big chief, etc., and further, how these gangs maintain community continuity in troubling times.
"He's the Prettiest" was the title of the New Orleans Museum of Art exhibit and tribute to Tootie Montana. "Big Chief, You Da Prettiest!" takes its place in the lineage of today's post-K tribes honoring ancestral ties and memories.