Tribal Design Mardi Gras Style

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In 1993 illustrator/designer Mark Andresen was commissioned to do a group portrait of 17 of New Orleans legendary Mardi Gras Indian chiefs. The purpose was to make lithograph posters to sell with proceeds being split among the artist and participants. As Andresen told me, and for those who don’t know: The black Indians of New Orleans are a singularly unique black culture but also deeply part of the authenticity of the city’s traditions. In many cases, these are mixed blood African-Americans with some Indian ancestors. Slaves who ran away and intermarried. They started out as gangs and territorial fights using Mardi Gras’s tradition of “masking” as a way to avoid police and have fierce rivalries – fights with guns and knives. The masking became more and more of their focus than the violence. A hundred years later, these people have become folk artisans making magnificent costumes. Looking more like James Audubon’s bird portraits than anything. Magnificent like Montezuma’s plumed finery. They are also a wellspring of much New Orleans music.

“I had the friendship of one of the artists: Chief Larry Bannock (who passed away about 2 years ago), Andresen notes. “I drew his designs for him for years. We were friends and artists together. Indians on horseback being a theme, I was one of the few white people who participated in the design work.

Andresen did two large paintings with attention to making each one a recognizable portrait of the chief. “Just like E.J. Bellocq’s photos of Storyville, these two paintings are a record of the essence of New Orleans history.” The posters were made, some sold, and then Hurricane Katrina wiped out the archives, leaving Andresen with artists proofs and the original paintings that survived.

Photo by Will Crocker

Andresen is currently trying to place these paintings into a New Orleans museum as historical documentation of the Black Indian tradition. There are two museums in New Orleans: The Ogden Museum of Southern Art and the High Museum. “These museums have asked me to DONATE the art, but, being an artist, I can’t afford to give them away,” he laments. So he is trying to get financial sponsorship so that this art can indeed be donated to a museum and made public. You can help.

The paintings are of historical significance. They are researched and identified by name of each chief. “Several have died since so this is a record of their story,” he adds. “It was a gathering of 17 tribal chiefs. In real life they are welders and day laborers, but on Carnival Day they are like kings. There is a strain of rebelliousness in all of them. Its their tradition to bow to no one.”

Larry Bannock (the man in the photos) lived in poorest of the poor neighborhoods: Gert Town. “It sounds corny but it was a bridge of mutual respect across racial divide: I knew how to draw, and I helped him design the images on his suit. I drew and lettered.”

To help support this preservation/donation project contact:

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →