“Who are the Indians? This is the old stories that were told to me. The slaves ran away through the routes in the Underground Railroad, and the Indians gave them refuge in different spots. So the Mardi Gras Indians pay homage to them,” says Big Chief Demond Melancon at the opening of “All on a Mardi Gras Day.” The short, intimate documentary, directed by Michal Pietrzyk, follows the artist as he prepares for the annual celebration, which involves painstakingly beading the vibrant suit he’ll wear during the festival.
Melancon, who we spoke with last spring as he worked on an ongoing portrait series, is a leader of the tribe of the Young Seminole Hunters in New Orleans, the city where he was raised. Much of Pietrzyk’s film centers on place and community, describing how gentrification has pushed the artist out of his neighborhood and how his role as Big Chief turns him into a sort of father figure to some of the younger members.
“All on a Mardi Gras Day” also reveals Melancon’s immense sacrifice for and dedication to his art, from waking up before dawn and retiring well after midnight to living in a neighborhood with cheaper rent so that he can afford the beads, feathers, and other materials he needs to create his suits. As the celebration nears, he sequesters himself at home for fear of missing the parade, which once happened when he was detained by police.
Although a centuries-long tradition, Melancon is quick to point out that being a Black Masker, the name he prefers to Mardis Gras Indian, continues to hold relevance today. “Because of not being able to participate in Mardis Gras originally, we made a carnival for ourselves. We made Black Masking. You can’t forget. You can’t forget because of the injustices that are still going on, so when I put my suit on, when I sew my suit, I’m sewing my suit in rebellion to that,” he says.
After showing at several festivals, “All on a Mardi Gras Day” has garnered numerous awards and nominations. Watch the documentary on Pietrzyk’s Vimeo, and find out more about Melancon and his work on Instagram.
Do stories and artists like this matter to you? Become a Colossal Member today and support independent arts publishing for as little as $5 per month. You’ll connect with a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about contemporary art, read articles and newsletters ad-free, sustain our interview series, get discounts and early access to our limited-edition print releases, and much more. Join now!