A needle and a thread. Glass beads. Canvas. Much time. These are the tools and materials that New Orleans-based artist Demond Melancon uses to create his black masking suits and contemporary art portrait series. Over the past five years, Melancon has built on its practice, but its story begins much earlier – 20 years ago, to be precise. CERF +, a safety net for mutual artists, recently introduced us to Melancon, and we took the opportunity to learn more about him, his work and his ambitions.
It was in 1992 when Melancon first became part of the over 200 year old culture known as the Black Masking Culture of New Orleans. His mother had taken him to see indigenous Black Indians and “just clicked” everything, he said. A few years later, when he was in junior high school, Melancon’s friends brought him further into the group. “It was the night of St. Joseph when the Indians put on their suits at night. I went to their houses with my friends and my only friend had a suit and that just blew me away. And so I became Indian. That’s how it started, right there. And it branched out on and on until I came to Ferdinand Bigard. “
Melancon had the opportunity to learn from several influential Big Chiefs, not only about sewing, but also about the history and traditions of the Black Masking Culture of New Orleans. However, it was Big Chief Ferdinand Bigard who took him under his wing and taught him how to actually lay the pearls on the canvas. Bigard told him that previous Black Masters used fish scales, bottle caps, and their mother’s brooches – whatever they could find – to make their suits. Melancon then studied with the revered Nathanial Williams, thanks to a 1993 Louisiana Folklife Apprenticeship Grant, and forged a close relationship with him before joining the Seminole Hunters tribe.
Before Melancon became the Big Chief of his own tribe, he was best known as the savage Spy Boy for the Seminole Hunters under Big Chief Keitoe Jones. “I was a spy boy for years,” he said. “He’s the gang leader, he heads the front of the tribe and gets all the signals back to the chief to let him know what’s going on,” Melancon said. “As a spy boy, I only made beads and made suits. I conformed to his (Williams) demeanor and was worshiped by all the other Indians in town for being the nation’s spy boy. To this day I don’t think anyone would do it like that, ”he laughed.
In 2012, the elders of the Black Masking community stated that Melancon would then be known as Big Chief Demond Melancon of the Young Seminole Hunters, his own tribe who lived in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans where he grew up.
Big Chief Melancon is known for its meticulous hand-sewn beadwork, the use of very small beads, and the attention to detail. The massive suits he creates and wears as a black master in ceremonial battles on Mardi Gras day are sculptural forms based on his own body. The combination of opaque, transparent, matt and metallic pearls on intricate spots creates a broad spectrum of colors and depths that ultimately reveals a visual narrative. After the patches are sewn together, the suit is covered with brightly colored ostrich feathers as the final touch.
“I use progressive lenses and it’s like a magnifying glass right on my face. I just lock myself in and have a lot of light,” he says of his process. “I like to make big pieces and have my place, play my music loudly. I like to listen to podcasts and art interviews or I listen to my reggae music. That’s all I hear while doing the actual beadwork, reggae music and often jazz, old school jazz like Thelonious Monk. “
Melancon’s black masking suits are massive and technically difficult to manufacture. Its main aprons – the large part of a suit between the waist and ankles – are often over 50 inches wide. Melancon uses smaller bead sizes than most Black Maskers to make its aprons: 11/0, each measuring 2.1mm. The size of each suit, which weighs roughly 100 pounds and is sewn with a million tiny beads, is the equivalent of over 4,000 hours of sewing. Big Chief Demond will only wear his finished suit a few times during the year – Mardi Gras Day, St. Joseph’s Night, and Downtown Super Sunday – before pulling it back and starting the next.
And what happens to Melancon’s suits afterwards? “Some of the suits that were important in the New Orleans historical narrative are in the Arthur Roger Gallery. Some of the other pieces were so big that I took off the aprons and put them in frames, some are hanging in my studio. One is due to be auctioned off at Sotheby’s this October. “
There is also hope one day of having a studio outside of his home. “I live with all of my work. My suits, the parts I’m going to draw next, new parts – I do everything in my home studio, ”he said when he shared his dream. Melancon usually works on more than one piece at a time. There are currently five large pieces scattered around his studio while he is working on an upcoming show in October. It’s easy to see how and why space is tight.
Demond Melancons work takes up influences with symbolism and meaning and at the same time confronts stereotypical representations of black identity. With a deep interest in visual storytelling and portraiture, he pushes the use of glass beads as a medium for contemporary art into the larger arts sector while repositioning historically overlooked subjects and reinterpreting the portrayal of the black theme.
“I study all ancient works and I love paintings. I don’t know how to paint, but I paint with the pearls. “From contemporary artists like Kerry James Marshall, Barkley Hendricks and Basquiat to Renaissance artists like Caravaggio and Botticelli, Melancon finds something special in everyone’s work.
“I do it to inspire people, especially colleagues in my culture, to be better than they think we should be. In New Orleans, culture doesn’t consider you an artist. I’ve branched out to show them that pearls can be contemporary art, fine art. That’s what I stand for and that’s what I fight for. “
In addition to being the Big Chief, Melancon is one of the founding teachers of the Material Institute in New Orleans, where he teaches pearls there. Of course he also teaches his craft to the youth in his own tribe.
“Right now, every stitch is about making my work accessible to a larger group of people. Making the work travel to see different places. There is a beautiful art scene everywhere, art is different everywhere. Most of the time when people see my work they think it’s paintings. Then they learn that they are pearls and that they go crazy, ”he said.
“I hope that one day I can get people to see my work through a lens that takes me to different places. I made a piece that is almost life size, I made Moses Isaac Hayes. It’s almost 6 feet tall and I did it in a year. You can see it at the Central Station Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. I made pieces for Barkley Hendricks’ wife. I just did a piece called “Lunch with Picasso” and it was one of Hendricks’ paintings. I’m working on a few others from Fela Kuti. A big piece called “The Amistad Takeover” in which the slaves get on the ship to return to Africa. I think my work has to be seen in other art worlds. “We couldn’t agree more.
Demond Melancon’s work has been exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, Art Miami, the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art in Brooklyn, and the Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans.
CERF + was launched in 1985 by artists for artists in the craft community as a basic mutual aid. CERF + serves artists working in craft disciplines by providing a safety net to support strong and sustainable careers. Their core services are educational programs, advocacy, networking, and emergency relief.