All on a Mardi Gras Day

Pretty and So Much More
by Cherice Harrison-Nelson

My earliest memories are dreamlike explosions of colors and aroura borealis flashes, that are not only visual, but also visceral. Later, as a young girl, I remember standing before my daddy, the late Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr., stretching my head back to take in all of his prettiness. He seemed so tall, like a majestic mythical warrior with his Swarovski-crystal-encrusted feathered crown. His movement was innately choreographed to the percussion-backed call and response chants of Two-Way-PokeyWay, Shallow Water, and Golden Crown. It was all so natural, I didn’t realize this phenomenon known as “Masking Indian” was simultaneously unique, ancient, and contemporary.

The precise origin of the tradition is not known with 100% certainty. My dad, the late Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr., said it is an homage to the mutual struggle of people from African and Native American descent to experience freedom in America. He further elaborated: an homage to the struggle for freedom of movement, spiritual practices, culinary ways, and language expressions—in general, to have opportunities to be full-fledged citizens with economic opportunities and to live self-actualized lives.

I am the third of five generations in my family to participate in this Mardi Gras/Carnival-related creative art expression that includes: original ceremonial dress art, community theater, ritual dance and procession, call-and-response narrative chants, and poly-rhythmic percussive rhythms. The earliest participants in this unique tradition practiced in African-American communities throughout New Orleans, LA referred to themselves as Indians, later the name Mardi Gras Indians was imposed on them, and, recently, many have embraced the term Black Masking Indians. Personally, I have adopted the term maroon. A maroon has historically been described as: enslaved people of African descent who self-emancipated themselves from enslavers and joined or established independent, hidden settlements. Maroons utilized the area’s topography to evade capture.

Participation is personal for me; it is a spiritual calling. Although, I have been an ancillary member of the tradition since birth, I didn’t actually dress out until 1992. The first year I participated as Second Queen, after my dad refused to allow me to be his queen. The following year, he elevated me to be his Queen, the Big Queen. Upon the announcement, I excitedly inquired what my new role would be as the Big Queen. He matter-of-factly stated, “You are a mere embellishment. If a chief is pretty, he is prettier with a queen.” That declaration stirred within me the quest to be self-actualized as a woman in this African-American male-led tradition. I knew it would not be to dress or assume any chiefly traits, but to carve out a unique identity of strength as a Queen. I have done that through my work as a narrative artist, via creation of my original art ceremonial attire (referred to as a suit), and cultural activist. The quality of being pretty and being told you are pretty within this tradition is highly regarded; for many, it is the pinnacle of success. My father was different; he reiterated to members of our “gang”, the Guardians of the Flame, that you cannot be motivated solely by the desire to be pretty. Pretty is important, but you must say something, make social commentary, note historical events—i.e., put something on people’s minds. He stressed that art should be provocative, and interactive and encourage dialogue and refection.

My suiting (masking) and suit-design style honors my West African ancestry. As an African born in America without a clear pathway back to my ancestral homeland, the narrative attire and original visual-art creative expressions serve to reconnect me, one bead and one stitch at a time. Beading is a laborious obsession. The process and the content of my creations guide my life. For me, it is a way of stripping down to the essence of my being. It is bringing forth my personal narrative in the purest sense, without regard for imposed standards of any kind. I get to set my standard; I get to tell my story on my own terms. It is the ultimate way for me to experience freedom, in a frame of mind that I can only describe as euphoric. My standards are not dependent on western ethics. After all, my hair is kinky, my knees knocked, and my teeth gapped, and my brown skin covers my very ample 220+ pounds of voluminousness.

My inspiration and techniques come from many individuals and experiences. First and foremost, my parents grounded me and all of my siblings in an appreciation of the fact that our history did not begin in the bowels of ships, that it predates the Trans-Atlantic trade in human-beings. My dad was an avid reader and student of philosophy, art, music, world religions, sociology, and history. As he neared the end of his life, he embraced expressing himself through surreal imagery, based on his love of the work of Salvador Dali. His work took on a dark cast in revealing the ills of society. It is his fearless truth telling that serves as inspiration for me and that drives me to tell my own truth through clear, rather than rose-colored, lenses.

I read a Frida Kahlo biography when I was undergoing chemotherapy. It was a paradigm shift from how I had seen the world up to that time; I embraced telling my story that year, a story of “kicking cancer’s butt”. The suit, titled “Rise Up!” depicts me as a rising phoenix, symbolizing my rise and metamorphosis. As a beadwork artist, I incorporate beads of different sizes, textures, and materials to create narrative images for the ceremonial attire I create and debut annually on Carnival Day in New Orleans. Personal research has broadened my awareness of narrative beadwork traditions of the Yoruba People and others from West Africa. With deliberate intent, I began to embrace the characteristics and colors of the Orishas/Loas (Voodoo Gods and Goddesses) in my suits in 2007. Since then, each year features a color associated with one of them and beaded images that overtly or covertly allude to their qualities. In 2018, I incorporated the warrior Oya, the Orisha/Loa of transformation, thunder, lightning, winds, hurricanes, the marketplace, graveyards, and tornados. That suit also depicted images that commemorated the contributions of African Americans during The City of New Orleans Tricentennial. This year, 2019, my suit is inspired by Obatala, the Orisha of exceptional children, justice, and mercy. As I person of the African Diaspora, I create original art that incorporates West African imagery, themes, materials, and techniques to ground it in ancestral origins of sacred significance.

During the past quarter century I have documented my participation through exhibitions, convening panels with tradition participants, mentoring the Young Guardians of the Flame as Mommy Queen, writing essays and the creation of original narrative art that includes ceremonial dress attire debuted on Carnival Day, beadwork centered assemblages, and theatrical production set design. It is through this work that I found my place of strength—beyond that as a mere embellishment, as a supporter, artists and documentarian, who happens to be pretty, pretty, Queen Reesie, of the Guardians of the Flame. Pretty, pretty and so much more.

Cherice Harrison-Nelson is an educator, narrative visual and performance artist, and arts administrator. She is the co-editor of 11 publications and coordinated numerous exhibitions and panels on West African inspired cultural traditions from New Orleans. Her creative expressions have been performed, presented and exhibited locally and internationally. She is the recipient of several honors: Fulbright Scholarship to study in West Africa; Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities Award, and 2016 United States Artist Fellowship. She approaches her art as a cognitive provocateur, with intentionality to engage observers through imagery and performance that simultaneously explore gender roles, classism and other limiting/confining norms.