As a Big Chief, Demond Melancon is one of the carriers of the more than 200-year-old tradition of the Black Masking culture of New Orleans, a unique subculture dating back to the 1800s when Native Americans helped enslaved African runaways, forging an intercultural friendship that includes rituals, craftsmanship, and spirituality. For decades he has been developing an art practice based on the beading techniques he learned as a Black Masker. He creates Black Masking suits for ceremonial and ritual events such as Mardi Gras and St Joseph’s Night, and has also developed a portraiture series, in both cases using only needle and thread to apply glass beads to canvas. The life-size suits comprise many individual beaded patches stitched together, the final form framed by coloured ostrich plumes. Each of the suits reflects on historical and mythical accounts, transferring them into a collective visual narrative that centres Black subjects, their own history, struggles, philosophy, and knowledge, thereby confronting stereotypical representations of Black identity. Bras-Coupé, for example, is dedicated to a mythical runaway and depicts figures at Congo Square, where dance and trading were possible to obtain the spiritual and material resources necessary for freedom. In a similar vein, another one of Melancon’s works, Jah Defender (2020), was placed on top of where a confederate monument once stood. 

Works in the exhibition: Bras-Coupé (Vest and Dickie) (2016), beading, glass beads, and rhinestones on canvas, framed, 89.5 × 127 cm; Africa (2011), beading, glass beads, rhinestones on canvas, framed, 96.5 × 121.9 cm; Red Cloud & Sitting Bull (2013), beading, glass beads, rhinestones on canvas, 137.2 × 165.1 cm. Courtesy of Arthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans