Currents of meaning in Mardi Gras masking

Somehow, my first Mardi Gras costume survived its drenching from the floodwaters of the federal levee failure of 2005.

Cathy Hughes communicated her experience of Mardi Gras in 2001 through her Mardi Gras Virgin costume.

Cathy Hughes communicated her experience of Mardi Gras in 2001 through her Mardi Gras Virgin costume.

Mardi Gras 2001 was my first, so I wore a white veil, attached to a velvety headband, and took to the St. Charles Avenue parade route as a Mardi Gras Virgin. The costume expressed not only my experience of Mardi Gras that year, but also the journalistic nature of my creativity, which focuses on expression of my experience of reality rather than invention of new realities.

It’s just who I am. I’m not an alien or a mermaid, and neither am I a person who spends much time imagining the lives of aliens or mermaids.

The role of masking and identity was at the heart of an ArtSpeak discussion Tuesday night at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, associated with the exhibit “Brilliant Disguise: Masks and Other Transformations,” which will run through June 16, 2013.

Proud of the Pulitzer Prize she shared with the rest of The Times-Picayune staff in 2006, Cathy Hughes dressed as The Times-Picayune tower while marching with the Krewe of Red Beans and Rice in 2011.

Proud of the Pulitzer Prize she shared with the rest of The Times-Picayune staff in 2006, Cathy Hughes dressed as The Times-Picayune tower while marching with the Krewe of Red Beans and Rice in 2011.

Wayne Phillips, curator of costumes and textiles and curator of Carnival collections at the Louisiana State Museum, focused on the European masking traditions behind the display we see in New Orleans on Mardi Gras, the day set aside for Christians to cut loose before the penitential season of Lent.

“We all have masks in our closets, we all have costumes in our closet, but sometimes we don’t understand the meaning behind it,” Phillips said.

Adventuresome spring fertility and purification rites from ancient Greece and Rome were “cleaned up” and Christianized by the 5th or 6th century, Phillips said, but naughty associations lingered. “If you are trying to get away with mischief on this last day before you have to give it up, you might want to conceal your identity,” he said.

Masks can be not only a shield against the social consequences of intoxication, sexual display, and disrespectful mockery of authority, “but you can also think of masking as a revelation of your personality,” Phillips said, quoting Oscar Wilde, who wrote in his book “Intentions,” “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

“Masking is a disguise, but masking also is freedom,” Phillips said.

For the inaugural march of the Dames de Perlage in 2013, Cathy Hughes created an image of the tarot card The Fool, symbolizing her moving forward into an uncertain future with an open mind and an open heart.

For the inaugural march of the Dames de Perlage in 2013, Cathy Hughes created an image of the tarot card The Fool, symbolizing her moving forward into an uncertain future with an open mind and an open heart.

A contrasting approach to masking was described by William Fagaly, curator of African art at the New Orleans Museum of Art. In Africa, Fagaly said, masks “are all utilitarian. They all have a function in one way or another.”

One of the primary functions of masking in Africa is initiation, Fagaly said. Masks can play several roles in these rituals symbolizing the transition from childhood to adulthood. Elders may wear a mask while demonstrating a certain principle of the society, he said, or initiates may receive a mask as a symbol of their accomplishment.

Masks are also used in African funerals, sometimes called “cry-dies,” and as symbols of power and authority, Fagaly said. Since African art is utilitarian, displaying pieces on a pedestal in a gallery  is “an artificial way of showing or demonstrating African art,” he said. “It doesn’t do justice to the aesthetics of the African sensibility.”

For me, Mardi Gras masking is a pleasurable challenge. As I have experimented with more techniques, and studied more brilliant examples of the art form, I have been increasingly satisfied with my efforts, which I now see as a costume diary of what was happening in my life each Mardi Gras.

Cathy Hughes was with the tinsel-wigged Krewe of Brid in 2011 when it marched on Harrison Avenue in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans as the Pothole Patrol, while recovery from Hurricane Katrina was still under way.

Cathy Hughes was with the tinsel-wigged Krewe of Brid in 2011 when it marched on Harrison Avenue in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans as the Pothole Patrol, while recovery from Hurricane Katrina was still under way.

In 2011, I was The Times-Picayune tower as I marched with the Krewe of Red Beans and Rice. This year, I marched with the Dames de Perlage wearing a beaded image of the tarot card The Fool; I was embarking on an uncertain future with an open mind and an open heart after being laid off when the newspaper restructured in 2012.

As for next year? I’m keeping the details under my tiara for now, but Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox caught the spirit of the thing when they sang, “Sisters are doin’ it for themselves, standin’ on their own two feet and ringin’ on their own bells.”

See you on the avenue!

Further reading:

Web page for “Brilliant Disguise: Masks and Other Transformations” at the Contemporary Arts Center

Louisiana State Museum Mardi Gras exhibit

Sharon Litwin blog post on “Ancestors of Congo Square: African Art in the New Orleans Museum of Art,” edited by William Fagaly

Images by Caroline Thomas of a “cry die” wake in the small town of Tombel in Cameroon

Images by Hartmut Assmann of a “cry die” wake in Baleng, Cameroon.

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One thought on “Currents of meaning in Mardi Gras masking

  1. […] Currents of meaning in Mardi Gras masking (crescentcitysound.wordpress.com) […]

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