Invoking Black Masking Traditions, Artist Demond Melancon Beads Elaborate, Celebratory Portraits

Through intricately woven displays containing minuscule glass beads, rhinestones and rhinestones Big Chief Demond MelanconHe continues a legacy. He is a member of the tribe of the Young Seminole Hunters, New Orleans, and is a leader of the tradition of creating Mardi Gras costumes. The “wearable sculptures” are elaborate and celebratory, and Melancon’s worksThey are well-known for their enormous nature and for their technical skills. The garments are labor-intensive as they are made with more than one million glass beads and intricately stitched to create evocative stories of American history.

Melancon has developed a unique visual language over the past three decades that is both rooted in the 250-year-old tradition and constantly evolving the practice. “The elders, the Indians, and the Black maskers that masked before me, they never saw this as a contemporary art form in the way that I do,” he tells Colossal. “To me, the elders are watching me, and I think what they taught me is different from what I’ve evolved it into.”

Often encircled by feathers, many of Melancon’s suits revolve around portraits of reggae icons, people who were enslaved and subsequently led revolts, and Mardi Gras Indian Big Chiefs who came before him. He’s also started to separate these figurative elements from their more comprehensive counterparts in recent years and has produced an extensive series of standalone portraits. This ongoing collection includes people who have had an influence on his life and have broad cultural relevance. Nefertari and Breonna Taylor, 26-year-old Black women killed by police in 2020. “I like to teach with my work, and I want to make something that’s very meaningful,” he says. “It’s going to tell you something. It’s going to hit you in your heart.”

“Most Kings Get Their Heads Cut Off” (2021), glass beads and rhinestones on canvas

Sometimes years in the making, Melancon’s portraits exemplify his commitment to transforming the small, tactile materials into compositions evocative of painting. He uses artists such as Kerry James Marshall (previously) and Kehinde Wiley (previously) as inspiration and is equally drawn to those working today as he is to the art historical canon. His style emerged “through studying Botticelli and Caravaggio. I like the light in the old-school paintings, in the Florentine art, in the art from the 1700s.”

Beginning with a black-and-white sketch, Melancon always completes his subjects’ eyes first to “try to bring people back to the living stage with the portraits… so they can live, and they can look at me while I’m beading the rest of the piece.” For the artist, this spirited energy and sense of vitality are directly derived from his bold color palettes that compose a floral blouse or radiant, crown-like headdress.

Although Melancon didn’t mask for this year’s Mardi Gras—instead, he helped garner grants for those participating in the festival through his work on the New Orleans Tourism and Cultural Fund board—he’s currently in progress on a suit titled “Amistad,” in reference to the historic 1839 revolton the slave ship of the same name. He also plans to continue his portrait series and will see “Say Her Name,” the striking rendering of Taylor acquired by the International African American MuseumWhen the institution opens this fall in South Carolina, it will have the following exhibition: It’s one of many works that Melancon sees as part of his duty to pass down stories to future generations and teach them about those who’ve profoundly shaped the world today. “That’s another piece that I think in this time very important,” he shares.  “People should remember her situation, and that’s why I bead.”

“The Deans” (2021), glass beads and rhinestones on canvas

“Wolf Defender” (2021), glass beads and rhinestones on canvas

“The Rennaisance” (2019), glass beads and rhinestones on canvas

“When She Speaks You Listen” (2021), glass beads and rhinestones on canvas

“Nefertari Meritmut” (2019), glass beads and rhinestones on canvas

“Frida Kahlo” (2019), glass beads and rhinestones on canvas

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