March 25 – April 7, 2018
Hours: daily 12 noon – 8:00 PM
CoLab, Lewis Arts complex
FREE and open to public

Tuesday, April 3, 2018
4:30 PM — Reception
5-6:30 PM — Panel discussion
Forum, Lewis Arts complex

An exhibition of ceremonial suits and aprons made by Chiefs of New Orleans Black Masking Indian Tribes. This unique tradition maps intersections between African and Indigenous cultural practices. These intricately crafted suits take up to year to complete and represent some of the most exuberant costumes being made today. An artist reception on April 3 will feature Chief Demond Melancon of the Young Seminole Hunters and Big Chief Darryl Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas Hunters, with a panel discussion moderated by Associate Professor of History and African American Studies Joshua Guild.

Organized by Visual arts professor Jeff Whetstone, the exhibition is free and open to the public.

Sponsored by Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts and the Princeton Environmental Institute.



African-Americans originated The Black Masking tradition almost two hundred years ago to pay homage to American Indians. Also referred to as Mardi Gras Indians, these groups, referred to as “tribes,” organize by neighborhood and perform during Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s Day, and for important community celebrations. The costumes can weigh up to 150 pounds, are traditionally hand-sewn, and worn for only one year.

According to Whetstone, this unique tradition of the elaborate suits and aprons maps intersections between African and Indigenous cultural practices. “Each intricately crafted suit takes up 5,000 hours to complete,” he notes, “and represent some of the most exuberant costumes being made today.”



DEMOND MELANCON (1978 – )is a multidisciplinary contemporary artist and performer with extensive roots in the Black Masking culture of New Orleans. With a career spanning almost three decades, Melancon is well-known for his meticulous hand-sewn beadwork used to create massive Mardi Gras Indian suits which are composed of intricately beaded patches depicting actual and imagined events from African and American history. His complex and multidimensional portrayals draw inspiration from indigenous people in America, enslaved Africans, and inspirational leaders from history. His work draws from a broad variety of stylistic influences, features imagery rich with symbolism and meaning, addresses stereotypical representations of black people, and tells powerful stories from his experience of the African diaspora.

Melancon was born in 1978 and grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. He was initially taught by a prolific Mardi Gras Indian elder named Big Chief Ferdinand Bigard. Melancon went on to study under Nathanial Williams in connection with a 1993 Louisiana Folklife Apprenticeship Grant. Melancon joined the Seminole Hunters and masked as a Spy Boy for over 15 years under Big Chief Keitoe Jones. In 2012 the elders of the Mardi Gras Indian community declared that Melancon would then be known as Big Chief Demond Melancon of the Young Seminole Hunters, his very own tribe based in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

DARRYL MONTANA is the Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas Hunters Black Masking Indian Tribe. According to the Chief, the New Orleans indigenous Black Indian movement of “masking Indian” on Carnival Day began in the late 1800’s in the Montana family. Hailing from a prominent family of Black Masking Indians and son of the Chief of Chiefs Allison “Big Chief Tootie” Montana, he uses sequins, beads, pearls, marabou, feathers and stones to create multi-dimensional Mardi Gras costumes for each year’s carnival in New Orleans. The techniques and use of materials have been passed down to him from his father. He began learning how to string beads at age six and made his first suit when he was eleven using a used vinyl raincoat as his canvas. His suits can take up to 5,000 hours to complete and they are created in response to themes like metamorphosis and evolution. He says that on Carnival day, “he is in full regalia representing a culture that unites the community around the tradition of masking and simply being the prettiest.” In addition to creating these massive pieces, Montana passes his techniques on to children and teaches them how to construct sculptural costumes. Montana’s work is in the public collections of the International Folk Art Museum and the Joan Mitchell Foundation and private collections of the late John Scott, Diego Cortez, Ron Bechet, and Mapo Kinnord-Payton, to name a few.


JOSHUA GUILD is Associate Professor of History and African American Studies at Princeton University. He specializes in twentieth-century African American social and cultural history, urban history, and the making of the modern African diaspora, with particular interests in migration, black internationalism, black popular music, and the black radical tradition. A graduate of Wesleyan University, where he was a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow, he received his PhD in History and African American Studies from Yale. His research has been supported by fellowships and awards from a number of institutions, including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, and Harvard University’s Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History. In 2012, he was a fellow at Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute of African and African American Research.

Guild is currently completing his first book, In the Shadows of the Metropolis: Cultural Politics and Black Communities in Postwar New York and London, which will be published by Oxford University Press. The book examines African-American and Afro-Caribbean migration and community formation in central Brooklyn and west London from the 1930s through the 1970s. He has published or has forthcoming essays on topics ranging from the pioneering Brooklyn politician Shirley Chisholm, the politics of calypso in the age of decolonization and civil rights, and Black Power in diasporic perspective. His next book project, tentatively entitled The City Lives in You: The Black Freedom Struggle and the Futures of New Orleans, will focus on struggles for racial and economic justice in New Orleans from the mid-20th century black freedom movement through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil disaster.

Professor Guild’s interests in digital humanities, new media, and public engagement are reflected in the 2014-15 African American Studies Faculty-Graduate Seminar that he organized, “Black Studies in the Digital Age.” He serves on the Executive Committee of Princeton’s Center for Digital Humanities. He is also an Associated Faculty member in the Program in Urban Studies.


RONNEL BUTLER is a Flag Boy of the 9th Ward Black Hatchet Mardi Gras Indian tribe in New Orleans. The role of the Flag Boy is relay information from the Spy Boy to the Big Chief to alert the rest of the tribe when a rival tribe is approaching during ceremonial battle on Mardi Gras morning. The Flag Boy will also typically carry a large staff covered in rhinestones and feathers to use as a communication tool.

LLOYD KEELER (1958 – ) is a Spy Boy of the Apache Hunters Mardi Gras Indian tribe in New Orleans. The role of a Spy Boy within a tribe is to walk out ahead of the tribe on Mardi Gras morning to search for rival tribes. Once the Spy Boy sees a rival tribe, he will relay that information to the Flag Boy who typically uses a large staff to communicate with the Big Chief and the rest of the tribe.

AJAY MALLERY (1969 – ) is a Flag Boy of Golden Blades Mardi Gras Indian tribe in New Orleans.

CLIFTON “SPUG” SMITH (1986 – ) is a Flag Boy of the 9th Ward Black Hatchet Mardi Gras Indian tribe in New Orleans.


View or download event materials: Poster | Press release

Map + Directions

The CoLab is located on the Forum level of the Wallace Dance Building and Theater at the Lewis Arts complex, located at 122 Alexander Street in Princeton, NJ.

View directions and campus maps, information on parking and public transit, and other venue information on our Venues & Directions page »

Learn about access information on our Accessibility page »

+ Google Map

Presented By

  • Lewis Center for the Arts
  • Princeton Environmental Institute