If you’ve not visited the McKissick Museum on the campus of the University of South Carolina, and you’re a fan of the HBO Series Treme, you’d be well advised to darken their door. The museum currently features a folk art exhibit showcasing the Mardi Gras Indians of the HBO series Treme, and of the things I’ve seen traveling this earth, this exhibit numbers among the most visually stunning, reminiscent of the samurai armor I saw in Japan. It’s other-worldly.
As you approach the gallery, movie posters from the series and details of the exhibit flank the corridor on the left. Stopping to read them is a good idea, especially if you’ve not seen the show (it’s available on iTunes, HBO GO & HBO NOW, and Amazon). Treme’s first season begins in post-Katrina New Orleans, four months after the devastation. The show details how residents of New Orleans from different walks of life cope with their new reality after the levees broke. It’s very raw and very human, providing authenticity to the phrase, “the struggle is real.”
Mardi Gras Indian tradition is first and foremost African-American tradition, which is woven into New Orleans tradition. It’s impossible to know exactly how and when the Mardi Gras Indians came into existence. While meeting the talent behind the exhibit, Alonzo V. Wilson and Nina K. Noble, I asked them about Mardi Gras Indians and their origin. I knew the most popular legend which tells of Native American tribes around the New Orleans area helping escaped slaves, and then later freed slaves, cope with life after their escape or emancipation.
“I like that story, but we don’t really know what happened,” says Alonzo, head costume designer for Treme. He also happens to be Native American. If you recognize his name, it’s probably because you watched the HBO series The Wire long enough to see the credits roll.
“The mystery of the Mardi Gras Indians gives it a special kind of power. They couldn’t, or wouldn’t, tell us how they came into existence,” says Nina, the executive producer of both Treme and The Wire.
Alonzo through his wardrobe designs, and Nina through her research and creative team of script writers, created their own tribe of Mardi Gras Indians for the series. This provided unparalleled authenticity to the show, which Nina and her team worked tirelessly to achieve. One of the Big Chiefs of their Treme tribe, Chief Lambreaux, played by Clarke Peters, is one of their most powerful and moving characters. (If you’re looking for spoilers, you won’t find them here). By the second season, everyone who took part in Treme were receiving input from actual Mardi Gras Indians, a group which prides itself on being aloof. Obviously, their work struck a cord with the community.
Labeling Alonzo’s art and the art of real Mardi Gras Indians as“costumes” is almost insulting. Fortunately, the exhibit is titled, “Well Suited,” which seems a more appropriate moniker. The intricate detail employed in the creation of these suits humbles the spirit and intrigues the mind. Zen-like discipline during their creation divulges the unique story of the wearer with every stitch and brightly colored bead. For instance, there’s the suit worn by a woman dying of cancer. She kept the hair she lost during chemotherapy, made double braids of it, and weaved it into her Mardi Gras Indian attire. Another suit features a headdress with a Mardi Gras Indian standing atop the famous Super Dome.
Mardi Gras Indians tell their stories through their suits, and Alonzo tells the stories of the Treme Mardi Gras Indians through his suits, their vivid stories and vibrant colors reminding me of my aliveness.
The exhibit will be on display at the McKissick Museum on the campus of the University of South Carolina until next year July 21, 2018.
Their hours are:
Monday-Friday: 8:30 AM – 5 PM
Saturday: 11 AM – 3 PM
Closed Sundays and all University and State holidays including April 15, July 1, September 2, November 25, and December 16.