This week we’re paying tribute to the weird and wonderful Backstreet Cultural Museum in New Orleans.
Set in a former funeral parlour in Treme, this eclectic collection was curated by Sylvester Francis to document local African American traditions and includes costumes, photos and memorabilia associated with Mardi Gras and the famous second line parades.
Mardi Gras is long established in the Big Easy, and its colourful costumes, parades and history is well known. But behind the beads is a complex social, racial and political past.
The Mardi Gras Indians honour the Native Americans who took in escaped African slaves. The intricate bead work of the costumes, embellished with feathers and gems, on show at the museum is testament to their makers’ creativity, dedication and labour.
Somewhat more macabre are the objects relating to the North Side Skull and Bone gang, pictured above. Tradition dictates that these gangs alert the community to the start of Mardi Gras – rather noisily, with drums – by stirring the spirits.
The museum also pays homage to the New Orleans custom of jazz funerals and second-line parades, and the benevolent Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs associated with them.
But the most macabre exhibit of them all tells the tale of bass drummer ‘Uncle’ Lionel Batiste. He died in 2012, from cancer at the age of 80. The renowned character was given a unique send-off, by being embalmed standing up for his own wake – complete with cream suit, sunglasses and gold rings.
“He looks better today than when I saw him the Thursday before he died,” said Storyville Stompers tuba player Woody Penouilh, the Times-Picayune reported. “Heaven is agreeing with him.”
If you’d like to read more about my visit to the Big Easy, visit Drifting Down To New Orleans.
Copyright Natalie Marchant/Tales From Taliena