Sunday, April 5, 2015

New Art Based on the "Baby Dolls" of Mardi Gras

Raddy Winner by Ruth Owens
In 1912, a radical Carnival organization was born in Nola's marginal black bordello district. In response to the Carnival balls of the legal Storyville district nearby, black sex workers--called "Baby Dolls" by their pimps--dubbed themselves the "Million Dollar Baby Dolls" and marched wearing tiny toddler skirts flashing garter belts fat with cash. Sexy yet transgressive, they smoked cigars and wielded batons or umbrellas that doubled as weapons. Imitators soon followed as they became fixtures at Zulu parades and Mardi Gras Indian and Skull and Bones gatherings. Radical for 1912, they eventually became merely "local color" in a city that takes everything for granted--that is, until historian and Xavier U. dean Kim Marie Vaz conferred long overdue recognition by highlighting their role as pioneering black feminists and social activists in her book, The Baby Dolls: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition.
Nate Scott's Carved Driftwood Carnival Paraders

Ulrick Jean Pierre's Treme Baby Dolls
This expo of Baby Doll-inspired contemporary art at the Mckenna Museum is populist in tone and kaleidoscopic in effect, like a mosaic of many pieces that comprise a multifaceted totality. Ruth Owens' impressionistic Raddy Winner portrait of a Baby Doll dancer has Degas ballerina flair, but her formidable physicality recalls those indomitable Baby Dolls of 1912. Haitian - New Orleans history painter Ulrick Jean Pierre's nocturnal view of cigar smoking Baby Dolls parading in Treme is as elegantly dreamlike
Baby Doll Antoinette & Ernie K-Doe by Annie Odell
as Steve Prince's wild procession print is powerful. Meryt Harding's portrait of 80 year old Tee Eva in her Baby Doll outfit celebrates the role of ladies like her and Merline Kimball in reviving the tradition after it faded during the 1960s. A Keith Duncan painting illustrates the evolution from vintage to contemporary Baby Dolls even as other works involve folk art techniques like Annie Odell's haunting Antoinette and Ernie K-Doe painted quilt, or an eerily elaborate procession of carved driftwood figures by Nate Scott in a room where Baby Doll photos by Charles Lovell and Richard Keller, among others, transform the walls into a parade. ~Bookhardt / Contemporary Artists Respond to the New Orleans Baby Dolls: Group Exhibition, Through May 30, McKenna Museum of African American Art, 2003 Carondelet St., 586-7432.