Masked in Mardi Gras: The Sacred Visual Art of African American New Orleans Carnival

“Masked in Mardi Gras are cultures in dialogue expressed by unique sartorial creations and their pageantry displayed in sanctified performances at the intersection of the neighborhood street, Carnival, and the world of the spirits. ”

Team Members/Contributors

Kim Marie Vaz-Deville Xavier University of Louisiana Contact Me

About this sabbatical grant for researchers

Color, sound, and energy fill the streets of New Orleans on Mardi Gras. While this pageantry might seem frivolous to the casual observer, many carnival parades, songs, activities,

costumes, and masking traditions reflect sacred creeds. This is especially true among African

Americans, who have long used Mardi Gras as the framework for spiritual expressions drawn

from African, Afro-Caribbean, Islamic, Native American, and European belief systems. Though labeled by the mainstream art world as vernacular artisanship, African American maskers offer a profusion of elaborate handmade surface ornamentations on their regalia every year as the black community’s preeminent visual cultural form. This book will be the first systematic study of the black Atlantic spirituality in the full range of African American Mardi Gras practices and uses the Catholic idea of Visio Divina or divine seeing, an ancient form of meditating on images and allowing the holiness of the spirit to reveal its truth to individuals and groups. Whether in grand cathedrals, elaborate shrines, or small home altars, images of worship allow for a human connection to the divine. Visio Divina makes an opportunity for people to rest, repose, reflect and receive confidence, answers, and encouragement. However, Mardi Gras maskers engage in a swift movement revealing themselves to the crowds briefly. Their creations are a mystery to the public. If awarded, I will take an unpaid leave of absence and spend 12 months writing “Masked in Mardi Gras," a book that explores how African American Mardi Gras "walking traditions": Black masking Indians, skeleton gangs, Baby Dolls, and the famed parade krewes Zulu, Oshun, and Nefertiti incorporate spiritual themes from a variety of sources to create profound Mardi Gras masks, costumes, and rituals, grounded in diverse religious practices.