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African Influence in Black Masking Traditions: A Conversation with Curators at the Musée du Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac of Paris and Southern University at New Orleans

(right)) Shaka Zulu, Big Chief of the Golden Feather Hunters, Super Sunday. This suit honors the Yoruba orisha Shango, a spirit in the West African religious tradition. Cheryl Gerber Photo, 2018. (top, left) Initiation mask, unidentified Kwese artist (Democratic Republic of the Congo), twentieth century. Loaned by Southern University at New Orleans, African Art Collections. (bottom, left) Ibeta, spirit of triplets, unidentified artist, Porto Novo, Benin, early twentieth century. Loaned by Musée du Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac.

The exhibition “Mystery in Motion: African American Masking and Spirituality in Mardi Gras” is currently on view until November 2021 at the Presbytère (A Louisiana State Museum) in the heart of the French Quarter in New Orleans

With loans coming from the musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac and Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO), the Louisiana State Museum has organized a panel to discuss the pieces on display from these institutions that highlight African and Caribbean influences on New Orleans Carnival.

Panelists will include representatives from the Louisiana State Museum, the musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, and the Southern University at New Orleans. Together they will explore how contemporary masking rituals build upon and reflect African spiritual practices and discuss the inspiration and collaborative process behind Mystery in Motion.

The virtual event will take place over Zoom on Sunday, May 16 at 1 pm CDT / 2 pm EST and is free and open to the public. Advanced registration is required, and a Zoom link will be sent to registrants the day of the program.

Please register here and visit the Facebook event page.


About the Panelists 

Steve Bourget is curator for the Americas at the musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac in Paris, France. As an archaeologist specializing in Ancient Andean cultures, his reasearch focues on ideology, symbolic systems of representation and the rise of social complexity on the Peruvian North Coast. In collaboration with Professor Kim Vaz-Deville and Big Chief Victor Harris, he is preparing the upcoming exhibition, provisionally entitled "Black Indians of New Orleans." Along with a host of artistic, cultural, and scholarly activities, it will be presented at the musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac in the fall of 2022.

Gaëlle Beaujean is curator in charge of African collections at the musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac. She's an anthropologist of arts (PhD), focusing on the court art of Abomey (Benin.) She was also curator of "Artists of Abomey : dialog on the African Kingdom" in 2009 and "Africa's roads" in 2017, both at the musée du quai Branly. She is preparing a research project and an exhibition on the Dakar-Djibouti enthnographic mission (1931-1933) in close collaboration with the Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar (Senegal). She also teaches History of Sub-Saharan African Art at the Ecole du Louvre.

Erika N. Witt is the interim circulation librarian, adjunct professor, and keeper of collections at Southern University at New Orleans, engaged primarily with collections management and the circulation of library materials. Her focus is on the arts of Africa and museology. Erika Witt has developed numerous art and history exhibitions and cared for various collections in Tennessee, Louisiana, and Virginia. She is currently a doctoral candidate in the Doctor of Design in Cultural Preservation program at Louisiana State University, exploring traditional African art held at historically black colleges and universities.

Co-curator Kim Vaz-Deville is professor of education at Xavier University in New Orleans, La. Her research focuses on expressive arts in response to social response to social trauma. Her book The 'Baby Dolls' : Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition (2013) was the basis for a Louisiana State Museum exhibition and selected for One Book One New Orleans. Her anthology Walking Raddy: The Baby Dolls of New Orleans (2018) further explored the tradition. She is currently collaborating with Norman Francis, Xavier's longtime president, on his biography.

Co-curator Ron Bechet is Victor H. Labat Professor of Art at Xavier University, where he has taught for more than twenty years. Known for intimate large-scale drawings and paintings, he earned an MFA at Yale University. His art is grounded in the cultural practices of African diaspora and African American New Orleans. He is chair of the board of directors for the Joan Mitchell Foundation and serves on the boards of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and Antenna Works.

Karen Leathem has served as historian at the Louisiana State Museum for nearly two decades, researching and dveloping exhibitions, including the Presbytère's permanent Mardi Gras exhibit and Living with Hurricanes : Katrina and Beyond. She also collaborated with Kim Vaz-Deville for her 2013 LSM exhibit, "They Call Me Baby Doll": A Mardi Gras Tradition. A native of southwest Louisiana, she began researching New Orleans carnival while earning her PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


To learn more about other exhibitions and events at the Louisiana State Museum, please visit their webpage.

A version of the Mystery in Motion exhibition will travel to the musée du quai Branly–Jacques Chirac in 2022, where curators will contextualize the Black masking traditions of New Orleans for European audiences. 

This program has been organized by the Louisiana State Museum, sponsored by the Friends of the Cabildo, and is offered in conjunction with the exhibition Mystery in Motion: African American Masking and Spirituality in Mardi Gras, currently on display at the Presbytère.