Demond Melancon: The bead master of New Orleans

BBC In The Studio

Demond Melancon: The bead master of New Orleans

This week’s In The Studio is presented by acclaimed actor and New Orleans resident Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Suits, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan). We join him as he meets Demond Melancon, a fine artist from New Orleans who is also the Big Chief of a Black Masking Indian tribe, the Young Seminole Hunters.

The Black Masking culture of New Orleans is a centuries-old African-American tradition. Around 45 neighbourhood groups – or tribes – spend thousands of hours each year hand-sewing exquisitely beaded ceremonial suits, trimmed with rhinestones, velvet ruffles, and hundreds of brightly coloured feathers. On Mardi Gras day they take to the streets to compete against each other for the prettiest suit.

Every suit tells a story, and this year Demond is depicting Ethiopian history and culture, beading an ancient Nyabinghi warrior on a white horse as the centerpiece of his front ‘apron’. Surrounding it on the left and right sides will be beaded portraits of Empress Menen Asfaw and her husband King Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. On his arms are patches with portraits of reggae music icon Vaughn Benjamin and an Ethiopian soldier.

Usually it takes 12 months of beading to make a suit, but Demond is a rising star of New Orleans’ contemporary art scene, and in high demand for exhibitions and art fairs across the USA, so this year he has just three months to prepare. We join him and his wife Alicia as he works night and day in his Bywater studio doing ‘the needle dance’, as he calls it, in the run up to the city’s world-famous Mardi Gras celebrations.

Published 23 June 2020 for the BBC