We timed our visit to attend the first parade of the Mardi Gras season, in 6 January, or Epiphany, or Twelfth Night. While the main parade and party season gets up and running a few weeks before Mardi Gras proper (25 February this year), a parade that honors Joan of Arc inaugurates the season. The Krewe of Joan of Arc puts on the parade. Here’s some history:

Founded in 2008, Joan of Arc is an annual walking parade honoring our unofficial patron saint, “The Maid of Orleans”. The event melds medieval revelry with the traditions of Mardi Gras. It’s a celebration of the city’s French culture and heritage as well as St Joan of Arc’s birthday which coincides with Twelfth Night.

The procession is inspired by Joan’s time in France in the 1400s, when she liberated the citizens of Orleans, France from British siege. Honorary characters include the Maid of Honor, Joan of Arc, on horseback in a white robe with faux armor breastplate. Midway through the parade, she receives her sword after a blessing at St. Louis Cathedral.

Joan is joined on the parade route by Queen Yolande of Aragon and King Charles VII, the “Dauphin” who became King as a result of Joan of Arc’s efforts. The Maid of Honor is chosen in a student Joan competition, while the Queen and King are community leaders. Parade goers dress in gold to look like the statue of Joan in the French Quarter, a gift to the City of New Orleans from France in the 1950s

We picked a spot at about the midpoint of the parade route. When we arrived before the expected arrival of the parade, we found the street lined with a casual colorful group of celebrants. Laid-back but also obviously very into all sorts of interpretations of medieval France.

Finally, we could see the flashing blue lights of the police motorcycles and cars that were clearing the way for the parade.

At one point, a police car crept along the curb, right in front of us. I looked down through the open window at the officer who was driving. He was concentrating on his phone, texting. Just another evening New Orleans parade. He didn’t seem to worry about running over any attendees’ sandaled feet.

The costumed and propped marchers told the story of Joan of Arc’s divine inspiration, struggles, condemnation by the powers-that-be, execution, ascension, and current protection of the City of New Orleans. 

After the last marcher, float, banner and police car, the parade attendees spilled out into the street, mostly heading off to drinks and dinner. Which we did too.

Backstreet Cultural Museum

In 1999, Sylvester Francis turned his house in the Tremé district into the Backstreet Cultural Museum. 

The Backstreet Cultural Museum’s permanent exhibits, from displays on Mardi Gras Indians, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, and Jazz funerals explore the creative achievements, improvisational brillance and collective spirit of New Orleans’ African-American community. 

The mission of the museum is to:

  • Appreciate the role of parading arts in strengthening traditions of mutual support and solidarity;
  • Recognize culture as important to community development;
  • Commit to using traditional arts and culture to enhance economic prosperity in the African-American community;
  • Present excellent museum exhibitions and programs; and
  • Affirm the highest ethical standards in museum operations.

We found two large rooms and a hallway filled to overflowing with two collections. One shows how friends and family celebrate the lives of passed love ones. They collect tangible symbols of what made the celebrated person unique and wonderful. 

One shows some of the amazing and exuberant costumes worn by the Mardi Gras Indians in each year’s parades. From a panel in the museum:

Mardi Gras Indians are one of the true cultural splendors in the Crescent City. Following Emancipation, New Orleans’ African-Americans began masking at Mardi Gras. This practice had been prohibited during slavery. Many chose to honor Native Americans by creating feathered headdresses and costumes, and the tradition of the “Indian suit” began.

New Orleans’ “Indian tribes” are not Native Americans. Closed groups of African-American men parade in the elaborate costumes of feathers and beads that they make themselves. These groups are called “Indians” because their names refer to Native American tribes, and Native American elements, including feathers and bead motifs, appear in their costumes. “Masking Indian,” as it is called, was influenced by the stories of escaped slaves being sheltered by Native American tribes, and by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which wintered in New Orleans in 1884. There are also clear indications of African and Afro-Caribbean influences in the beading and other decorative creativity and the expenditure of considerable time and money. 

When we entered the house, we found a young African-American woman sitting at the small reception table. We paid for our tickets, and she introduced us to Jason, our young guide. He proceeded to give us a quick overview of the exhibits before allowing us as much time as we wanted to explore the little museum. A few times during his presentation he hesitated, looking to the young woman for help. She, a little exasperated, filled in the missing information. They both were charming: his efforts to master the material, and her tough support for him. After we had spent a little while examining the beaded and feathered costumes and the funeral outfits, we told our hostess how much we had enjoyed the museum. Then she revealed that she is the daughter of the museum creator. She pointed to photos on the wall from when she was a little girl, costumed for the parades. She said that, as a girl, she didn’t really understand the history; she just loved getting dressed up and being the center of attention. She still likes to get dressed up and to be the center of attention, but now she helps sharing her family’s and her community’s stories and traditions to visitors like us.

Mardi Gras World

Though we were in New Orleans at the very beginning of this year’s Mardi Gras season, the big festivities wouldn’t start for over a month. In lieu of standing amid the crowds trying to catch beads from the passing parade floats, we went to Mardi Gras World in a big warehouse next to the Mississippi River. Our host at the facility was a young man, unabashedly theatrical and flamboyant, full of unselfconscious campy humor. Perfect for an institution that creates vivacious rainbow-colored parade floats. 

Today’s Mardi Gras World started as Kern Studios in the 1940s. Roy Kern was an artist and sign painter. His work around New Orleans caught the attention of some New Orleans’ krewes (Mardi Gras parade groups). Kern apprenticed under European float and costume makers. Roy Kern and his colleagues developed the extravagant Mardi Gras floats and costumes that we know today.

The artisans at Kern Studios create most of the float characters and elements out of styrofoam, papier mâché and paint. The first step for a new creation is to laminate huge slabs of styrofoam to form sculpt-able blocks. Then with simple metal tools, artisans carve away what they don’t need.

Next are layers of papier mâché, and white paint. Garish painted designs finish the work.

They use the figures over and over, year after year. Our host said that they might rip off an arm or two, carve new ones, cover everything with white, and then paint a new character. The place was like a cartoon mad-scientist lab; outrageous characters born of styrofoam, paraded to the masses, sacrificed and recombined, and then forced to sit quietly until their next outing. We also wondered what happens when movie franchise lawyers come on tours of the Mardi Gras World and see their proprietary characters schmoozing with those of the competition.

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