Hung up the walls, one tradition is captured in two different formats – pictures and paintings. The pictures show stark detail of the costumes and movements of Black Indians during Super Sunday in New Orleans, when the paintings take the experience further in colorful, life filled displays.
Adelson Galleries Boston at 520 Harrison Ave. will be presenting “Mardi Gras Indians,” an exhibition of new works by Jamaica Plain residents, painter Robert Freeman and photographer Max Stern that celebrates the history of New Orleans parades coinciding with the City’s 300th anniversary from March 2 to April 29, 2018.
Freeman said that over the last couple of years the Adelson Gallery has been collecting Stern’s work. As he was exploring through his latest photographs he noticed a similar tract through abstract elements he was currently using in his own work. One thing led to the other and they agreed to do a show in collaboration.
“I was flawed of the images of Black Indians of New Orleans,” said Freeman. “Max said, ‘Why don’t you come down to New Orleans and visit the Bayou and experience Super Sunday?”
Unique to New Orleans is its institution of near constant parades – celebrating holidays, funerals, joyous occasions, expressing the solidarity of clubs and societies, and observing historic events and traditions.
On any given day one may encounter a parade, led by a brass band and parade organizers, and followed by the Second Line made up of an ever-growing group of followers who join the procession to enjoy the music and the march.
Many consider the parades of the Mardi Gras (or “Black”) Indians to be the true heartbeat of New Orleans. Although associated by name with Mardi Gras, the Black Indians are a distinct culture who partake in rituals going back centuries.
Something of an underground society of uncertain origin with its own language, rites, and ceremonies, Mardi Gras Indians continue to transform the streets of New Orleans, usually without advance warning or police “permission,” when they parade in full masks and “suites,” chanting, drumming, and dancing in performances that harken from Africa and the original tribes of America.
On the third Sunday in March, tribes from all over the city parade in great numbers for the Super Sunday Festival. Chiefs proudly wear elaborate suits with intricate hand-sewn beadwork and headdresses with enormous plumes of colorful feathers and lead their tribes through the streets to meet up with each other.
Freeman said that the celebration of people of color has always been a part of his visual narrative. The pageantry of color and music was intoxicating, sticking with him as he traveled back to his studio in Waltham.
“I was so excited when I went back to the studio,” said Freeman. “I pinned Max’s photographs all over the studio – not to copy but to get the sights, smells and noises of the experience – and began the works that turned into paintings.”
Stern, who is a trial lawyer by day, started to take photographs when he was about 8 years old, following his father’s footsteps. As time went on, he became the family photographer and eventually transitioned into a more serious photographer in the late 1980’s.
As the now Orange Line was being taken down and moved underground, he meretriciously documented the subway stations that were being destroyed to make room for new development.
Stern has always been interested in how one piece of evidence such as a photograph can suggest a whole narrative – a story to be inferred or hypothesized by the investigator.
His favorite photographs capture an instant from which viewers must bring their own imagination to the scene, decoding the history of what just happened or will happen.
After visiting New Orleans on a number of occasions with his wife, he easily got transfixed by the Black Indians.
“My photographs capture what lead up and what leads after a moment. It is not all up to you as a photographer – it is what the viewers make of it,” said Stern. “Bob [Freeman] takes that and makes it more intimate and leads the viewer through his interpretation to it in such a vibrant and creative way.”
When he first viewed the Indians on parade, it was the intensity of the moment that kept him shooting the vibrancy of the masks, the power of the dancers’ movements, the determination in their expressions.
Behind the shot are the endless hours laboring over the “suites,” selecting the beads, colors, feathers, threads; the profound pride in tradition; and the vivid contrast between the fantastical Super Sunday celebration and the daily routines of the performers and their followers.
“It is an honor to collaborate with one of the country’s finest painters,” said Stern. “Perhaps we have shown something bigger than its parts, which, after all, is what the Indians of New Orleans are also aiming for.”