FIRST PERSON: ‘Big Chief’ and the million beads
The International Labour Organization (ILO) is marking its centenary in 2019 and as part of the commemoration has launched a photography project called “Dignity at Work: The American Experience” to document the working life of people across the United States. UN News joined the ILO on a visit to the southern US state of Louisiana.
Demond Melancon, also known as Big Chief, is a Mardi Gras Indian Chief of the Young Seminole Hunters group, contemporary bead artist and costume designer based in New Orleans. He started beading at 14 years old and after working in a number of different jobs - including pouring concrete on construction sites, cooking lobsters, washing dishes and cleaning cars - decided to fulfill his ambition and become an artist working with beads.
I learnt from my elders by watching, but I’m teaching these kids in a hands-on way, showing them techniques. It feels good to pass on this culture to somebody. - Demond Melancon
“I’m a contemporary beader and make Mardi Gras Indian chief suits. I’ve been working with beads for 27 years. My 2018 suit is called Ethiopia and is dedicated to Haile Selassie and Empress Menen of Ethiopia. It’s all hand-beaded. There are millions of beads and it took me 365 days to complete. It weighs 150 pounds and I wear it in Mardi Gras parades and challenge other chiefs in the city.
Beading means the world to me, man, I couldn’t live without my art. When I started, it was all about making masks for Indian chiefs in Mardi Gras, but now I realize it is my life. Growing up, I never thought I could be a contemporary artist.
I was a hip-hop junkie, so I spray-painted my walls with graffiti all the time, so I was always doing art. But I thought I would have a job pouring concrete on a construction site, earning maybe $20 or $25 an hour, and living out my life like that.
You learn to get a good job, go to work in the morning and make enough money to pay your bills and try to get a little extra like that.
Then, work meant just living; right now, it means putting something into the system and not being a standing-on-the-corner type of person. I watched my mom and grandma work hard in the system; my grandma was a teacher.
Now, I want to make them proud. But work is not just about working for someone in the system as you can be part of the economy by doing your own work and being your own boss. That’s way harder than working for somebody, I won’t lie to you. For me it means getting up at 5am and working until late at night; 1am or sometimes later than that. It means making my mom and grandma proud and not being a slug in the system.
Mardi Gras is an annual carnival of around two weeks for which the city of New Orleans is famous.
It’s the climax of the Carnival Season in the city, falling just before the first day of Lent, which marks six weeks of religious observance up to Easter Sunday.
Big Chiefs head up the various Mardi Gras Indian tribes or ‘krewes’ and dress in a ceremonial suit to parade through the streets of New Orleans.
The Big Chiefs begin the ritual and ceremonial dancing when two of them challenge each other, demanding respect – a nod to the history of score-settling, from early Mardi Gras tradition.
I spent $7,500 on making the 2018 Mardi Gras suit and in the process lost my house, because I couldn’t make rent. I was down to eating peanut butter and crackers.
I lost my phone, I couldn’t pay for the lights and I got tired of living like that. I was too proud to ask my mom and grandma to help me get my life back on track.
This was a turning point. I knew my art, my beading, was nice and I saw people making money from painting portraits and thought I could do that too. People saw something good in my work and started paying a nice amount of money for it.
So, success is beginning to happen for me. My hard work is paying off, this is an important thing that I have learned, but you need to keep on working hard.
Success means a lot, to be able to live from my work, it’s like being born again, like I’m young again. But I never lose the doubt that my shoulder begins to hurt, or I get another injury that prevents me from working.
I’m working towards buying my own home as I don’t want to be in the same position again of possibly losing it. I want to get that house when my grandma is still here, so we can have that family feeling again.
The future for kids now in New Orleans is different now from when I was a kid. After Hurricane Katrina, the schools have improved and there are more facilities and more opportunities, so kids are now behaving better.
I also teach these kids. That’s important to me as it helps to keep the culture beating. I’m the first to create a contemporary art form with bead work, with Mardi Gras Indian beading. It’s my duty to teach, to keep the culture alive. I learnt from my elders by watching, but I’m teaching these kids in a hands-on way, showing them techniques. It feels good to pass on this culture to somebody.”