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Gambit Weekly Fetishes, Feathers and Mojos

By D. Eric Bookhardt

AUGUST 18, 1997:  In his fine catalog essay for the Tootie Montana show at the New Orleans Museum of Art, Kalamu ya Salaam wrote something I thought was astute: "All art is folk art. All art is created by folk, by people. ... Art is simply humanity expressing itself."

True enough. What we usually think of as folk art is largely the work of self-taught folk, while the work seen in places like the Museum of Modern Art is largely, though not exclusively, the art of educated, professional folk. He notes that as our concept of "fine art" continues to broaden, those "activities, artists and artifacts" that were once overlooked become more closely examined as "contemporary folk art."

Such has been the experience of the Mardi Gras Indians in general and Tootie Montana in particular. The Indians are revered by most New Orleanians as living examples of what makes this city so unique in an ever-more generic America. In fact, folklorists from all over the nation and the world marvel at the strength of an urban folk tradition that somehow survives intact, against all odds. Of course, the strength of any tradition depends on the strength of those who maintain it, and over his life as an Indian, few have been more focused than Tootie Montana.

Much of this is widely known, assumed and perhaps taken for granted. Native Orleanians and established residents have long viewed Indian parades down Claiborne Avenue and various back streets with a certain ritualized sense of awe. None of this is new to us, yet this NOMA show is important because, by taking Montana and his Indians out of their usual street context and putting them temporarily in a museum, we are more fully able to recognize the mystery that they are. No one has really explained the Indians; all we have are descriptions.

And while this exhibit offers no real explanations either, it helps to focus the mystery. Big Chief Allison Marcel "Tootie" Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe is an exemplary Indian, having been at it more or less continuously since 1947. He was 25 then; he is 74 now. And while he has been an active Indian for the past 50 years, he paraded in costume for the first time in 1929 when he was 7. Over the decades, he has been a pioneer of abstract bead work and 3-D design, and he is credited with moving the rival tribes (or gangs) away from physical violence and toward aesthetic competition. It has been quite a life.

The relics of St. Tootie at NOMA are a rainforest of multicolored beads, sequins and feathers. The costumes themselves are familiar enough, but the advantage of the exhibit lies in the opportunity to examine the details and craftsmanship, the sense of design that makes Montana's work so exemplary. But beyond aesthetics in the usual sense, there is also another factor, a layer of deeper symbolism that harks to the origins of the Mardi Gras Indian culture -- which actually extends beyond Louisiana and the Caribbean as far as Brazil, and dates to the earliest African contacts with the indigenous Indian populations of the Americas.

Tootie Montana's beadwork fetishes represent a blending of African and Native American cultures.

And this is the mojo factor, the innate African spirituality that resonated with the indigenous tribal culture of the Native Americans, who were proud and dauntless. Many African people identified with their spirit. This resulted in a hybrid spirituality passed down like a sacred flame through many generations of urban tribalism. Montana's beadwork creations are fetishes in the broadest sense: they are objects charged with powers. Such energies resound through certain individuals from the primordial recesses of time, from places that no longer exist geographically but which linger in the psyche as legend and memory -- as secrets from the enchanted regions of the mind.

More secret fetishes are found in the Warehouse District in the eerie clay sculpture of Cara Moczygemba. Her racial memories hark to Eastern Europe, to Poland by way of the Texas badlands. Latecomers to industrialism, Eastern Europeans remained close to their native myths, and while Moczygemba is an American, the surreality of Slavic art and literature permeates her work.

It is an aura of fallen grandeur that seems to haunt these cast clay figures loosely patterned after Roman busts. Triptych features a creased and confounded neoclassic head atop a torso studded with ceramic objects -- lost, magical things that resonate a poetic, fetishlike mojo. In Hesitation, the neoclassic face is cracked and mottled. Below, a severed hand does not quite cover the cavity in the torso where the heart would have been.

Moczygemba is a highly trained professional, but her work reflects the energy of the secret places of the heart and soul. It is the energy invoked by Tootie Montana when he said, "I'm dancing with a spirit; I'm not just dancing to be dancing."

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