The young woman is a Mardi Gras Indian Queen: Queen Ya Ya Kijafa Brown of the Washitaw Nation.
Thank you to Cherice Harrison-Nelson, Big Queen of the Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society (@queenreesie on Twitter), for identifying Queen Ya Ya and giving me permission to share that id. Queen Cherice and other Queens have done a huge amount of work to make sure the work, culture, and lifestyle of the Mardi Gras Indians remain a visible and indispensable part of New Orleans history and culture. This has included drawing attention to the work of the Queens and highlighting their importance within the community.
In 2005, Harrison-Nelson established the Queen’s Choice award. Immediately after Katrina, a program called Queens Rule was started by Harrison-Nelson and Tulane professor Rebecca Mark, “then the interim director of the university’s Newcomb Insititute.” As reported at Nola.com, Queens Rule creates “video portraits of longtime queens, and organized public panels between groups of queens to discuss the tradition.” Queens Rule! recently hosted its thirteenth exhibition at the Arts Council of New Orleans:
““I am the pretty, pretty queen!” is a mantra recited by women throughout the city of New Orleans on Mardi Gras day. It denotes not only a physical beauty, but also an internal beauty personified. It is the self knowledge of beauty manifested after hours to create a masterpiece based on and affirmed by, community standards of “pretty.” The standard is not centered on traditional Western aesthetics, i.e. height, weight, skin tone, leg gap, or body measurements. It is, rather, the beauty of the tradition embodied. Each woman is an artist and her body is a blank canvas. This canvas is created by her choice of design, materials, representations, symbols, style, color, and technique/methodology of adornment.
The Queens rule exhibit honors women who create and wear the ceremonial attire referred to as a “suit,” and those who participate in the African American carnival masquerading traditional originally known as “masking Indian.” As with all the traditional cultural phenomena, it is a state of constant evolution. Today, participants identify themselves by many names, including Mardi Gras Indians, Black Indians, Maroons, and members of Afro-New Orleans Nations. Again, the beauty of the tradition is that is allows participants to be self-actualized in any manner that is personally and culturally appropriate to their own visions and sensibilities.”
In August of 2015, the Mardi Gras Indians launched a “fair use” campaign including a green paper highlighting what fair use of Mardi Gras Indians cultural material means to New Orleans economy and to the maskers themselves. Harrison-Nelson elaborates:
“The artwork is essentially the soul of the Mardi Gras Indians. And it is artwork. It’s not just a costume, it’s artwork. When we see these [photographs] displayed, it hurts. How would you feel if you saw your art posted on a wall and you weren’t getting anything for it.”
A book project is also in the works: So, So Pretty: African-Indian Queens in New Orleans.
Alison Fensterstock did a series of interviews with Mardi Gras Indian Queens for Nola.com. Queens interviewed include: Rita Dollis, Big Queen of the Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indians; Cherice Harrison-Nelson, Big Queen of the Guardians of the Flame; Littdell Banister, Tribal Queen of the Creole Wild West Mardi Gras Indians; and Gina Montana, Big Queen of the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indians
Listen to Queen Rita Dollis below:
For more on the Mardi Gras Indian Queens: