Demond Melancon is a contemporary artist with roots in the Black Masking Culture of New Orleans. He began making masks and suits for Mardi Gras performance and he translated his skills into making meticulous beadwork portraits. Melancon creates intricately-beaded works of art and he combines traditions from Mardi Gras, history painting, and contemporary portrait painting. The artist draws from Black and Indigenous history and he features a broad variety of symbols and stylistic influences. Passage Arts spoke with the artist about his life and work.
“I’ve been beading all my life,” Melancon says. “I started in Black Masking Culture in New Orleans and when I started doing portraits and it took off from there. I got blessed and I got into Mardi Gras Jazz Fest. They gave me a shot. Then I had my first show at a gallery and I sold out! I went out on a leap of faith and quit my job. But it’s a lot of hard work. It’s 24/7. I wake up at 5 in the morning most of the time and I bead from morning to night. I’m working hard. "
Melancon balances his work making elaborate performance suits and his recent work making fine art portraits. “I make a suit every year. My tradition is making a mask and a suit every year in honor and in reverence for the runaway slaves. It’s a balance: I make my beadwork for the art world and I make my suit, too. The suit takes 365 days a year. The culture has never been entered into the art world in this way and I try not to dilute it. Last year, I showed two of my old suits at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. That was the first time Mardi Gras artists had exhibited overseas in over 200 years.”
“I’ve been reading about art all my life,” Melancon continues. “I’m always studying artists. I study new portraiture by Toyin Ojih Odutola and Kerry James Marshall. He’s my favorite artist. I also study older artists like Gordon parks. I study old art and I put it into a new form, the beadwork. It’s refreshing to me to make the beadwork ‘paint.’ I want my work to be acquired by museums so that our culture has the place it deserves. New Orleans is New Orleans but there’s a bigger world. My main goal is to get it out there. I want people to know that I’m new and I’m hungry to keep working.”