Teach it to keep it going

Demond (Big Chief) Melancon - Contemporary beader and artist, Mardi Gras Indian, New Orleans, LA

Feature | New Orleans, LA | 26 October 2021
Demond is committed to the art of beading and is recognised for his elaborate costumes for the New Orleans Mardi Gras parade. This piece, which contains over 1 million beads, was also exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
Armed with a needle, thread, and his delicate glass beads, Demond Melancon prepares his intricate work of art for his upcoming ceremonial battle during the Mardi Gras parade.

Big Chief Demond, as he is known locally, is a proud native of New Orleans who has known for creating wearable sculptures and for his roles as a Mardi Gras Indian, a Black Masker, culture baron, second liner, and teacher of his craft.

“I was born and raised in the Lower Ninth Ward in the Bywater,” he says in his calm baritone voice with a smile. “All my life, this is where I have been at and growing up. I never thought that I was or that I could be a contemporary artist!” he exclaims.

“My grandmother and my mother didn’t really know or think about art when I was growing up, but I was always into it. As a hip hop junkie, I listened to music by A Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang, and I spray painted and graffitied my walls all the time,” he proudly shares.

In his studio, hangs a 150 pound suit he created for his 2018 Mardi Gras battle which he calls Ethiopia. It showcases portraits of Emperor Haile Selassie and Empress Menen with bright yellow ostrich feathers surrounding the edges of the suit and adorning the headdress. A suit like this he says requires more than 4,000 hours of work and has about 1 million glass beads sewn on entirely by hand.

Big Chief feels strongly about passing on the unique culture of beading to the younger generation. He wants to keep the tradition going in New Orleans hopes to inspire others to take up this art form. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
For Melancon, his art and work as an artist, is his passion and his gift. “It means the world to me. I couldn’t live without my art, and without my beadwork. It’s about living and it’s my life,” he explains with great conviction.

Prior to pursuing his art full-time, Demond was a gig worker taking on various temporary jobs to make ends meet. “Man, I have done it all!” he exclaims. “I poured concrete working in construction, cooked lobsters, cooked steaks, cleaned cars,” he says laughing as he goes through the laundry list of his past jobs.

Back then he says work to him meant “living and being able to put something back in the system,” as opposed to being a “lean back, standing on the corner type of person.”

A strong work ethic was something that his mother and grandmother, both of whom he strives to make proud for all their sacrifices, ingrained in him from a very young age. In a somber tone he says, “I watched my grandmother who was a teacher work hard in the school system and I watched my mom work so hard that she can’t even really walk that much anymore.”

He cites both women as his motivation to pull through his incredibly long workdays which sometimes start as early as 5 am and end as late as 2 am.

He attributes having a good circle of friends who encourage him to love himself and know the value of his worth to him “not working to deteriorate.” “You learn how to be a part of the economy in your own way and be your own boss, and that’s way harder than working for somebody,” he insists.
Demond feels fortunate to be able to pursue his art as well as earn a living from this time-consuming work. He credits his mother and grandmother for instilling in him a strong work ethic and a drive to create and teach others. ILO Photos/ John Isaac

Big Chief’s light bulb moment to be his own boss came after he had lost his home and had incurred multiple financial losses. “It got to the point where I was eating peanut butter and crackers, with no light, no water, I had lost my phone, and I was just tired of all of it,” he recalls. “And I was too proud to ask my mom and grandma to help me get my lights back on.”

“I had to think of a way out. I knew my artwork was nice and I thought my beadwork could do something, so I thought of portraiture and studied Kerry James Marshall. I saw people painting faces and making money, so I started doing portraits and making these suits. I got lucky and blessed that people liked my work and started paying a nice amount of money for it.”

On achieving success, Big Chief simply says, “It means a lot.” But he does not take it for granted and is cognizant that it could all change. “My fingers could fall off, my arm could start hurting and even now my shoulder hurts from time to time and I have to use a heating pad,” he says.

With all his hard work, he hopes to be able to own a home soon, where he and his family can celebrate holidays. “I want to get that house while my grandmother is still here,” he says with a big grin.

When asked about legacy, his teaching and what keeps him motivated, he puts down his needle and thread, looks up from his beadwork, and responds, “I have to teach it to keep the culture going and to keep the culture of beading going. My duty is to my elders who taught me that aren’t here anymore. I have to pass this on.”