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The Art and Design of Mardi Gras in Mobile

Three museums in Mobile, Alabama, team up to showcase the legacy of Mardi Gras and the creative industry that makes Carnival happen each year. 

For weeks preceding Mardi Gras day, the streets of Mobile are filled with the sights and sounds of marching bands, parades, special throws and the brilliant colors of the holiday. Mardi Gras season, also referred to as Carnival, begins in November with parties and balls and ending with a parade a day leading up to Fat Tuesday. And since Mobile is home to the oldest carnival celebration, this is a city that knows how to do it right.

This year, the Mobile Museum of Art, the History Museum of Mobile and the Mobile Carnival Museum are coming together to celebrate the artistic effort behind the city’s biggest holiday with an exhibition and book titled “The Art and Design of Mardi Gras.” The exhibit resides at the Mobile Museum of Art, coinciding with the museum’s 50th anniversary, through May 3, and the book is on sale at all three museums.

“This is the first time we have had three major museums come together for an exhibition for this community,” says Carlos Parkman, anniversary chair. “I think that is outstanding. It’s the largest exhibition of its kind to be done in town.”

Work by the artists and designers who — for around 185 years — have supported the industry will be displayed, including historic and contemporary costumes, crowns, scepters, float scale models, invitations, masks, favors, posters, float designs, prints and drawings. Contemporary artists and designers were also invited to create pieces specifically for the exhibit.

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“Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile are very, very personal and very social,” says Ron Barrett, Mobile Mardi Gras expert and museum contributor. “Therefore, we’re not so commercial and we’re not so fiberglass, molded glitz and glamor like other cities do. It supports the artists in the area. That’s exactly what this show is about. It’s not really about the affluent people who come from all over the world to be part of our Mardi Gras. It’s about the artists and the look they create that is inherent to just Mobile, Alabama.”

Even so, the exhibition was collected and compiled by some people who aren’t even from Mobile. Pieces were chosen solely to showcase the artistry of Mardi Gras in the city.

“Mardi Gras takes over,” Barrett continues. “Because ours is so personal, every type of individual, every social strata, every socioeconomic group is part of Mardi Gras here. When it gets to be around three and a half weeks before Mardi Gras day, there are parades during the day, at nighttime, and it just about consumes everyone for that reason.”

IMG_4191_editedAccompanying the exhibition will be public programs conducted by artists, designers, historians, curators, musicians, performers and Mardi Gras association members, as well as classes for adults and children in beadwork, mask-making and costume, float and tableaux design.

“When Deborah Velders [Mobile Museum of Art director] came to Mobile, it was the most impressive thing that she saw immediately,” says Parkman. “She was just amazed. She had no idea. She wasn’t aware of Mobile Mardi Gras, and she did not have a clue as to how much it was ingrained in our culture.”

It was Velders’ idea to highlight the art and design of Mardi Gras for the museum’s 50th anniversary, and the exhibition is expected to draw the largest number of visitors ever. More than 5,000 people showed up for the opening days already.

What those visitors are seeing is hand-sewn trains of robes worn by kings and queens, collections of float drawings that stem all the way back to the 1920s and a large collection of stage set pieces to showcase the various things used in Mardi Gras tableaus.

“The kings’ and queens’ robes are from when I was a very small child and I would just get a glimpse of them going down the street or see them in display in the department stores when Mardi Gras was over,” remembers Barrett. “I was so fascinated by them when I was 5 and 6 years old that now it’s like seeing very famous people.”

The Mobile Museum of Art opened in October 1964 in a 14,000 square-foot building. In its time, the museum has seen multiple expansions and name changes like Mobile Art Gallery and Fine Arts Museum of the South. Anniversary events kicked off with a Golden Gala Birthday Bash and the Family Festival, which held activities titled “The Carnival Experience,” “The Making of Myrth” and “The Taste of Mardi Gras.”

“We are taking the opportunity to celebrate the whole year,” Parkman says. Along with “The Art and Design of Mardi Gras,” the museum will hold three other Mardi Gras exhibits: “The People’s Gallery- Delta Psychedelica”  will function as a wall of memories with photographs, old throws, written stories, art and audio recordings; “WELL SUITED: The Costumes of Alonzo V. Wilson for HBO’s Treme” displays 14 exquisitely crafted Mardi Gras Indian suites from the award-winning series; and Stephan Wanger’s “Bead Town” is an assemblage of mosaics using recycled Mardi Gras beads to recreate iconic Louisiana images.

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Not enough Mardi Gras for you? The Mobile Carnival Museum celebrates the birthplace of Mardi Gras and is the place to learn all about the history of the holiday and experience things like climbing aboard a moving float firsthand.

“I really do want people to know and come and see how interesting the carnival is here,” says Barrett, “how old and what deep-seeded roots it has. The most important thing is how it’s all about the people and their fantasies and how they developed through the years right here in Alabama.”

Photos courtesy of the Mobile Museum of Art.

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