Cherice Harrison-Nelson on her Mardi Gras Indian Suits and Family Traditions

Dec 6, 2021 1:09 pm

In her article “Assemblage and Inheritance,” Kristina Kay Robinson discusses Queen Cherice Harrison-Nelson’s group of Mardi Gras Indians, the Guardians of the Flame, a “contemporary maroon society” based in New Orleans. Harrison-Nelson designs and constructs her own narrative Mardi Gras suits, and is the third of five generations in her family to participate in the local masking tradition. Below, Harrison-Nelson talks in detail about some of her more meaningful designs and shares behind-the-scenes photos of her suit-making process. “I don’t mask,” explains Harrison-Nelson. “I unmask. I reveal who I am. I can’t cover that up.”

I consider my body a canvas. After my breast cancer surgery, I looked at my body and started to think about what I could do using my scars. I wanted to embrace the fact that my breasts are now two different sizes. I don’t wear anything to fill up the other cup. Sometimes I put my keys in there! I have to embrace all of it—my big belly, my lopsided breasts. I don’t run away from who I am. I present myself naked to you; it’s the essence of who I am. I’m not “masking” as a cancer survivor; I’m revealing to you that I survived. This suit is based on Shango, a Yoruba warrior. It represents my warrior spirit in conquering cancer. I knew I was going into battle for my life.

I visited the Whitney Plantation in 2019. There’s an interpretative tour telling both sides of the history of colonialism in Louisiana. The figures of children on the porch are by a sculptor named Woodrow Nash. Whenever I travel, I take my beadwork with me. If I love someone, I take my beadwork into their space, because I feel like it’s good juju, to put that good energy into my suit. Here I’m sitting outside a cabin where my ancestors were enslaved. I kind of just wanted to sit and sew in that space, to sew some of that strength into myself, to make sure I remember where I came from and who I am. Not to wallow in it, but to let it be an inspiration for me. In the photo I’m working on a double-edged ax patch for my Shango suit. I’m a warrior and I’m still alive. The people who came before me are warriors, even if they spent their entire lives enslaved. They survived, and I’m here. They’re my heroes.

This suit is inspired by Olokun, another Yoruba deity. She watches over the water in which our ancestors perished at sea. She’s also the orisha [spirit] of wealth. At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, while I was creating this suit, the idea of wealth kept coming back to me. What is wealth? Most of the time we think about money, but I was thinking about wealth in the sense of having the tenacity to survive this. In this iteration, Olokun represents all the lives that were lost. So many people in my circle passed away in early 2020. One of the patches is the Earth wearing a mask. I’m holding two objects that are my signatures—a machete and an akuaba doll. The machete is because often maroons escaped and lived on the borderlands, and a machete was the tool they used to cut down the brush. They also used it to protect themselves. This particular akuaba is kind of a fertility doll on steroids. They’re usually not this big! Normally you’d wear it in your waistband if you’re pregnant. Now, when our girls carry one, it symbolizes for us that they are pregnant with all the hopes and dreams of American opportunity. Health, wealth, education, and the hope of tomorrow.

I made this, inspired by the orisha Obatala, in 2006, when everyone was trying to get back to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But we don’t call it that. We say “the August 29th Event.” The city didn’t flood because of the hurricane, it flooded because the levee system wasn’t up to par. Our theme that year was “By Any Means Necessary.” My mother and sister helped me a lot with the sewing and the beading. There are fifty glass crystals on the American flag, one of which, an aurora borealis crystal, represents the state of Louisiana. My father, Donald Sr., wore this type of crystal; it’s a signature of our family. For him the stone symbolized that there is good and light in everyone; you just have to find a way to illuminate it. I also have an eagle patch on my hip, which was created for me by a gentleman who was in his early eighties at the time, and had started a group called the White Eagles, which my daddy used to be a part of. He said I would always have some White Eagle in me. 

I made this Yemaya [another Yoruba water spirit] suit for the tenth anniversary of Katrina, though I refer to it as a “commemoration.” Three weeks before the event, I called my mom and said that I needed to make a new suit. I thought she was going to say I was crazy, trying to design and sew a suit in three weeks! Instead, she said, “Ok, how do you want it to look? I’ll do whatever I can to help you.” She put every patch down on that suit. I’ve only worn this three times, but I get goosebumps whenever I put it on. I have them now just talking about it. When I wear it, it just feels like a hug from my mother.

This is my father in 1965, wearing a suit that was displayed at the New Orleans Public Library. The librarian, Jerome Cushman, was forward-thinking and organized a show of suits worn by men who participated in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. They were installed on the second floor and you could see them from the street. There were mannequin stands, and it looked like they were actually standing in the window looking out on the city. When we evacuated from Katrina, my mom took this photo, along with a little yellowed clipping of a newspaper article about the show, with her. 

This is a photo of me, on the left, my father, my twin nephews Kiel and Christian, and my son Brian. My nephews are representing obas (kings) from Benin, and my son has on a suit that was an homage to a lion king from Mali. My daddy had a suit with a queen on it, in homage to my mother. My suit has a patch of Africa on my chest, and a flame on the bottom, to symbolize that the flame—our culture and traditions—will never burn out; it will get passed on to the next generation. You can’t tell from this photo but I forgot my shoes that night! I guess I was closer to the Earth that way. My daddy used to say that it was a big deal to walk out the door on Carnival morning. No suit is ever finished! But when it’s time, you have to put it on and walk right out the door.