The Umbrella Project is a participatory processional performance in the New Orleans parading tradition designed to celebrate the inauguration of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall.
The aim of this project is to set into motion the aesthetics of the African diaspora , weaving together the artistic, political, cultural, spiritual and civic threads that have helped define the African American experience.
The procession will be a vibrant affirmation of African American life in the premier civic space of the nation with some of the greatest living collective performance practices in existence today.
Marching on the National Mall, New Orleans-style
The unique location of the National Mall offers the National Museum of African American History and Culture the unprecedented opportunity to bring to a mass audience a unique practice of the African diaspora in North America: the New Orleans parading tradition.
Parading New Orleans-style encompasses three distinct dramatic forms: the Black (Mardi Gras) Indian masking traditions in which African American men, women, and children don feathered and beaded “suits”, the second-line parades of the social aid and pleasure clubs—the self-selected group of dancers and walkers who follow the official dancers and musicians or the “first line”—and the trademark stylized marching of the New Orleans brass bands
American jazz in the past century has mostly been tamed and brought indoors as fine art in nightclubs and concert halls. Yet all the while, New Orleans brass bands and second lines have kept alive the original spirit of jazz as dance music accessible to all. In like fashion, the Black Indians have sustained the art of urban pageantry, bringing to it fierce, new energy.
Long disparaged by polite society, New Orleans-style public performance practices have been recognized and rendered respectable by international contemporary art biennials (e.g. Site Santa Fe in 2001 and Prospect New Orleans in 2008 and 2011). They have also been newly popularized through cable television (e.g. HBO’s “Treme”, 2010-13). Notable Mardi Gras Indians, such as Donald Harrison, Sr., have been portrayed on TV while others including father and son Allison “Tootie” Montana and Darryl Montana have received national awards. Still others, like Victor Harris, have had their suits collected and presented in major regional and national museums.
New Orleans parading traditions are also remarkable in that they sustain a communal spirit and civic ideals dating back to the nineteenth century, when local communities began making, watching, and participating in them. In fact, the mutual aid organizations with which we propose to collaborate trace their origins to community-based educational programs created by Jerome Smith, a pioneering member of the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality and founder of Super Sunday, an annual, city-wide Mardi Gras Indian gathering.
Marching on the National Mall New Orleans-style is thus both an artistic tribute and a civic gesture that is critical and timely in this era of struggle for equality led by the nation’s African American youth.
A Super Parade: African diasporic ethics and aesthetics in motion
We—tradition bearers, cultural leaders and artistic practitioners, African Americans, members of the African diaspora at large and New Orleanians by birth or at heart—have come together under a single umbrella to respectfully request consideration of this proposal for the opening ceremony of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
We propose to organize a Super Parade that will bring together brass bands, social aid and pleasure clubs, Black Indians and other masking and parading groups in an event to surpass even New Orleans’s own parades. In New Orleans, brass bands, social aid and pleasure clubs and Black Indians are rarely seen in the same place at the same time. These practices overlap, though; often they are led by the same individuals and groups and occupy the same streets. What’s more they are, according to some, de facto civil rights demonstrations.
The Umbrella Project’s Super Parade will bring to Washington the most revered parade organizations, outstanding Black Indian groups, celebrated marching brass bands along a dove release and a horse cavalcade…
We also propose to bring other visual artists and musicians because public, participatory, processional performance as an art form and curatorial display is being newly embraced across America by artists and curators of African descent. In this aspect, too, this Super Parade would be a first: while gallery exhibitions sometimes make connections between masking and parading traditions and the visual and performance arts, they have never before been brought together in a public performance. Even more rarely have their ethics of resistance and communal aesthetics been addressed together.
Additionally, Washington D.C.’s own marching bands would be invited to participate in the Super Parade. A collaborative and collective effort, the Super Parade will be realized in, with, and for Washington D.C. as the lens through which to focus upon African American’s fundamental, and foundational, contributions to the nation.
Finally, the performance could be routed from a historic African American neighborhood in Washington D.C. (Shaw, for example), to provide a symbolic connection between the Museum and the communities across America that created and continue to create the artistic, historical and political traditions it seeks to preserve and foster.
An unparalleled, public, participatory processional performance, the Umbrella Project will be the intangible fourth tier of the Museum’s crowning cupola.
The Umbrella Project will be realized under the artistic direction of the Umbrella Group in collaboration with curators from the National Museum of African American History and Culture and other relevant partners.
The Umbrella Group was founded by Claire Tancons in Fall 2015 shortly after the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina to help bring New Orleans’ African diasporic aesthetic practices on the national stage. The Umbrella Group includes Fred. J. Johnson Jr., co-founder and leader of the Black Men of Labor Social Aid and Pleasure Club, Lolis Eric Elie, television writer (HBO’s “Treme,”), essayist and food historian and Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, musician, music historian and leader of the Louisiana Sunspots band.