The first retrospective exhibition of the work of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Victor Harris, Big Chief of the Mandingo Warriors, Spirit of Fi-Yi-Yi presented at the New Orleans Museum of Art as part of Prospect.1 New Orleans, featured nine of the remaining suits and shields from Harris’ twenty-five years as Big Chief (1984-2009) alongside documentary photographs by Jeffrey D. Ehrenreich, Michael P. Smith, Keith Calhoun and Sylvester Francis and video footage from Francis of the Backstreet Cultural Museum.
Having begun suiting as a Mardi Gras Indian at age fifteen, Victor Harris became the longest continuously suiting Mardi Gras Indian alive with forty-three years of suiting, following the untimely death of Chief of Chiefs Allison “Tootie” Montana, Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas. A Flagboy for the Yellow Pocahontas tribe since the mid-1960s, Harris became Big Chief of his own tribe, the Mandingo Warriors, in 1984, after the epiphanic first calling of the Spirit of Fi-Yi-Yi, originally wearing a black suit. Every decade, the coming of the Spirit of Fi-Yi-Yi is remembered with an anniversary black suit.
The tenth anniversary black suit of 1994, which symbolizes the second coming of the spirit of Fi-Yi-Yi, opened Harris’ exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Preserved by the Louisiana State Museum, the 1994 black suit was accompanied by seven other suits, usually displayed at the Backstreet Cultural Museum, as well as three masks from Harris’ personal collection. Of the twenty-five Big Chief suits created by Harris and Fi-Yi-Yi, only nine have survived the passing of time, hurricane Katrina and other catastrophes.
The missing suits were represented through a series of photographs from Keith Calhoun, Jeffrey David Ehrenreich, Sylvester Francis and Michael P. Smith as well as through footage from Francis. Both the photographs and the footage allow insights into the spiritual nature of the Mardi Gras Indian practice of Big Chief Victor Harris and Fi-Yi-Yi. The suits are only the starting point of what is ultimately a transformative experience that includes marching, dancing, singing, and drumming.
A work by the community, for the community, Harris’ suits require communal labor. Fi-Yi-Yi members, led by Master Designer Jack Robertson, painstakingly make and assemble patterns, sew fabric, beads, feathers and sequins to achieve the suit that will be worn by their spokesman and representative, Big Chief Victor Harris, on Mardi Gras Day, St. Joseph Night, and Super Sunday, among other ceremonial and ritual occasions. Each year a new suit, a new color, a new totemic animal, and a dedication, epitomize Harris’s artistic and spiritual vision.
Starting with the Fi-Yi-Yi colors Black, Gold, Red and Green, the pan-African colors that symbolize Fi-Yi-Yi’s adherence to African tradition, Harris’s suits have included a wide array of other colors (blue, yellow, purple, brown, silver and white) totemic (Crocodile, Zebra, Rhinoceros, Bee, Horse,) and mythological (Unicorn) animals to create a truly original cosmogony that is the incarnation of the achievements and aspirations of his community. The year 2015 represents the 4th coming of the Spirit of Fi-Yi-Yi and Harris’s fiftieth anniversary as the longest continuously suiting Mardi Gras Indian.