Masculinity in Masking: Bonds and Rituals in Black Masking Traditions
In connection with St. Joseph’s Night, which falls on March 19 and honors the bonds of fathers and sons, three leaders of the Black masking tradition, Big Chief Shaka Zulu, Big Chief Bo Dollis Jr., and Big Chief Bruce Sunpie Barnes, will discuss their ties to the culture and approaches to masking. In conversation with co-curators Ron Bechet and Kim Vaz-Deville, they will explore how their practices celebrate Black men as leaders and spiritual practitioners, challenge assumptions, and create space for lasting community in a changing city.
This program is sponsored by Friends of the Cabildo and offered in conjunction with the exhibition Mystery in Motion: African American Masking and Spirituality in Mardi Gras, currently on display at the Presbytere.
The event will take place over Zoom at 6:00 p.m. CDT and is free and open to the public. Advanced registration is required, and a Zoom link will be sent to registrants the day of the program. Please register here: https://forms.gle/1PSjq3uigXApL8V47
About the Panelists
Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes is the Big Chief of the Northside Skull and Bone Gang, one of the oldest existing Black Carnival groups in New Orleans. Sunpie is also musician, former park ranger with the National Park Service, actor, photographer, book author, former high school biology teacher, former college football All-American, and former member of the NFL (Kansas City Chiefs). Sunpie Barnes's many careers have taken him far and wide.
He has traveled to more than 53 countries playing his own style of what he calls Afro-Louisiana music, incorporating blues, zydeco, gospel, and Caribbean and African influenced rhythms and melodies. He is a multi-instrumentalist, mastering accordion, harmonica, and piano along with rubboard, talking drum, and djembe. He learned accordion from some of the best zydeco pioneers in Louisiana, including Fernest Arceneaux, John Delafose, and Clayton Sampy. Along with his musical group Sunpie and the Louisiana Sunspots, he has performed at festivals and concerts across the US and around the globe. Sunpie has recorded 7 critically acclaimed CDs, with his compositions featured in 16 Hollywood film productions. In addition to this musical work, he is also a former member of the Paul Simon Band that embarked on a 58-city world tour “Paul Simon and Sting Together,” which spanned 36 countries (2014–2016). In 2018 Latin superstar Carlos Vives invited Sunpie, along with the Louisiana Sunspots, to perform with him at the 51st annual Vallenato Festival in Valledupar, Colombia. Film acting has also been an important part of his busy career. Sunpie’s work has appeared in such Hollywood productions as Point of No Return, Deja Vu, Under Cover Blues, Jonah Hex, Treme, The Big Easy, Skeleton Key, Heartless, The Gates Of Silence, and Odd Girl Out.
He is deeply involved in New Orleans parade culture and co-authored the 2015 critically acclaimed book “Talk That Music Talk: Passing on Brass Band Music in New Orleans The Traditional Way.” More than 300 of Sunpie’s photographs are featured in this book. Another book, “Le Kèr Creole,” and its companion CD explores Louisiana Creole language and music. Sunpie is also a member of the Black Men of Labor Social Aid and Pleasure Club.
Big Chief Gerard “Bo Jr.” Dollis’s entire life has been shaped and spurred by Black masking Indian culture. He masked for the first time at the age of ten, though his parents, Big Queen Laurita Dollis and the late Bo Dollis Sr., Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias, wanted him to wait a few more years. Determined to mask, Bo Jr. managed to get his mother’s attention when he destroyed one of her beaded purses and started sewing on his own. No one could hold him back after that bold and decisive move, and young Bo took his first steps toward becoming a Big Chief.
Bo took on the title of Big Chief in 2006 and assumed leadership of the Wild Magnolias in 2012 at the behest of his father. Bo Jr. has masked and performed with the band throughout most of his life, in venues all over New Orleans, including Tipitina’s and the House of Blues, and at multiple Jazz Fests. He and the band played the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, as well as the White House in 2011 for President Obama, when Bo Dollis Sr. was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.
The Wild Magnolias have been honored to share the stage with various luminaries over the years, including Cyril Neville, Dr. John, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Galactic, Rockin’ Dopsie, Marva Wright, Robbie Robinson, Master P, and Widespread Panic. Bo Jr. and the band released A New Kind of Funk in 2013.
Big Chief Shaka Zulu is a practicing Black masking Indian (aka Mardi Gras Indian) who is a lecturer on the rich history and folklore of this New Orleans tradition. As co-owner of the Golden Feather Mardi Gras Indian Gallery, he runs a unique establishment, featuring his lecture series for tourists and locals. In addition to his entrepreneurial work, Chief Shaka is a musician, traveling the world playing percussive instruments with his company, Zulu Connection, and many notable New Orleans jazz musicians. An innovator in African traditions, Chief Shaka was also the first to mask as a Mardi Gras Indian stiltdancer, 14 feet in the air. Committed to the growth and educational prosperity of New Orleans youth, Big Chief Shaka also manages and is an instructor for the youth summer cultural enrichment camp of Better Family Life.
Big Chief Shaka Zulu has exhibited his suits both nationally and internationally at museums and festivals. In 2005, following Hurricane Katrina, his suits were exhibited at San Francisco’s M. H. de Young Museum. In 2015, his “New Suit” was featured in Berlin, Germany, at Sounds of the City, an exhibit featuring the culture of New Orleans. Most recently, his suit “Shango” is permanently housed at the Africa Museum in Berg en Dal, Netherlands. His suit “Shango Volume II” is currently on exhibit at Xavier University in collaboration with the Nigerian batik and adire textile designer Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye. This summer, several of his suits will also be exhibited at Martha’s Vineyard Activation, a New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Event. His “Egyptology Volume II” suit is exhibited at the Ritz-Carlton penthouse in New Orleans, and his “Dragon of Dragons” suit is on permanent exhibit at the Better Family Life Cultural Center in St. Louis, Missouri.
Chief Shaka is coproducer of the touring production “New Orleans Voices of Congo Square,” a vibrant historical narrative of New Orleans magical music, colorful dance, and mysterious Indian culture, the Black carnival traditions of New Orleans.
Images (left to right): Self Portrait by Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes, Bo Dollis Jr. by Angelle Cole, and Shaka Zulu by Justin Williams