Tag Archives: Mardi Gras

Passion Flowers, Gulf Fritillary Butterflies, and Cultural Exoticism

          A friend of mine, born and raised in Toronto, commented that my growing up Cajun seemed to her exotic, colourful—the unique food, music, and language of the Cajuns, whose population is mostly concentrated in a relatively small area in south-central Louisiana, sets their culture apart from any other in the world.
          True – the Cajun appetite for gumbo, jambalaya, and boiled, spicy crawfish is legendary. Accordian- and fiddle-playing are avidly learned by young people who form the Cajun and Zydeco bands that remain a staple of popular culture in Louisiana. The lyrics of their songs, often still sung in the Cajun patois, speak not only of unrequited love but also of alligators and Mardi Gras. And the spoken language is peppered with Cajunisms like boudez (to pout), veiller (to visit and chat) and couillon (idiotic).
          I responded that some aspects of the culture in which I was born and raised seemed exotic to me as well—not only now, viewing the culture through eyes that have seen many other places in the world and studied the Cajun culture in historical context—but then, too, growing up in the midst of its difference from any other place in the country. Then, I viscerally felt the difference of my culture; I felt it to be something exotic, even though I was living within it.
          As I pondered the idea of cultural uniqueness, an image of passion flowers crowded with Gulf fritillary butterflies surfaced in my mind—the most exotic image that I could think of from my childhood in Lafayette, Louisiana, the hub of Cajun culture. There was something about this image of otherness that reminded me of the way that it felt growing up within a culture that was self-conscious of its exotic status within the more mainstream American culture.

Passion flowers
          When I was a child, my mother lined one side of our carport with chicken wire and planted passion flowers alongside it, allowing the vine to climb. By the zenith of our subtropical summer, the creeping tendrils had formed a wall of green lavished with purple blossoms that seemed impossibly, exquisitely exotic.

Photo: Norman G. Flaigg

          Passiflora grew luxuriantly in the rich soil and semi-tropical climate of Louisiana. My father explained to me that the vine had originated in South America. True, but researching the plant now tells me that it was also indigenous to North America; some Native American tribes used parts of it to make medicine and tea. Nevertheless, I grew up believing that it was a foreign plant, and to me it certainly had that “exotic” look—wildly different, introduced from somewhere in tropical South America where, my child’s imagination suggested to me, the saturated colours of the clothes that people wore and the rich flavours of the fruits they ate emerged from the very soil under their feet. There, I thought, the passion flower must be something ordinary—still lovely, but possessing a beauty that one would take for granted, an old friend blossoming along roadsides or in pastures, blending into the fabric of life’s more joyful offerings.
          But here, the passion flower appeared to me an exotic other among the weedy dandelions and white “springflowers” that emerged from the St. Augustine grass, and even the colourful but domesticated zinnias that I grew in neat rows in my little garden plot bordered with red bricks. The passion flower was a colonizing vine, impossible to confine, that thrived in its “new” environment. It added an element of exotic difference to the lawn’s more quotidian flora.
          For one thing, the multi-layered flowers were so complex that their structure couldn’t be taken in all at once but had to be visually dissected. The blossom’s base was composed of rather mundane daisy-like petals. But radiating above these petals was a myriad of delicate tendrils, curly at their ends and patterned with concentric rings of colour: these were the tresses of Medusa the Beautiful.
          From the center of this bizarre splendor grew a little tree trunk with umbrella spokes of five spotted branches; at the tip of each branch was attached a little oblong platelet. As if nature weren’t satisfied with all that weird magnificence, the whole was topped with a tiny orb from which sprang three little trumpets. This flower knew exactly how to flaunt its reproductive organs.
          The fruit of the passion flower was also a sensual feast for the eyes, if not my childish palate. Moreover, these odd blooms grew on wild, luxuriant vines whose vigorous life force enabled them to smother whole trees. There seemed an element of menace to this plant, which I regarded as an invasive but welcome species.
          In short, the passion flower looked like an alien from another planet or perhaps one of those otherworldly species that flourished during the Cambrian explosion.

Gulf fritillary butterflies

Photo: Dominick Martino

          Every summer, Gulf fritillary butterflies migrated from the tropics of Florida, over the Gulf of Mexico, to areas along the subtropical stretch of the Gulf coast, including my hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana. There, the passion flower provided the butterfly’s favourite nectar and the vine’s leaves the caterpillar’s preferred food. Swarms of these butterflies, drenched in warm equatorial colours, perched on flowers as fantastical as any Royal Ascot hat, surely couldn’t be the visionary brainchild of the local Mother Nature.
          One summer, as the butterfly’s eggs hatched, my mother placed one of the tiny caterpillars in a large jar full of passion flower leaves attached to a length of vine she’d cut. I watched as the caterpillar munched on the leaves, moulted its outer skin a few times times to allow growth, suspended itself from a twig with its own adhesive silk, formed its chrysalis, and appeared to be dormant. I waited anxiously, but at last the outer shell of the chrysalis, which resembled a curled up dried leaf, stirred and cracked, and a coltishly awkward butterfly emerged with crumpled wings. Gradually it stretched out its wings until their full pattern emerged: tawny orange laced with black and splashed with silver dots and streaks.
          Of course, many things seem fresh and exotic to the eyes of a child. But like the passion flower that I believed was introduced from South America, migratory creatures were in a different category. It was one thing to observe, up close, the concentric circles and striking colours of buckeyes and swallowtails, which were endlessly fascinating but very common fluttering around in the pastures behind our house. Those native butterflies were as prolific as the mushrooms that we called the “devil’s powderpuff” and as common a sight as the towering anvil-shaped cloud formations that roamed like sharks across the wide Louisiana sky and dumped rain so furiously that cars stopped under bridges to ride out the deluge. These things were special, but still part of the fabric of life.
          However, the migration of the Gulf fritillary butterflies was something precious and unique—as the summer heated up, we knew they were coming, and we waited, and whoever spotted the first one ran inside excitedly to announce the news. Then, these butterflies stole the spotlight from the more ordinary butterflies. There was something rare about them, though they were far from being an endangered species. And they were utterly gorgeous.
          But if they were so exotic, I thought, why was the word “Gulf” part of their name? The Gulf of Mexico was familiar, ordinary, always there, defining one boundary of Louisiana, providing a fishing ground for my father and a breeding ground for hurricanes. “Fritillary” at least sounded exotic—the tongue, teeth, and lips made unfamiliar movements pronouncing the word that sounded like no other and that conjured an image of delicate, unfamiliar beauty, eagerly anticipated and welcomed. Gulf fritillaries were transitory visitors enriching dailiness with their striking colours and refined appetite for the nectar of foreign flowers.
          The convergence of these two otherworldly beings—the passion flower and the Gulf fritillary—yielded in my mind the essence of exoticism. But in reality the passion flower is native to many areas of North America. I’m not sure whether the species that my mother planted was Louisianian or Brazilian; it would take a botanist to sort out that question. But the genus was no stranger to the subtropics of the Deep South.
          As for the Gulf fritillary butterfly, its migratory arrival and departure made it seem otherly. However, migratory patterns in birds and butterflies take shape over eons, and the Gulf fritillary butterfly had for a long, long time made its temporary home in Louisiana during the summer and traveled in large flocks across the Gulf to winter over in the tropics of south Florida. It was native, all right.
          My perception of exoticism in the passion flower and Gulf fritillary butterfly was just that—an attitude conditioned by notions about native and other. By extension from flowers and insects to people and culture, exoticism is a state of mind about self and other. If I had lived a few decades earlier, the Cajun culture in which I lived would not have seemed so self-consciously tinged with exoticism. Since the early part of the twentieth century, my community of Lafayette, Louisiana, was in transition due in large part to the federal project of assimilation of the French Cajuns into mainstream American society. It was a project distressingly familiar to many ethnic groups in Canada and the United States. If I had lived before that homogenizing process—however one envisions the metamorphosis toward modernized, commercialized, consumerized, suburbanized, American blandness—life, more isolated from the country’s mainstream, might have seemed less self-consciously different.
          But growing up in the sixties and seventies, I knew how different my culture was—the inroads of superhighways, television, and billboards had for decades facilitated the intrusion of mainstream, popular culture into south-central Louisiana. I thought of the Cajun culture as exotic because it had become self-aware as otherly. Since the 1960s, the Cajuns regained a sense of pride in their culture. CODOFIL (Council for the Development of French in Louisiana) was formed to protect the vestiges of the Cajun culture and encourage a return to its cultural heritage, including the French language. It was, and is, a noble attempt to revitalize a dying culture. The new-found pride also fostered a sense of protectionism. A friend once half-jokingly said that he would only marry a woman born south of the I-10, an east-west interstate highway below which the majority of Cajuns made their home in Louisiana. But in spite of recent attempts to protect the vestiges of the original culture, full retreat into the past was of course no longer possible.
          We were passion flowers, indigenous but seen as exotic in our own homeland, by ourselves and by others. And the idea of exoticism implies a degree of purity. For a culture to be exotic is to possess a degree of difference that sets it apart. But the fact is that we were never “purely” Cajun—neither purely native nor purely exotic. Our culture may have been predominantly French and Catholic. And as I now understand having visited some of the remaining Acadian villages in Nova Scotia, there is a strong cultural bond between contemporary Acadians and Cajuns that demonstrates that both cultures possess many survivals from their common historical roots in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Acadie. But diaspora brings with it the assimilation and adaptation of cultural elements from many others along the way.
          To take music as one example, Cajun and Zydeco music isn’t something “pure” historically, but a mixture of old Acadian songs influenced by Texas swing, jazz, country, and blues. Although at any given moment in time a culture might seem to be purely “itself,” diachronically speaking it is inevitably mongrel.
          I thought of the Gulf fritillaries as exotic others. But in fact they were native creatures despite their migratory patterns. The Cajuns, who originally migrated from France and later were expelled by the British from Nova Scotia, moved around quite a bit during the two centuries of their immigration and diaspora. South Louisiana, with its giant live oaks dripping with moss and its humid, decaying swamps, must have seemed exotic to the newly-arrived Acadians, compared to the rocky coasts and salty tidal flows of the Bay of Fundy. But in each place that their voyages had taken them, the Acadians became naturalized and absorbed something from the soil on which they made their homes. The Cajuns’ roots were undeniable and their perceived exoticism was only relative compared to the larger culture of les Américains—as the older Cajuns still called them not so long ago—who surrounded them.
          A few years ago, during a visit to friends in Montpellier, France, I was delighted to find the vines of passion flowers laden with fruit, which brought back memories from my childhood. I was a little surprised to find these vines in the South of France. Although I wasn’t sure whether they were native or introduced, they still seemed exotic here, just as they had seemed to me growing up in Louisiana.
          To my child’s mind, it was important to distinguish between the familiar and the unfamiliar, between the autocthonous and the introduced. But rigid and naive distinctions are illusory. I watched caterpillars fattened on the leaves of passion flowers transform into Gulf fritillary butterflies, a beautiful lesson in metamorphosis. That image of their transformation seems to me to aptly describe the natural condition of cultural flux. To paraphrase Hamlet, there’s nothing either purely exotic or native but thinking makes it so.

Photo: Camille Martin

Photo: Camille Martin—Passion Fruit in Montpellier, France




Camille Martin
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Third Gallery: Krewe of St. Anne, Mardi Gras


                                All photos on this page copyright Camille Martin.

 
                          MORE PHOTOS BELOW
 

        A couple of weeks ago, I posted the first gallery of photographs from the Krewe of St. Anne parade in the French Quarter, Mardi Gras Day 1999. That gallery can be found here. Just below this post is the second gallery. And—with the indulgence of those who prefer my poetry posts—here is the third gallery of photos from the Krewe of St. Anne and from just hanging out in the French Quarter.
        Out my Toronto window, I see white snow and bare branches and hear cars rolling through slush. But in my head I see Fat Tuesday’s riot of colours and hear a chorus of frogs in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
        Happy Mardi Gras!


Camille
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 
Camille Martin
http://www.camillemartin.ca

Second Gallery: Krewe of St. Anne, Mardi Gras


                                All photos on this page copyright Camille Martin.

 
                         
MORE PHOTOS BELOW
 
 

        A couple of weeks ago, I posted the first gallery of photographs from the Krewe of St. Anne parade in the French Quarter, Mardi Gras Day 1999. That gallery can be found here.
        I hope you enjoy the second gallery as much as I enjoyed taking the photos.
        May the peace of Frog be with you!

Camille
CLICK HERE FOR MORE PHOTOS:
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Fat Tuesday, Krewe of St. Anne: A Photo Essay


                                All photos on this page copyright Camille Martin.

 
                          MORE PHOTOS BELOW
 
 
        Although Fat Tuesday isn’t until February 16, New Orleans is already well into the Mardi Gras season, which began on January 6. It’s what I miss the most about living in New Orleans. As for as I’m concerned, the place to be on Fat Tuesday is the French Quarter. Because of the narrow streets, tractor-drawn floats are impossible. So the parades hoof it: The Krewe of Kosmic Debris and the Krewe of St. Anne are the two to see. In these krewes, there isn’t really a central command deciding on a theme to unify the parade. And no top-down decisions means a fantastic array of individuals and small groups strutting their alter-ego costumes, snaking their way through the old city. Waves of colour flow through the streets, and just when you think sadly that the parade has ended, another motley wave arrives.
        For several years, I went to the French Quarter on Fat Tuesday as Frog Lady along with other members of the True Church of the Great Green Frog. We celebrated Frog Mass in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral by eating frog pastries for communion and singing froggy hymns (“Amazing Frog,” among others), and generally spreading the word that “Frog croaked for your sins.”
        I had come up with the idea to construct a two-person frog litter on which a giant stuffed frog sat on a satin cushion, surrounded by incense and decked with Mardi Gras bead necklaces. Carrying the amphibious deity around on a litter was fun, but it meant that my hands weren’t free to take photos. So in 1999 I decided to walk around the Quarter just taking pictures. I was in photographer’s heaven.
        The following gallery is the first of three installments of these photographs. I hope that you enjoy viewing them as much as I enjoyed taking them. Frog is Love!

PS: Following this gallery is a an excerpt from “Fat Tuesday’s Heterotopic Splash,” a piece that I wrote for Streetnotes: Cross-Cultural Poetics and revised for this post.
 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
HERE’S A LINK TO THE SECOND GALLERY
 
                                Fat Tuesday’s Heterotopic Splash
 
        Mardi Gras in New Orleans contains multitudes, and one of the best places to appreciate its polymorphic revelries is the French Quarter on Fat Tuesday. You only need to avoid most parts of Bourbon Street and the sophomoric guys on balconies coaxing young women on the street below to bare their breasts for the price of a few dangled beads of glittering plastic. A few steps away, a heterotopic paradise opens up: two walking parades (the Society of St. Anne and the Krewe of Kosmic Debris) and the Bourbon Street Awards, a mostly gay costume contest, fill the streets of the Vieux Carré with explosions of color and fantasy.
        Here, desires are set loose in a spectrum of attitudes ranging from sublime to ridiculous, mundane to bizarre, deadpan to satirical, erotic to bo-peepish—and everything in between. Some costumes mimic or satirize the familiar pop idol, while others celebrate unrecognizable life forms. The parades feature no overriding theme, but instead invite individuals and groups to explore uncharted and prismatic identities through masking. Categorical sexual identities are drained and then re-envisioned, suggesting a plethora of newly-invented gender cocktails.
        In the great street theater of Mardi Gras, privacy is banished, and the public space reigns. Normal conventions of public encounters, such as averting one’s gaze from the approaching stranger (at a distance of eight to ten feet, according to a study in Manhattan) or avoiding unnecessary verbal exchanges, are tossed out. One calls out to the other (“Hey, Pink Showgirl!” “Over here, Mirror Man!”) and the other obliges with a smile and a wave, or poses with dignified or exuberant theatrics.
        Exhibitionism and voyeurism are the symbiotic soul of this communal promenade, where it might be considered impolite not to stare at the phantasmagory of characters passing by or to show off your own alterity that you might normally keep carefully veiled. The revellers perform their freakishness to satisfy narcissistic urges and to give delight to the gazer; gazers stare for their own pleasure and for the gratification of the performer. Thus a spirit of cooperation flourishes in the theatrical dialogue as chance conjunctions of identities suggest odd or outright bizarre narratives. Carnival in the French Quarter revels in incompatible sites: it is the epitome of the celebratory heterotopia.
        After the well-practised street cleaners and dump trucks roll into action to clear the roads of debris at the stroke of midnight, only questions remain. Are the identities unleashed through this carnivalesque mining of the psyche more true to the self than the groggy, hungover shadow that awakens on Ash Wednesday to a sadly diminished and color-drained universe? Where did the fantastical self that flourished yesterday scurry off to? And when will it re-emerge?
 
 
Camille Martin
http://www.camillemartin.ca

All That Glitters on the Spiderweb: Myth, Race, and Denial

          After living for ten years in upstate New York, where I had never quite felt at home, I decided to return to my hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana, where flowers grew year round, people spoke in the soft, lilting accents of Cajun French, and I could eat crawfish étouffée to my heart’s content. No doubt there was a hefty dollop of romanticized nostalgia in my decision. In any case, I packed up my belongings and drove a big U-Haul south. Three days later, the humidity felt just about the right thickness, and I knew I was home. I took an apartment in Bayou Shadows, a sterile complex probably named by a focus group, and got a job as a secretary in a company that provided tools and labour for offshore oil rigs.
          Over the next few months, I reacquainted myself with the local culture, attending celebrations like the Frog Festival in Rayne, the Cajun Music Festival in Mamou, and of course, Mardi Gras. I also visited Vermilionville, a recreated Cajun village on the banks of Bayou Vermilion showing life in Acadiana from settlement (1760s) to the late nineteenth century. It was recommended to me by my cousin, whose partner had a job demonstrating for the tourists the making of bousillage, a mixture of bayou mud and dried moss that the Cajuns used to plaster their walls. I felt a little sad to see the period costumes, Cajun-style homes and furniture, and farm tools, all authentically recreated and frozen in time.
          When I was growing up, there were still some survivals of this old way, such as the “gar’ soleil” a practical bonnet that my grandmother wore to shade her face from the harsh sub-tropical sun, and the old plow pulled by mules that my grandfather was still using for his cornfields when I was a child. That way of life was gone, though you could still buy Cajun bonnets as a souvenir in the gift shop at Vermilionville. Seeing artifacts from the my culture ossified in a museum, I felt as though a part of my past were now being recaptured, tested for authenticity, and put on display. It was a lesson in impermanence that I was reluctant to learn.
          While I was away in upstate New York, my father had immersed himself in genealogy. He and my mother collected hundreds of photographs and paintings of ancestors, and filled boxes upon boxes of documents photocopied from court records: marriage certificates, wills, contracts. They also collected and framed farm implements such as old cattle brands, correctly assigned to their owners. My father was becoming a kind of living Cajun icon, obsessively collecting the paper trail of his ancestors as a way of holding on to a culture that was swiftly dissipating as assimilation into the “mainstream” took its toll.
          But nostalgia takes its toll on history, and the longing for a lost arcadian past tends to flatten the complex layers of history. What remains is an idealized mythology that takes the form of whatever fantasy nostalgia has invented. Perhaps it’s a vision of happy-go-lucky Cajuns whose unadulterated culture thrived in relative isolation from “les Américains.” Or perhaps it’s a fantasy of the good old antebellum days of oligarchy in the Deep South: wealthy plantations, elegant ballroom manners modeled after European nobility, and ultra-cheap labour. Whatever the fantasy, nostalgia creates a vision of life that used to be simple and pure, uncomplicated by the complexities of cultural hybridity and the inhumanity of slavery. This was another lesson that I was reluctant to learn. After all, I was in search of Cajun authenticity, and I was on the verge of buying into this vision of a lost culture innocent of divisions and contradictions; it was the misty, sunlit, and idealized vision of a lost childhood. Growing up during Jim Crow and witnessing the turmoil of the Civil Rights movement and the first attempts to integrate a society of institutionalized racism left an indelible mark on my psyche. But returning to Cajun country full of wistfulness, on some level I still clung to the belief, despite evidence to the contrary, that racism was not imprinted onto the Cajun social fabric.
          After my move home, I would sometimes drive in the countryside around Lafayette, with no particular destination in mind. I was looking for “authentic” Cajun life in the small towns where life wasn’t self-consciously re-enacted for the benefit of tourists, where life had not become a series of footnotes and framed antique tools. On one of those drives I found myself in St. Martinville, a town where many of the Acadians had first settled after arriving in Louisiana from Acadie, now Nova Scotia, in the 1760s.
          I had been to St. Martinville several times as a child to visit the St. Martin de Tours Catholic Church. To me, it was the quintessential Cajun shrine: an historic eighteenth-century church built by the early Acadian settlers. Next to the church was a statue of a virgin—not Mary, but Evangeline, symbol of the Acadian diaspora.

Evangeline Statue

          Evangeline was a character invented by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his long tragic poem based on the French Acadian expulsion by the British from Nova Scotia in 1755. Families were often split up as they were forced to hurriedly board ships during “Le Grand Dérangement,” and in Longfellow’s poem, during the loading of the Acadians onto the ships, Evangeline becomes separated from her betrothed, Gabriel. According to one version of the legend, on arriving in Louisiana years later, Evangeline discovers that Gabriel has already married another. After becoming mentally unhinged due to the shock, she dies of a broken heart and is buried under an ancient live oak tree in St. Martinville.
          Even though she is an entirely fictional character, the tourism industry perpetuates the myth that she was based a real person (Emmeline Labiche, another fabricated character) and is actually buried under a live oak near St. Martin de Tours Church.

Evangeline Oak

Layers of truth and myth are easily confounded where there is the desire to believe. Of course, there must have been many Evangelines and Gabriels, lovers separated during the expulsion of the Acadians, but none buried under the old oak tree at St. Martin de Tours.
          I sat near the statue of Evangeline, which used to represent to me a fixture of the Cajun imaginary, an icon of the Cajun diaspora. The plaque at the base, translated into English, reads as follows:

* * * * *
Evangeline
Emmeline Labiche
Old Cemetery of St. Martin
In Memory of the Acadians Exiled in 1755
Statue of Evangeline, heroine of the Acadian deportation to Saint Martinsville in Louisiana.
* * * * *

Although there was no mention of a model, I remembered that the statue was in fact a replica of Delores Del Rio, the Mexican-American actress who played the lead role of Evangeline in the 1929 film.

Delores Del Rio

Even Hollywood kitsch merges into the legend and takes on an aura of authenticity. Before the statue knelt two elderly Cajun women solemnly praying before the image of the tragic peasant maiden.
          I walked inside the church, which contained the usual sentimentalized Catholic iconography as well as a simulation of piled-up stones surrounding a statue of Mary, a representation of the Grotto of Lourdes. The stones seemed more simulated than I had remembered as a child, but other than that, the church and grounds were pretty much the way I had known them. It was the kind of place I mentally file as a shrine that is still rooted in a living culture but that, once tourism grew into a serious commodity, became embellished with colourful folklore, complete with sacred landmarks and an empty grave. It seems that the more that fictional accoutrements spring up around a myth, the more credible the tale becomes. Even the locals wanted to believe.
          Next to the church was a little museum. I entered the first floor gift shop and chatted with an affable middle-aged woman behind the counter about the interior of the church. She informed me that “It was a octoroon built the Grotto of Lourdes in the west nave. And do you know, he had never been to Lourdes before?”
          Octoroon? It was bizarre to hear that antiquated word. Here we were, a good thirty plus years from the official end of Jim Crow, and this woman was still using, in all earnestness and without historical context, the long-outdated and legalistic term—common in the nineteenth century—for a person who was one-eight African-American. I felt transported to a different era. Or maybe a Flannery O’Connor story about the absurd underbelly of life in the rural Deep South.
          She then pointed me in the direction of the museum exhibit upstairs, which she said I could see for one dollar. She seemed mysterious about the nature of the exhibit, only saying that “It’ll all explain it when you see it.”
          Expecting an historical display about the church or the Cajun settlement in St. Martinville or some nonsense about the grave of Evangeline, I soon realized that I was about to enter one of those surreal zones—“geo-psychic wonders,” as a friend calls them—that you sometimes come across in South Louisiana. Like the little roadside chapel that I found on one of my countryside excursions, with stained glass windows depicting Houma Indians. Or the Saturn Bar in New Orleans, featuring a painting of the ringed planet on the ceiling along with a dangling mummy and a giant taxidermic turtle—for starters.
          I climbed up the stairs to the museum on the second floor. The first clue was jagged strips of green camouflage cloth festooning the beam at the entrance. The mottled green fabric was crudely decorated with glitter in the shape of spider webs. As I crossed the threshold and walked into a single large room, something told me that this was not going to be a display created by the St. Martinville Historic Society. The entire room was bedizened with lurid, sparkling spiderwebs. Around the perimeter stood department store mannequins in stiff poses, dressed in gaudy eighteenth-century-style satin costumes of purple, green, and gold, the traditional colours of Mardi Gras. Plastic spiders perched on sequinned webs adorned the gowns.
          A placard on the wall explained that these costumes were worn at a recent local Mardi Gras ball whose theme was an 1850 double wedding that took place on a nearby sugar plantation, the Oak and Pine Alley. According to this legend, apparently well-ensconced in the town’s lore, Charles Durand, the wealthy plantation owner and father of two young women engaged to be married, decided to throw the most lavish and memorable wedding anyone had ever seen. He imported spiders from China and set them loose among the live oak trees. On the day of the wedding, he had slaves spray gold and silver dust from bellows onto the spiderwebs, wet from dew, creating a glittering canopy for the ceremony.
          The mannequins’ Mardi Gras ball gowns, a tribute to this wedding steeped in fantasy, seemed a bizarre conflation of Spider Woman, bordello madame, and Bo Peep debutante. At the far end of the room, a mantelpiece decorated in red felt with candelabras at either side served as an altar, complete with a male mannequin dressed in the colourful robes and sashes of a priest, ready to ward off errant spiders with his magic sceptre. In the middle of the room sat a dollhouse model of the plantation house and its oak grove, a kind of fuzz strung between the trees to depict the spiderwebs.
          The unabashed campiness of the “museum exhibit” was hypnotic. Surrounding me were the symbolic fetishes of the legendary wedding—a cheesy fertility shrine in which images of spiders bring good fortune and Cajun rugrats to newlyweds. I lingered among the arachnophile mementos, imagining a future mutated version of the story: locals praying to spider spirits to grant favours, and dangling plastic spiders from their rear-view mirrors. Bridegrooms in Spiderman costumes at ritualistic weddings ravishing Miss Muffet brides. Evangeline would of course join the hagiography of the new syncretistic Catholicism. The sequel to her hallowed tale would tell of spiders interceding on her behalf to roll back the tragic diaspora and deliver her faithful lover Gabriel, whom she’d marry under the oak tree that now marks her tomb amidst showers of gold and silver glitter purchased from the local craft store.
          After my reverie had played itself out, I thought about the woman downstairs, remembering her “octoroon” comment, and suddenly the invisible subtext of the exhibit came into focus. Previous experience told me that this latter-day celebration of plantations in the Deep South, whose owners had amassed huge fortunes from the labour of slaves, was nothing unusual. The at-best unthinking extolling of this dream wedding wasn’t only the result of seeing Gone with the Wind too many times or visiting plantations in which the tour guides attempted to rationalize slavery, minimize the suffering of the slaves, and glorify the expensive mahogany furniture and chandeliers in the roped-off rooms of the mansion.
          Years earlier, I had toured the so-called San Francisco Plantation near New Orleans, open to the public for a fee. Women in large hooped skirts, evoking the stereotype of the Southern belle, served as tour guides. As the guide for my group showed us the kitchen, an outbuilding about a hundred feet from the mansion, she explained that a slave carried the prepared food from that structure along a stone path to the dining room. Especially when the slave was carrying a pie, she said, the master would require the slave to whistle so that he could be assured that the slave wasn’t eating the pie. I heard tittering among the all-white group of tourists. This was a geo-psychic wonder steeped in myth and mired in denial.
          The racist backdrop of commemorations of plantation life such as the spider-wedding fades into invisibility, much like bringing up the suffering of the blacks during the plantation tours was taboo: it would have spoiled the fantasy. I looked back at the display of mannequins and diorama and felt both attracted to its absurdity and repelled by its sanitized history. This was home alright.



Camille Martin
http://www.camillemartin.ca