Big Chief Dowee Robair


equal-means-equal

 Big Chief Dowee Robair

Have you visited New Orleans and fallen in love with the city’s intoxicating mix of food, music and culture? The city is home to traditions—styles of art, cuisine, music and, yes, fashion—that cannot be found anywhere else. Nothing personifies this “only-in-NOLA” culture like the Mardi Gras Indians and their tradition of “masking.”

New Orleans’ African American community began dressing like Native Americans on Mardi Gras more than one hundred fifty years ago as a way to honor the Native Americans for their help hiding runaway slaves during the years before the Civil War.The centerpiece of Indian masking tradition is a costume or “suit,” as they call it. Each year the members of the various tribes spend a year making colorful designs with intricate beadwork and elaborate color schemes. Once completed, it comes together in a stunning and vivid mosaic to been seen at Mardi Gras, Super Sunday, St. Joseph’s Day and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Photographer Christy Bush sat down with Big Chief Dowee Robair, the head of the 9th Ward Black Hatchet, to learn more about masking, the suits, and Mardi Gras Indian traditions.

Christy: When did you make your first suit and who taught you how to sew?

Dowee: My stepfather, Richard Turner, who was the Wildman of the 9th Ward Warriors, taught me how to sew. I made my first suit at 24. I decided to sew and mask then because in the Lower 9th Ward a lot of the older guys were starting to quit sewing and fade into the background to become more of a support team for the tribes. I felt we needed young blood and energy to make sure the culture continued.

Christy: How old is your tribe, the 9th Ward Black Hatchets?

Dowee: My tribe is four years old and this is my fourth year running chief. Our tribe consists of Indians that have been masking since the 1960s. We are a tribe of elders, younger guys, women and kids. We are a young tribe by name only but the members are very seasoned. I have the largest tribe and the prettiest one in the city now. 


Christy: What does it take to be a Mardi Gras Indian?

Dowee: To be an Indian, you have to sew! You have to pick up the needle and thread and you have to sew! You have to do your own beading, your own sequins work, your own rhinestone work. Whatever it is you use to sew, you have to do it yourself.

Christy: Sewing by hand?

Dowee: By hand, yes. Christy: Sewing by hand?

Dowee: I can’t really answer that, but for example I am working a feather that is 2 1/2 inches long and 1/2 wide and there are 178 beads in this tiny area alone! It starts with bare canvas that we draw images on and we bead the images.

Christy: How many feathers do you think you use per suit?

Dowee: Approximately 600 to 700 feathers.

Christy: How long does it take to make a suit? A year?

Dowee: I’m glad that you brought that up. Sometimes people like to focus on the amount of money we spend to make these suits. Don’t get me wrong, we spend a lot of money but it’s nothing compared to the amount of time that we put in to make these suits.  Myself, I think I am one of the prettiest, hands down, and the amount of time that I put it sewing is the reason why. I sew like it’s a part time job in addition to going to my regular job. There is not a day of the week that goes by that I am not at the table sewing. I sew at least 4 – 6 hours a day. As it gets closer to Mardi Gras morning, the hours go up. There is very little sleep.

Christy: Do you consider yourselves artists?

Dowee: Of course, we are artists! We make art that can’t be duplicated even by ourselves. I do everything myself from start to finish. I begin by thinking of what colors I want to wear. I start with the feathers. I think about what rhinestones would pop out against the feathers.  I think about the beads that will work with the rhinestones. I need the materials to contrast and complement each other so that the scenes and the designs I create can be seen clearly.

Christy: The suits are about competition–who makes the best suit?

Dowee: Yes! This is a very intense form of competition. First, we compete with ourselves to beat the last suit we created. We are very masculine men competing with each other to see who is the prettiest. The prettiest! We all want to be the prettiest.  It’s about who has the best bead work, the best color schemes, and has been the most creative. I think that in itself,  it’s just amazing to have a bunch of men competing to see who is the prettiest, in a world that is so violent. To have something like this going on is on a whole different level.

Christy: Where does the term who is the prettiest come from and why is it so important?

Dowee: I can’t really say where exactly it came from because this has been going on for over 150 years easily. I mean the suits are pretty!  The crowds, the spectators, they tell you all the time, “You’re so pretty!” 

Christy: How do you know who is the prettiest?

Dowee: The spectators decide. But you know. When you look into that other person’s eyes and they look into your eyes, you know who the prettiest is! And they know it! When you open your wings and show them your suit, the expression on their face tells you who won or lost. It’s like a fashion show when the runway models come out. It’s a sight to see.

Christy: What does masking mean to New Orleans?

Dowee: It brings us closer together, it gives us a reason to gather. When we put on the suits, people come from all over to see us. It brings neighbors together. People from all over come to see us.

// Author: Christy Bush and Randy Gue co author // Photographer: Christy Bush

PRIVATE POLICY – S/S 2021
For Private Policy’s upcoming collection, the designers chose to refocus our understanding of beauty. Embarking on a search for the modern day Aphrodite, the collection expands upon the belief that it is not a beauty pageant but a process of accepting ourselves and others, thriving with diversity and giving the positivity of life itself. http://www.privatepolicyny.com/
Big Chief Dowee Robair
 Big Chief Dowee Robair Have you visited New Orleans and fallen in love with the city’s intoxicating mix of food, music and culture? The city is home to traditions—styles of art, cuisine, music and, yes, fashion—that cannot be found anywhere else. Nothing personifies this “only-in-NOLA” culture like the Mardi Gras Indians and their tradition of “masking.” New Orleans’ African American ... Read More
Collini Milano 1937
Carmine Rotondaro “Contamination For Glamour “ COLLINI’s Brand Legacy Of Heritage Couture & Resilience In The Age Of Covid-19 RESERVED MAGAZINE has a version sit-down with Carmine Rotondaro, COLLINI’s dynamic Creative director and CEO to discuss his vision behind their provocative new campaign. The juxtaposition of the model  engaged in a daily routine outfitted in the ultra glam collection styled ... Read More
4254
4254 Olympic Gold Medalists-turned-fashion designers, Élodie Ouédraogo and Olivia Borlée, speak to me over Zoom from their respective homes in Belgium. The interview was meant to be in person in Los Angeles, but like everyone, the girls have readjusted their plans for the worldwide COVID-19 lockdown. Among the many other fallouts of the pandemic, the press tour for their fledgling clothing line ... Read More
ALABAMA BLONDE
ALABAMA BLONDE Alabama Blonde sits at her computer with a white background, keeping her surroundings mysterious. She’s relaxed in glasses and a black beret, and we begin by talking about her cactus garden. She’s afraid of heights, and the cactus barrier surrounding the edges of her balcony make her feel better about living 40 stories above the ground. “So I can’t ... Read More
JULIA CLANCEY
Daria wearing Julia Clancey Pink Slinky head wrap, Earrings and Necklace PK Bijoux, Lion cuff Snake cuff Vintage cuff and ring by Hirst Collections, ring by Frangos, Bracelets @thehirstcollection by Kenneth Jay Lane, Satellite, Amishi, Askew London, Kenneth Jay Lane  Madi wearing Dragonfly Tassel Turban by Julia Clancey available at Harrods, Necklace by PK Bijoux, Hedgehog ring  by Kenneth Jay ... Read More
Black Dahlia
BLACK DAHLIA: Candy and the Science of Bliss Arriving fresh out of the candy lab, Taryn Garcia makes the life of a confectioner sound just as surreal as the childhood mind imagines; it’s the life of an artist, chef, and mad scientist, all rolled into one.   Head chef along with Greg Bernhardt for the new CBD company, Black Dahlia, Taryn reveals some ... Read More
ROSE HARTMAN: Studio 54
Known for its lavish celebrity disco parties in the late 1970s, Studio 54 became a symbol of the NYC elite, and many of the images—such as Bianca Jagger on the white horse— were as notorious as the club that inspired them. Behind the camera of many of the famed photographs was the tenacious and legendary photographer Rose Hartman; intrepid partygoer ... Read More
Tender Giant Miljan Suknovic
The moment Miljan walked into the Air France Lounge at New York’s JFK Airport he was immediately inspired by the architectural environment to create an installation/exhibition “Studio Visit”. As the first site-specific art installation of it’s kind the Air France lounge, his 35 large vibrant abstract works that were met with wide acclaim during the vernissage on November 12th. Miljan is ... Read More
helena christen
In My Dream Last Night…Helena Christensen & Camilla Stærk
‘In My Dream Last Night…’ is the armature behind an ongoing short film and sound concept by creative duo Stærk&Christensen, in collaboration with a number of artists from various fields who are a continuous source of inspiration to the duo. A collection of personal moments, thoughts and dreams are revealed and interpreted through each collaborator, underpinning the composition of the work.
Alysia Reiner and the New Woman’s World Order
It is a historic time in the history of the United States. More women than ever are running for president, educational opportunities are slowly advancing for women globally, and America has returned to having a female Speaker of the House. However, the fight for women’s rights and equality still rages on fiercely, and one of the biggest topics surrounding that issue in these contemporary times is motherhood.
Retiré: Cary Fagan x Giu Gui
Movement — a physical manifestation of our endless imagination. It allows us to create, to connect, to observe, and most importantly to know ourselves. To move is to be free. In this series, Fagan captures the intimacy of spontaneous expression. The motions, inspired by ballet, are so beautifully thoughtless they allow one’s true self to shine through. Ballerinas placed in a relaxed environment, turned off from the strains of perfectionism, yet still aware of movement. The motions are natural and evoke a childlike curiosity.
Theodora Richards
Between running her own radio station, modeling, and campaigning in the ongoing crusade for equal women’s rights, it’s a wonder that Theodora can even find time to squeeze in an interview. Growing up in a household with Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, it’s fairly inevitable that a strong musical backbone would form during Theodora’s childhood. With Off the Cuff, Theodora’s subscription Sirius radio station, she shares her unique taste with the world.
South of Reality: The Claypool Lennon Delirium
The Claypool Lennon Delirium is one of those rare bands that make you smarter when you listen to their music...The mood hovers around the spectrum of psychedelic rock, with dizzying bass riffs and otherworldly electric guitar.
Zac Posen: By the Gals, For the Gals
Coincidentally, just a couple weeks before showing ZAC ZAC at Coterie, Posen was asked by Google and their online program Made With Code, to create an LED dress. Made With Code’s website encourages girls to study science and technology. It tells the stories of various young ladies who have learned to computer coding to various ends: combined with biology to find the cure for cancer; enhancing costumes to create other worldly choreography on stage; and within fabric for literally enlightened clothing. Posen was asked to do the latter, showcasing an incredible light enhanced black gown worn by the model Coco Rocha for a group of women who code.
Stephen Posen
Drawing across a surface is a mysterious adventure, full of complex possibility and poetry. While the works represented on these pages date from the 1970’s to the present and incorporate diverse processes and mediums, they all share my life’s preoccupation with the power of the drawn line.
Joseph La Piana
My creative process is centered around the concept of evolution and the capacity to transform. I believe these concepts spring from a sense of optimism that we are not necessarily bound by our past, but by the boundless potential of the future. When a viewer engages with my work, I hope they are inspired by this optimism to imagine a future not bound by current preconceptions but infinite possibilities.
Millie Brown, Row DTLA Performance
Most recognized for performance as a non-traditional method of painting, Brown uses her body as a tool to create artifacts that are remnants of her process. Reminiscent of abstract expressionist studies, Brown produces aesthetically whimsical paintings with a deep underlining rawness of human emotion. Viewing the body as a vessel for spiritual practice, Brown pushes her physical and mental boundaries to reach a state of enlightenment from which creative expression and healing derives.
Bryan Adams: Pleasures of Abstraction
‘Etiam capillus unus habet umbram suam’ - The smallest hair casts a shadow + Francis Bacon
Nobody
The school sits square, brick, and bunker like, cupping a central yard, which I do remember as the exact spot Artie Cano knocked the wind out of me with one punch to the stomach after I said something he didn’t like. This, right in front of the willowy Michelle Jones, who from that moment on saw through me like I was a soap bubble.
ERA Now
Feminist has become a dirty word. So often people feel uncomfortable openly identifying as a feminist because of the misguided notion that the term means that women should have power over men or that it is a euphemism for “man-hater.” Feminism is the belief that men and women should have equal rights If you believe in that, congratulations you’re a feminist! Both men and women can be feminists. Now more than ever it is important for closeted feminists to come out into the open.
Robert Geller
I don’t have an ideal type of man. I guess the ideal man is the one who identifies with these clothes and who feels better in them. My clothes don’t scream but they do tell a story. You have to have the patience to understand this story to really appreciate my clothes.
Jasmine Lobe
1. At what point in your life did you first identify as a feminist and when did you become aware that a culture existed that devalued and debased women?  I didn’t really learn about feminism until I went to college. My mother was always a feminist but I don’t remember the word being used all that much. I associated it ... Read More
Nile Rodgers by Mick Rock
Last spring we were invited to the home of producer, musician and guitarist, Nile Rodgers in Westport, CT for an interview and photo shoot of epic proportions. Along with us was Liz Derringer, renowned music journalist, who cut her teeth at Warhol’s Interview Magazine and former wife of music legend Rick Derringer. Also joining us was legendary rock photographer Mick Rock, known as “The Man Who Shot the Seventies”.
Jen Awad: Love is Dead
Jen's ability to deliver cherubic, velvety vocals that effortlessly transition into the radical rumble of a runaway 18 wheeler doing 90 mph on an open highway is a feat in itself to witness live.