The pomp and splendor that awaits the public in the Louisiana State Museum’s upcoming exhibit, Grand Illusions: The History and Artistry of Gay Carnival in New Orleans, is the result of a curatorial endeavor that has spanned well over half a decade collecting the memorabilia of gay Carnival. Wayne Phillips, the museum’s Curator of Costumes and Carnival Collections, has led this effort over the years with his notably empathetic approach, making countless visits to the homes of krewe members to hear their stories. In our interview, Wayne invites us behind the scenes to recount the making of this long-awaited exhibition.
How long exactly has the curation of this show been in the works?
Actually, the first thing I brought into the collection that I envisioned using in this exhibit was seven years ago. So I’ve been working on this in some way since 2012. At the time, we didn’t really have an exhibit firmly planned. I was just collecting with the hope to one day put it into an exhibit, but officially the exhibit has been on the calendar now for the last two or three years.
After so many years of curating, did it just finally feel like time to do an exhibit on gay Carnival?
It just kind of aligned perfectly to do it this year, which is the best it could possibly be because this is also the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. There’s a lot of attention to what cultural institutions are doing around the country to commemorate Stonewall and this could be our observation of the 50th anniversary. It will open in June which of course is when Pride is.
What are some of the issues you’ve encountered in your endeavor to curate this exhibit over so many years?
Collecting materials to document gay history is very different because of the history of great loss within the gay community, both of people and their memorabilia. The majority of gay men and women don’t have children so whatever they collected over the years– the photographs, the paintings, whatever their valuables, there’s not a secure second life for them. You may have a second generation niece or nephew, a property manager, or even a neighbor who ends up with your stuff after you die. They don’t know how important it is, and they put it out on the street. Or even worse are the family members who want to cover up their family member’s past life, and will deliberately throw things away. That is the worst case scenario.
You also deal with an unfortunate amount of self-esteem issues. A lot of the people that I’ve collected memorabilia from have said to me, “I didn’t think anybody would want this,” or ,“I didn’t think what I was doing was really that special.” Then I say to them, “Hell, yes it is! What you did was really special!”
Those must be very comforting words to hear after having lived through so much.
I’m really looking forward to the opening because there are going to be a lot of people coming through whose donations are in the exhibit, and I think it’s going to mean a lot to them. I visited them, recorded their stories, and they have trusted me to take care of their materials– things these people are really emotionally attached to.
Especially New Orleanians!
We love our stuff! We are all collectors. In fact, I look at myself as a curator and I’m just a professional collector. I love stuff. I go to someone’s house, I see their photo albums and my eyes just bug out. I want to see every picture, I want them to tell a story about every single picture in this album. Even if it doesn’t result in them donating memorabilia I still care about them and their stories.
Were you the first curator to obtain gay Carnival memorabilia?
Right around 1979 the first gay Carnival materials were brought into the collection. All of the curators before me were women, and the very first donation of anything from gay Carnival was something that the curator herself got when she attended a gay ball. She started the collection literally from personal experience. As a curator you build upon what your predecessors have done, and I’m so glad that they brought gay Carnival into the collection.
Has gay Carnival memorabilia been part of shows in the past?
We’ve always had a permanent Carnival exhibit going back at least to the 1950s. Since my predecessor started collecting from the gay krewes, there has always been some representation in the larger permanent show. It’s frustrating sometimes because you can’t understand the whole picture of a gay carnival from one or two costumes. At some point, there had to be an exhibit done so you can really fully flesh out the whole story.
The balls seem to be a main focal point in how you are telling the story of gay Carnival.
For most krewes everything you work towards all year is for the ball. Aside from the charitable fundraising, all the funds they collect throughout the year at the bars, the barbecues, and the cookouts, is all for the ball. It’s very expensive to put these on. Not just the expense of your costume but renting a hall, decorating it, and just the million other costs associated with putting one of these on.
From experience, I know the symbolism and metaphors can be very rich at these balls too.
One of the costumes I am really excited about borrowing is from a costume designer, John Zeringue, who has been a captain and king of Amon-Ra. For the 15th anniversary, his costume was the ancient Egyptian god [Anubis] who weighs your heart at the door of the afterlife. If your heart weighs more than a feather, then you are considered to have had a selfish life, but if your heart weighs less than a feather, then you are considered to have been a pure soul and can enter heaven. So John’s costume is of this Egyptian god with a scale hanging on each side of it, one with a heart and one with a feather.
Of course you have some krewes that prefer satire and overt humor. Years ago– and this frustrated me so much–but Armeinius did a ball called “There’s Something About Mary.” I use the ball programs a lot because they have a list of the costumes and when I opened the program for this ball, every costume listed was Mary. It was like “Mary, Mary, Mary…That doesn’t tell me anything!” Of course when I learned more about it I understood it was Mary, i.e. Marie Antoinette, or Mary from Gilligan’s Island, or Mary from Mary Kay Cosmetics.
The possibilities are endless with that theme!
When you go to one of these balls, you’re always kind of slightly hoping that something goes wrong – not that anybody gets hurt – but there are always these moments of potential disaster. The theme of the Armeinius Ball three or four years ago was “Beauty and the Beast,” and all the costumes were pairs of fairytale couples. One of the couples was Little Miss Muffet and the spider, and Fatsy Cline comes out in this pink dress, sitting on a tuffet held up by these really gorgeous men. She gets down and is sassing around on the floor when this really terrifying spider with black and silver fur chases her around. At some point they get too close, and one of the spider’s legs pulls the wig off of her head. Of course, it was a total accident, but it added something to that presentation that you’ll never forget.
What do you think the future holds for the tradition of gay Carnival balls? Will it be carried on?
It’s really on the back of a small group of people who are going to keep these krewes going. The Krewe of Armeinius had their 50th anniversary last year, which makes them older than Stonewall, and their captain, Barrett Delong Church, said in an interview that the reason these gay krewes exist today is not the same reason that they existed 50 years ago. If you belonged to one of these krewes a long time ago, you were very close to the other members of the krewe. They were your family because, in a lot of cases, their families had given them up and tossed them aside. There was a sense of brotherhood or sisterhood in these groups, but a lot of that has faded. In a sense, these krewes are almost like historical societies kept alive for the sake of keeping them alive. However, the very essence of Carnival to me is the artistry, and that’s what keeps it from losing its appeal and relevance. There may not ever be 13 all at the same time like there were in the 80’s, but there’s always going to be a core group of artists who will always keep gay krewes alive.
Grand Illusions: The History & Artistry of Gay Carnival in New Orleans opens with a free reception on Thursday, June 6th, from 5-8pm at the Presbytère (751 Chartres), where it will be on display until December 2020.