French Museum Acquires Beaded Mardi Gras Indian Suit by Queen Rukiya
by Anitra D. Brown
Rukiya, Queen of the Creole Wild West Tribe, calls herself a late bloomer because she only started masking about eight years ago.
“I have always wanted to be an Indian,” says the 67-year-old New Orleans native. “I’ve (been married twice), raised two kids. Now I have grandkids. It was time for me to do something for myself. And I always wanted to be an Indian. I want to give back to the people. It’s the people that I mask for.”
Well, people, both near and far—as far away as Paris, France, to be exact, now have the opportunity to appreciate Rukiya’s artistry.
Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, a French national museum in Paris, recently acquired Rukiya’s “White Buffalo Calf Woman”, an elaborate, beaded Mardi Gras Indian suit created and worn by Queen Rukiya for Mardi Gras 2017.
“The acquisition and exhibition of Rukiya’s White Buffalo suit on view at Le Musée du Quai Branly is extremely significant,” says U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond. “New Orleans’ cultural, historical and human spirit is represented; street culture and folk art intersect illustrating an evocative narrative that is multifaceted and undefinable for the world to see. We are proud.”
To be sure, the acquisition marks a pivotal point in Rukiya’s career, as well as an important moment in recognizing the Mardi Gras Indians internationally.
“The culture and the joy that it brings to the people are so important to New Orleans,” says Rukiya. “We’ve got our own songs, our own chants and our own footwork.”
Rukiya says she is especially honored as a woman to have her Mardi Gras Indian artistry recognized as a representation of a tradition that is steeped in male-dominated hierarchy.
She says that when she masks, she honors women like her grandmother and her sister, whose life was cut short–lost to violence in the streets of New Orleans.
Rukiya, who studied beading abroad for five years, spent 70 to 90 hours a week for seven months on the costume.
“White Buffalo Calf Woman is made in the image of the Creator,” says Rukiya. “She supernaturally inspires through the spirit of the ancestors as a healer and a teacher.”
Rukiya says she strives to tell those stories with her needle and thread. And it is her intricate and detailed artistry that caught the eye of Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac’s curator.
“The way Rukiya uses beading to create three-dimensional structures shows unparalleled craftsmanship,” said museum curator, Steve Bourget. “Rukiya’s masterpiece includes a small and large crown, chest plate, front and back apron, a dress with flaps, a jacket, fans, shin boots, shoes, and plait ornaments. The suit is created for street performing; it is soft sculpture in motion. It is almost inconceivable that someone would work so hard for a short public appearance. We are very lucky to keep this costume alive for many more people to visit and enjoy.”
Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac acquired the suit for its permanent collection. The museum was founded by former French President, Jacques Chirac in 1998, in the tradition of French presidents building museums as tributes to their term in office. The museum, which features the indigenous art and cultures of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, opened in 2006 and is one of the top five museums in Paris.
Rukiya is one of two living artists featured in the exhibition.
Knowing that others will get the opportunity to see and appreciate the culture she loves has made sending one of her masterpieces so far a way worth it. And having the chance to see her suit on display at the museum in Paris was especially gratifying.
“It’s like sending a piece of me away,” she says. “But to be there and look at it and look at other people look at it. They really love it and are so honored to have it. And they told me that it is in the best of care
Chant of the White Buffalo Calf Woman
I am the Queen that rides the White Buffalo through these city streets!
I am the One they come from miles and miles around to meet!
Ooh!!! When I dance my dance, gold and diamonds float underneath my feet!
My borders are wide from ocean to ocean, I will not drown.
I am the Queen of a Nation way Uptown!
–Queen Rukiya of Creole Wild West Tribe
“On behalf of the City of New Orleans, we are elated that Queen Rukiya of the Creole Wild West Tribe with Big Chief Howard Miller, is being recognized for her cultural contributions and representing the city and our culture bearers at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, France,” said New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell. “Our culture bearers are a vital part of why the city continues to flourish and inspire globally.”
“White Buffalo Calf Woman” is currently on view at the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. The exhibition runs until Jan. 26.
Rukiya’s work has been acquired by a number of other institutions, featured in books and other cultural exhibits. She has traveled, showcased her suits, and lectured throughout the state, nation and world on Mardi Gras Indian culture.
“The Metamorphosis”, was featured in the award-winning book, Artist Spaces by Tina Freeman. The costume was also used in an Ogden Museum show inspired by Freeman’s photographs.
“When Black People Could Fly” was acquired by the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Her suit, “I am the First Gold the First Diamond, I
am the living Earth”, is a part of Ohio State University’s collection.
“I bead our story and always dream of a better tomorrow,” Rukiya says in reference to where she gets ideas for her suits year after year.
Despite the thought, time and passion that goes into her suits, Rukiya says it is sometimes difficult to keep up with how long it took to make a suit or to remember exactly when she a wore a particular one because both crafting the suits and masking are pure pleasures.
“It’s not like a job,” she says. “It’s enjoyment. I don’t keep up with it. It’s like it’s something I am doing; then you look around, and it’s done.”
As for her Mardi Gras Indian suit for Carnival 2020, Rukiya says she is “still working on it. I am telling another story.”