Mardi Gras is a knotted juncture where past, present and future intertwine. Antebellum customs furthered by contemporary spectacle ensure future passions.
“It’s a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff,” Doctor Who might put it.
Few realize it like artist and instructor April Livingston. She’s working on a multi-year project to update historic floats for the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association (MAMGA), despite her initial reluctance when asked in 2018.
“At first I was like, ‘nope.’ I loved doing it when I was in my 20s, but it’s tough work,” Livingston said.
She nearly fainted and fell from a float one long-ago summer in a 115-plus degrees float barn. In winter, her wet hands grew numb working the papier-mâché.
Livingston has a history with historical tasks. The University of Alabama alum offered her services in recreating and replacing an iron bust of Africatown’s Cudjoe Lewis in 2016. That dive into the past brought her a new appreciation for stories beyond the majority status quo.
“I went down to the float barn and talked about some of the history and what they were looking for,” Livingston said. “I gave them a deal, too, because I wanted to help. I was kind of like, ‘I can fix that and that and that and I could do more here.’”
Everyone was hooked, Livingston and MAMGA leaders alike. She started with ready resources — her students — and put together a small “krewe” of her own.
She noted differences between traditional methods and modern ones. Old papier-mâché techniques with newspaper and flour won’t cut it anymore.
While the floats don’t date back to the initial 1939 parade as the Colored Carnival Association, they aren’t brand new either. Eric Finley of MAMGA and the Dora Franklin Finley African-American Heritage Trail said they were designed by Louis Colston “somewhere in the late ’80s or early ’90s.”
Livingston started with MAMGA’s Circle K float, updated its paint, rebuilt the front and replaced props on the back. Throughout the process, other ideas arose. She wants each float unified, reworked as one large sculptural element.
She is aiming for a heritage-based aesthetic unity. Along those lines, the teacher researched cultural backgrounds to craft a melange of styles.
“I wanted to introduce some non-European designs, stuff pulled from African and Native American and American heritage rather than specifically European,” Livingston said.
She relayed an idea for a different crown on the emblem float, derived from Ghana’s Asante people. MAMGA leaders declined to break from tradition for now, though it’s doubtful Livingston will stop lobbying.
“I want people to see them and think, ‘That’s a MAMGA float.’ Like that’s their own thing, rather than just being like every other Mardi Gras krewe,” Livingston said.
Other parts of Mobile’s particular African American Carnival culture have been an eye-opener. One of the MAMGA parade’s most popular floats comes from a tradition unknown to some white Mobilians: The Mollies.
A hefty figure known as Big Mary stands on the front of The Mollies’ float, arms wide, head tossed back in jubilation. Beside her is Hotfoot Sam, in striped pants and a dark coat. Another figure, Slewfoot Joe, embraces a pole on the float’s rear.
Finley said the trio and others like them were legendary residents of the Bottom and Campground neighborhoods northwest of downtown and they marched the parade routes. Driven by the same spirit that inhabited early Joe Cain parades, they clowned with the crowd about a half-hour before the official procession.
“They would just appear out of nowhere on Fat Tuesday to walk the parade route. I don’t know that these people even knew each other. They may have seen another person do it and so they wanted to do it,” Finley said.
The impromptu cavalcade became custom. It continued through the mid-20th century and then waned as the new millennium neared and the participants grew older. Colston memorialized them in papier-mâché.
“I noticed when The Mollies came through the whole crowd gets really loud and excited. It’s almost like black Mobilians’ Joe Cain,” Livingston said.
She wants to renew The Mollies’ float and increase its vibrancy. One particularly talented and industrious krewe member has expanded Livingston’s overall vision. The former student’s small touches, like a mural of undersea creatures celebrating Mardi Gras on the bottom of the cruise ship float, exceed the norm and impress her old teacher.
“I want her [reputation] to blow up, but I’m going to be sad when she gets so well known that I won’t get to use her anymore,” Livingston said, laughing.
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