Monday, March 29, 2010

Self-Empowerment or Self-Exploitation?

“What they really need to do is self-exploit.”

Vibrant in color and garishly adorned with beads, shining rhinestones and feathers, the traditional costumes of the Mardi Gras Indians celebrate the bounty of life and serve to lay their claim to the space around them. They are physical manifestations of the process that brings them together in camaraderie, sharing skills, attitudes, and traditions as they build their elaborate suits. This year, however, Indians have a new goal in mind: making money.

In Campbell Robertson’s article Want to Use My Suit? Then Throw Me Something (NYTimes), he explains a recent movement among participants in the Indian ritual to seek copyright protection for their suits. Frustrated with the pictures snapped of their costumes each Mardi Gras, proponents of the copyrights hope to receive financial compensation for the photos. One photographer who Robertson interviewed, Christopher Porché West said, “What they really need to do is self-exploit. If they want to make money from their culture, they should find a way to commodify it and bring that to the market.”

The comments in the article brought to my mind the questions raised by Lipsitz’s piece concerning the Mardi Gras Indian ritual’s role as a counter-narrative. It’s clear that the influence of commercial culture has altered the folk tradition, but it also demonstrates the ability of a marginalized group to introduce their values into popular culture. Still, now I’m left wondering, does the Indians’ opposition to the pictures challenge a form of exploitation?... or does it simply highlight the unequal resources and opportunities which define life in New Orleans society?

link to article:

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