Public discussion to share spirit of Mardi Gras in conjunction with ‘Arts of Survival’ institute

Eileen Julien

Eileen Julien, director of IU’s Institute for Advanced Study, will speak about “Dressing for Mardi Gras: Floats, Balls and Beyond” on July 12 at the Mathers Museum. Photos by Eric Rudd.

What does art do in a world that has suffered?

For three weeks, Indiana University’s Institute for Advanced Study will explore that question by bringing together two dozen university-level educators from around the United States.

The “Arts of Survival: Recasting Lives in African Cities” workshop July 6 to 26 is focused on five cities: New Orleans; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Accra, Ghana; Lagos, Nigeria; and Nairobi, Kenya.

Eileen Julien, director of the Institute for Advanced Study, will co-direct the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded summer institute along with James Ogude from the University of Pretoria in South Africa. Their faculty also includes Akin Adesokan and Oana Panaïté of IU and Grace A. Musila of Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

“Each of us knew one of these cities well,” Julien said.

She conceives of the program as “a workshop among equals.”

“It’s an honor to have these people come,” Julien said. “They have done incredible work already.”

The city of New Orleans

As part of the “Arts of Survival” summer institute, Julien will take the visiting scholars on a whirlwind trip to her hometown so they can see, feel, hear and taste the New Orleans she knows well.

Eileen Julien, director of IU’s Institute for Advanced Study. Photos of her family’s colorful Mardi Gras costumes she will be talking about at a public program at the Mathers Museum.

Eileen Julien is one of five scholars leading the NEH-funded “Arts of Survival” institute at IU.

For members of the community who can’t take that bus, Julien also will share New Orleans stories July 12 at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures.

Her talk is one of four public programs that will be presented to complement the summer institute’s private daily sessions.

Through family ball gowns and parade costumes, which will remain on display at the Mathers Museum through July 29, Julien will share a glimpse of the Mardi Gras world of times past.

Her uncles founded The Jugs Social Club and Krewe of NOMTOC — New Orleans’ Most Talked Of Club — which continues to parade on the Westbank of the Mississippi. Her father was king of NOMTOC in the early 1970s.

Each year Mardi Gras brings rounds of parties and formal balls.

She said the festival clothing, usually worn just once, filled an entire closet in her family’s home when she was growing up.

In the last days of August 2005, when the winds of Katrina subsided and the waters rose, 4 feet of water filled her home in the Seventh Ward. Still, the Mardi Gras costumes survived, tucked away on an upper floor.

The rich cotton velvet, the satin and chiffon, the beads and sequins all were still there, as they had been for decades.

Now we are fortunate to have them here in Bloomington.

Public programs

Julien has welcomed the chance to work with close colleagues and share what the arts have meant to their chosen cities, which have endured catastrophes of nature and mankind.

These free, public programs will complement the private “Arts of Survival” sessions:

  • 3 to 5 p.m. July 10 — “Stadium Hotel” is a documentary film about highlife, a major Nigerian style of music from the 1960s and 1970s, and the city of Lagos during a critical period in its history. The film will be presented by Akin Adesokan and screened at the Monroe County Public Library auditorium.
  • Eileen Julien with cape

    “If you had known my father, the thought that he would have worn something like this is simply unbelievable,” Eileen Julien said. “It’s astonishing!”

    5:30 to 6:30 p.m. July 12 — In “Dressing for Mardi Gras: Floats, Balls and Beyond,” Suzanne Godby Ingalsbe, associate director of the Institute for Advanced Study, will initiate a discussion with Julien on facets of life in New Orleans and her family’s personal involvement in Mardi Gras festivities. The talk will take place at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, a co-sponsor of the event. Several of her family’s gowns and costumes will remain on exhibit at the museum through July 29.

  • 5 to 6:30 p.m. July 21 — “African Cities and the Making of Popular Cultures” will be a public conversation with James Ogude and Grace A. Musila. The talk will take place in the Thomas T. Solley Atrium on the second floor of the Eskenazi Museum of Art. Before the program, visitors are invited to explore the African art gallery at the museum, which is a co-sponsor.
  • 3 to 5:30 p.m. July 24 — “Murder in Pacot” is a 2014 feature film made by acclaimed Haitian director Raoul Peck and set in a Port-au-Prince neighborhood in the wake of the country’s devastating earthquake. The film will be presented by Oana Panaïté and at the Monroe County Public Library auditorium.

In addition to the NEH support, Julien said she is grateful for the “truly extraordinary team” at the Institute for Advanced Study and the hospitality support from the Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President.

Stories to tell

To hear more of Julien’s stories about New Orleans and “Arts of Survival,” tune in to the “Through the Gates” podcast July 10.

Julien’s rich gumbo of stories also is captured in”Travels With Mae: Scenes From a New Orleans Girlhood.” It’s a book she had always hoped to write.

“After my parents died, I wanted to leave something of their lives in New Orleans for my younger relatives,” she said.

Julien even had the title, but she wasn’t sure she would ever complete the memoir.

A single painting swayed her.

An abstract painting of women wearing gowns hangs in her office, created by her late husband, Senegalese artist Kalidou Sy. “When I looked at that painting I said, ‘I’m doing the book.’ That painting made me realize the book was going to exist,” she said.

Her book was published in 2009 by Indiana University Press, with the painting on its cover.


Many Mardi Gras outfits are exquisitely detailed with sequins, beads and rhinestones. “It was a race! The women who were doing this stuff were up to the very dawn of the day. They were working hard to get done,” Eileen Julien said.

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