Ivan Watkins moved back to his native New Orleans in 2004 after nearly two decades spent establishing an art career in Chicago. He had accomplished much over those years as a painter, film documentarian, sculptor and multimedia artist, but he became best known as a muralist, with dozens of public artworks on display from California to Connecticut, Latin America to England.
Much of that work involved his interest in honoring both Native Americans and people of mixed black and Native American heritage, whose shared history in Louisiana is well documented. He focused on pivotal figures like Marcus Garvey, Harriet Tubman, Geronimo and Sitting Bull.
But it took moving back to New Orleans, and later confronting the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, for Watkins to get more involved in his own cultural roots.
He immersed himself in the world of Mardi Gras Indians and, two years ago, became a member of one of the oldest tribes. The documentarian suddenly had become the documented.
“Katrina had a huge effect on me. It became more urgent to be part of the continuation of the culture to make sure it is carried right,” he said. “I now get greater fulfillment sewing bald eagle feathers on my back.”
While he had designed his earlier artwork to “connect people to history and push their spirits and explore other realms, both internally and universally,” he said, now “masking became that release.”
Watkins, 46, grew up in Gentilly and spent time both there and Uptown, where his family was friendly with the Montana family, headed by Allison “Tootie” Montana, the famed big chief of the Yellow Pocahontas Tribe of Mardi Gras Indians.
He left to attend the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, where he later taught a course in black Indian culture at the University of Chicago. When he returned to New Orleans to get his doctorate in ethnohistory at the University of New Orleans, he was searching for a way to meld his various interests.
Then Katrina struck. The home Watkins was renting in Mid-City was destroyed; so was his mother’s home in Gentilly. He loaded his wife and three kids into a car and drove to Texas but ended up back in Chicago after returning to New Orleans for a day to retrieve valuables.
“Between the fumes and the bleach and the stench and having not slept for 48 hours, I almost had a heart attack,” he said.
Through a special arrangement, he was able to continue his studies at the University of California at Los Angeles. In November, while sitting alone in his apartment, missing his family and worrying about everything he had lost back home, he decided to return to the world of Mardi Gras Indians by making art.
The result was “Bo’s Katrina Dream,” an oil painting traced from projected video footage Watkins shot in 1993 on the streets of the 9th Ward. The subject is Bo, an Indian chief in his full regalia. A lavish display of beads and feathers frames a downcast face, a single tear staining one cheek. Bo eventually was expelled from his tribe for some infraction, and Watkins realized that Bo’s exile mirrored his own disconnection with his culture.
That melancholy is what separates the painting from the typical Indian portraits found in tourist shops throughout the French Quarter. Watkins also muted the colors so they are more expressionistic, creating the sense that they are pulled from memory.
He said he wanted the painting “to give people that transcendent experience they have when looking at Indian suits on the street, for them to have a glimpse into the meditation, the prayer, that goes into making those suits.”
Instead of emphasizing the exterior of the suit, the blurring of the paint is meant to give a sense of the inner world of the Indian himself. In doing so, Watkins wanted to illuminate “the internal conversation” going on in the wearer’s mind that is typically hidden during the elaborate and colorful street parades.
The painting is now on permanent display at Golden Feather, the Indian-themed restaurant and gallery across the street from Armstrong Park.
Watkins returned to New Orleans again in 2008. His mother, a longtime kindergarten teacher, died that same year. He now lives in her house with his children.
Soon after his mother’s death, he started masking with the Mardi Gras Skeletons, a club that wears crate-sized skulls atop skeletal body suits. Then, two years ago, he was invited to join the Yellow Pocahontas Tribe as the Wild Man. He masked with them last year for the first time.
Life has come full circle. As an arts educator and artist trying to spread awareness and appreciation of the city’s culture, Watkins said his role in Indian parades is similar to his role in the art studio.
“My job is to open up the crowd and protect the peace,” he said. “It’s all part of making it spiritual.”