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Review: Contemporary Artists Respond to the New Orleans Baby Dolls 

D. Eric Bookhardt on the exhibition at the McKenna Museum of African American Art

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In 1912, a radical Carnival organization was born in New Orleans' marginal black bordello district. In response to the Carnival balls of the legal Storyville district nearby, black sex workers — called "Baby Dolls" by their pimps — dubbed themselves the Million Dollar Baby Dolls and marched wearing tiny toddler skirts flashing garter belts fat with cash. Sexy yet transgressive, they smoked cigars and wielded batons or umbrellas that doubled as weapons. Imitators soon followed, and they became fixtures at Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club parades and Mardi Gras Indian and skull and bones gang gatherings. Radical for 1912, Baby Dolls later were taken for granted as local color until historian Kim Marie Vaz conferred long overdue recognition by highlighting their role as pioneering black feminists and social activists in her book, The Baby Dolls: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition.

  This expo of Baby Doll-inspired contemporary art at the McKenna Museum of African American Art is populist in tone and kaleidoscopic in effect, like a mosaic of many pieces comprising a multifaceted totality. Ruth Owens' impressionistic Raddy Winner portrait of a Baby Doll dancer (pictured) shows almost as much flair as a Degas ballerina, but her formidable physicality recalls the indomitable original Baby Dolls of 1912. Haitian-New Orleans history painter Ulrick Jean-Pierre's nocturnal view of cigar-smoking Baby Dolls parading in Treme is as romantically elegant as Steve Prince's wild procession print is powerful. Meryt Harding's portrait of 80-year-old Tee Eva in her Baby Doll outfit celebrates the role of women like her and Merline Kimball in reviving the tradition after it faded in the 1960s. A painting by Keith Duncan illustrates the evolution from vintage to contemporary Baby Dolls even as other works involve folk art techniques like Annie Odell's haunting Antoinette and Ernie K-Doe painted quilt, or an eerily elaborate procession of carved driftwood figures by Nate Scott in a room where Baby Doll photos by Charles Lovell, Richard Keller and others transform the walls into a parade.

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