The Protecting Power of Destruction

In my last post, I wrote about the connection I perceived between the Baby Dolls of New Orleans and Steve Prince’s artistic depiction of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. I was able to visualize and solidify this connection by interpreting several of Prince’s works and perceiving Prince’s horsemen and the Baby Dolls of New Orleans as straddlers of the line between certain dichotomies in order to empower themselves.

However, where in my last post I claimed I saw the most striking evidence of the horsemen’s line-straddling in “Katrina’s Veil: Stand at the Gretna Bridge” and “Dirge,” I first perceived the horsemen straddling the line between the dichotomy of masculine and feminine in “Second Line I-IV.” In these pieces, each of the horsemen is portrayed individually and is dressed in a masculine suit with spiky shoes. Their appearance is juxtaposed by their dainty, feminine poses that parallel those struck by the Baby Dolls while “walking raddy.” It is in this way that Prince depicts the horsemen as straddling the line between masculinity and femininity.

Furthermore, it is in Prince’s seemingly-dichotomous portrayal of the horsemen that they are able to demolish the very same gender roles that the Baby Dolls themselves upend through their masking. The horsemen, in their traditionally masculine, commanding, and assertive dress, are made feminine, yet nevertheless powerful and striking, through their stance.

This depiction not only destroys gender roles and expectations for women but for men, as well. The horsemen, in their duality, demonstrate that poses and movements that are typically viewed as “feminine” can nevertheless denote agency and authority. Additionally, they prove that one’s masculinity is not lost through such “feminine” motions, rather they indicate that there is power to be gained from embracing aspects from both sides of the masculine/feminine binary that dominates societies across the globe.

The duality that Prince assigns to the horsemen also reaffirms ideas conveyed by Dr. Kim Vaz-Deville in her lecture on the Baby Dolls of New Orleans. Dr. Vaz-Deville revealed that many men would mask as Baby Dolls alongside their wives, thus evidencing their desire and readiness to transgress gender roles in favor of self-expression. However, Dr. Vaz-Deville explained that the aforementioned tradition was killed by the respectability politics of the Civil Rights Movement.

By having his masculinely dressed horsemen carry elegant parasols and strike Baby Doll poses Prince evokes the bygone custom of men masking as Baby Dolls and demonstrates that one can appear at once masculine and feminine without sacrificing one’s power, integrity, or identity. Indeed, Prince’s horsemen appear stoic, poised, dramatic, and powerful.

Second Line I-IV by Steve Prince

Thus, the horsemen fulfill their role as destroyers since they successfully challenge and crush the gender roles faced by both men and women. But how do the horsemen act as protectors in Prince’s “Second Line I-IV?” In my interpretation, the answer partially lies in something that Dr. Vaz-Deville touched upon throughout her lecture: Hurricane Katrina.

Hurricane Katrina wrought a devastating amount of destruction, pain, and loss upon the city of New Orleans. The natural disaster’s effect upon the city is represented in many of Prince’s works, but especially in those of his Katrina Suite. Works such as “Katrina’s Veil: Stand at the Gretna Bridge” and “Dirge” reflect the rampant destruction that occurred and the tragedies that arose from such devastation. Both of these pieces display the horsemen at the center of the action, as they appear to be at once causing and preventing the destruction and subsequent physical and emotional damage that the citizens of the ravaged city endured.

The dual role of the horsemen as destroyers and protectors is again made visible to me in Prince’s “Second Line I-IV.”While I already see the horsemen as being destructors of gender roles faced by both men and women due to the dichotomous appearance Prince grants them, I also interpret them to be protectors, particularly of the Baby Doll tradition itself. This interpretation was prompted by something Dr. Vaz-Deville said during her lecture on the Baby Dolls. She claimed that the devastation Katrina wrought served as a catalyst for the restoration of the Baby Doll masking tradition.

My interpretation was further cemented by the passages within Walking Raddy¬†that focus on Antoinette K-Doe and her contributions to the rebirth of the Baby Dolls. Where Dr. Vaz-Deville attributed Katrina to the reinstallation of the Baby Doll tradition, Rachel Carrico, in her chapter of Walking Raddy, cites Tee Eva Perry who recalled that “Miss Antoinette thought of the Baby Dolls as another way to keep Ernie’s name alive,” as they were called the Ernie K-Doe Baby Dolls and Ernie was Miss Antoinette’s beloved husband. It is in this way that destruction, in the form of a loved one’s death, protects and gives rebirth to both cultural traditions and an individual’s legacy.

Thus, the horsemen, by striking typical Baby Doll poses, preserve the tradition and vital aspect of New Orleans culture. However, the horsemen, due to their appearance not only within “Second Line I-IV” but works such as “Dirge” and “Katrina’s Veil: Stand at the Gretna Bridge,” are arguably agents of annihilation. It is through Prince’s ability to present the horsemen as both protectors and destroyers within his art and the knowledge Dr. Vaz-Deville imparted to me during her lecture that I have come to see the horsemen mirror aspects of the yowa cross, a symbol prominently featured within Bakongo culture.

The horsemen represent the cycle latent within the yowa cross as they are at once the heralds of death, as may be interpreted through interacting with Prince’s piece, “Katrina’s Veil: Stand at the Gretna Bridge,” and symbols of rebirth as well as protective agents, as seen through their Baby Doll masking in “Second Line I-IV” and their protection and interring of New Orleans in “Katrina’s Veil: Stand at the Gretna Bridge” and “Dirge,” respectively.

However, while there is a protecting power in destruction and while death is perhaps capable of giving rise to rebirth, one should refrain from living one’s life with the intent of destruction. Though destruction is powerful and a necessary element of change, it should not be taken lightly. The potential aftermaths of demolition, the beauty of rebirth and the subsequent protection of what was almost lost, should be celebrated, but the destruction itself should not be forgotten or dismissed.

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