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No Floats, No Problem: How New Orleans Is Celebrating A Pandemic Mardi Gras


Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans have been canceled because of the pandemic, but creative New Orleanians are hiring Mardi Gras artists to decorate their homes as floats. These house floats are being decorated with giant flowers, birds, gestures and jazz instruments, all to evoke the feel of New Orleans.

The Krewe of Red Beans, a Mardi Gras parade organization, has taken the houseboat idea further with the Hire A Mardi Gras Artist initiative. And so far, they've raised a quarter of a million dollars to fund the decoration of 24 Mardi Gras house floats. And that money supports both Mardi Gras artists and elder culture bearers. Devin De Wulf is the founder of the Krewe of Red Beans, joins us from - where else? - New Orleans. Thanks so much for being with us.

DEVIN DE WULF: It's a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Tell us more about the Hire A Mardi Gras Artist program.

DE WULF: Well, when the city of New Orleans canceled the parades, it basically caused a chain reaction of layoffs. And a friend of mine is a Mardi Gras artist herself, Caroline Thomas. And she reached out to me and said, look; what if we crowdfunded to basically recreate those lost jobs? We created a giant Mardi Gras float-building company out of thin air. And we've been able to essentially create jobs for 45 really talented artists. It's a great opportunity to pay them for their talent, but really for them to show the people of New Orleans their skills and also to inspire our city as we struggle through this most challenging Mardi Gras.

SIMON: I'm sorry if this sounds naive, but a house float doesn't float, right?

DE WULF: A house float is a brand-new invention brought to you by the people of New Orleans. Normally, our biggest parades include floats. And what we've done is just taken that idea and installed it onto someone's home. This is the way that New Orleanians are channeling all of their carnival spirit this year. The house floats are really a combination of wooden and papier-mache elements that our artists have created. And we have an installation team of carpenters that put it all on the house, and they're beautiful.

SIMON: What happened to the house floats after Mardi Gras?

DE WULF: We're going to actually exhibit them in the Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleans and then auction off each individual piece to raise more money for our Feed The Second Line initiative, which is our attempt to basically create a safety net for New Orleans culture.

SIMON: Let me ask this, because I've read the donations will also support culture bearers, which is a term from anthropology - who does that include?

DE WULF: We're talking about musicians, Black Masking Indians, baby dolls, second lines. And what we're attempting to do is create a safety net for these people because we recognize that it's the people that make our culture. In our first year of Feed The Second Line, we were able to raise basically $300,000 worth of jobs. We were also able to buy $130,000 worth of groceries in 2020. And every time that we do this, what we're really doing is spreading love and saying thank you for all the years of culture that you created because that's what really makes New Orleans a special place.

SIMON: This going to be a bittersweet Mardi Gras?

DE WULF: Yeah. You know, I'm a parade organizer, and normally I spend all my year and energy looking forward and preparing for my parade, and obviously I can't do that this year. But I think years from now, we're going to look back at this Mardi Gras and recognize that it was one of the most meaningful. And I think even though it's a different carnival, it's still going to be an amazing Mardi Gras.

SIMON: Devin De Wulf is founder of the Krewe of Red Beans in, of course, New Orleans. Thanks so much for being with us.

DE WULF: Absolutely. And Happy Mardi Gras.

SIMON: And also to you.