portraits taken by marco anelli (and published in the book: portraits in the presence of marina abramovic) during the MoMA’s exhibit of performance artist “marina abramović: the artist Is present”. abramović sits at a table in silence, and museum guests can sit across from her and stare.
“the tradition dates back to 1912, when jim crow was the law of the land in the south. it all started in new orleans’ red-light district, which itself was divided along racial lines. the storyville area, where the sex industry was legal, was for white customers; black customers had to go a few blocks away where prostitution was illegal, but allowed. …between these two red-light districts, there was a kind of rivalry. one year the women in the black district heard that their counterparts in storyville were going to dress up for mardi gras; they decided they needed to come up with some good costumes to compete.
“and they said, ‘let’s just be baby dolls because that’s what the men call us. they call us baby dolls, and let’s be red hot,’ ” vaz says.
calling a woman “baby” had just made its way into the popular lexicon, with songs like “pretty baby” written by new orleans native tony jackson. there was, however, something subversive about black sex workers dressing this way.
“at that time, baby dolls were very rare and very hard to get,” vaz says. “so it had all that double meaning in it because african-american women weren’t considered precious and doll-like.”
just the fact that these prostitutes were masking and going out into the street at all was a big deal. women just did not do that then. and as sex workers, these women were already taboo. vaz says they just kept piling on by appropriating males behaviors like smoking cigars and flinging money at the men.
“if you went to touch their garter, they would hurt you,” she says.
the baby dolls carried walking sticks they would use in their dances, as well as to defend themselves. it was about fun, vaz says, but it was a kind of laughter to keep from crying.
“at that time … residential segregation was practiced, job discrimination was practiced [and] women didn’t have the right to vote,” she says. “the one way that they could make a statement was through their dance and their dress and their song. it’s when you’ve exhausted all your legal remedies that you have to use the culture to make a statement and express yourself.”
- the ‘baby dolls’ of mardi gras: a fun tradition with a serious side, by tina antolini on npr.com