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The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story in Black and White

By Urszula Pruchniewska


The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story in Black and White

By Urszula Pruchniewska


Sarah Elizabeth “Vogue” Hester, local tour guide, New Orleans, June 22, 2013.


T

his book came about from a series of fortunate events. I was traveling through my favorite city, New Orleans, with my best friend during the summer of 2013. While there, we decided to do a tour by foot of the Garden District and that’s when we came across Sarah Elizabeth “Vogue” Hester, New Orleans tour guide extraordinaire. She merrily led our little group stumbling across uneven cobblestones, into run-down cemeteries, past houses of celebrities, pointing out interesting architecture, lizards and locals on the way. Two and a half hours of fascinating stories later, she had mesmerized us, so much so that we forgot about the 100 degree heat. What caught my attention in particular during the tour were a number of anecdotes showing the importance of women in the history of New Orleans. It seemed from

Sarah’s stories that New Orleans was a rarity - a matriarchal city in North America, a city where women held much of the social, economic and spiritual power. I was intrigued and asked Sarah to join us for a drink after the tour. Over cocktails, I learned about the power of prostitutes past and present. We touched on the controversy surrounding modern day voodoo priestesses and their authenticity. Sarah also told me about the Ursuline Nuns, the first religious order to arrive in the city, and their convent which, built in 1752, is now the oldest structure in New Orleans. The first section of the book focuses on this Convent, religion and voodoo rituals. Later, Sarah mentioned that she was taking part in Festigals, a four-day conference for women by women celebrating all things womanly. Festigals, held annually in New Orleans, was on that very weekend and one of the planned activities was “The Stiletto Stroll”, a women-

only second-line parade through the French Quarter. Hence the second section of the book is dedicated to this parade. Many photo shoots and interviews with Sarah followed the decision to photograph the women of New Orleans. Through this process, Sarah, being a feminist and an activist, kept reminding me that the true power of the women of New Orleans lies not in the famous, the infamous or the elaboratelycostumed, but in day-to-day little struggles and triumphs of women. The last section of this book is dedicated to these ordinary women - their work, their music, their unapologetic merry-making, their loudness, their love of life - that make New Orleans such a charming, tough, unforgettable gal of a city. Urszula Pruchniewska

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6 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story in Black and White


Casting Spells

Casting Spells 7


S

Voodoo and St. John’s Eve

aint John’s Eve, June 23, is an important voodoo holiday celebrating the birth of John the Baptist and the midsummer solstice. It dates back to the time of Marie Laveau, the New Orleans Voodoo Queen of the 18th century. It is celebrated annually on the banks of the Bayou St. John and the Mississippi River.

began, with Priestess Miriam using the conch to pour water over each devotee’s head while saying a blessing.

order to make people think that she was all-powerful, by knowing these things beforehand. She would hear information from a neighbor and then she would go There is much debate about the authenticity to that person and when they would ask of Priestess Miriam as a spiritual leader. She about their fortune, she would already is often accused of rambling incoherently know everything. They thought she was and lacking spiritual insight. Her followers all-powerful, forgetting the fact that just claim this is because she is on a different because hairdressers were supposed to be metaphysical level and people who don’t seen and not heard didn’t mean that they feel her energy simply can’t understand her. weren’t actually listening.

Traditional rituals include a head washing ceremony or voodoo baptism, where a priestess washes the heads of devotees with water from the river. Participants are asked I asked Sarah about her thoughts on this: to wear all white and also to bring offerings such as honey, perfume, flowers, wine and “I don’t know a whole lot about Priestess Miriam, whether she’s legitimately crazy. fruit to give to the river. She’s probably able to capitalize on the fact that she’s so eccentric and this is why The images in the following pages are of people think she’s a legitimate voodoo Priestess Miriam of the Voodoo Spiritual priestess.” Temple, presiding over St. John’s Eve celebrations at the Mississippi River. The Sarah then told me a bit more about celebrations started at the Temple, where devotees gathered and left cash offerings at voodoo: various deities and altars. Priestess Miriam “There’s a strong heritage of women in then led the group in a procession to the voodoo religion. Their deities are both male banks of the Mississippi. and female and some of them are actually said to be both sexes [simultaneously]. It Here the participants sang hymns and traces back to Marie Laveau and the fact the Priestess played a conch. Everyone that Marie Laveau was thought to be allthen joined hands in a circle and Priestess powerful. What’s kind of interesting is Miriam said a few words of blessing. She that she was a hairdresser and she was then poured the offerings of wine and in a lot of the homes of the very affluent honey into the river, and scattered the Creole women. So she was gaining gossip fruit and flower petals over the water. that she was able to use for her benefit in Afterward, the head washing ceremony

They’ve done research on Marie Laveau’s bloodline, (she had twelve children with her European Creole lover) and have found that they have a high rate of sickle cell anemia in their bloodline. If you have sickle cell anemia it’s harder to die of vector-borne diseases like malaria and yellow fever and whatnot. She didn’t know that, but, because when she was going to the deathbeds of all these individuals perishing from these epidemics and she wasn’t dying, she capitalized off of that. People believed she could not die. Some speculate she lived to be 120 years old.”

Opposite: Priestess Miriam of the Voodoo Spiritual Temple plays a conch during the St. John’s Eve Voodoo Ceremony at the Mississippi River, New Orleans, June 23, 2013.


Casting Spells 9


Priestess Miriam, along with four devotees, takes a moment for reflection and prayer during the St. John’s Eve Ceremony, Mississippi River.

10 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story in Black and White


Statues of Ursuline Nuns line the courtyard of the Old Ursuline Convent, Chartres Street, New Orleans, June 2013.

Casting Spells 11


The Old Ursuline Convent and the Nuns

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welve nuns of the Ursuline Order arrived in New Orleans from France in 1727. They provided much of the first healthcare and education in the region. The Old Ursuline Convent on Chartres Street, where they were based, is the oldest surviving example of French Colonial architecture in the United States. The nuns started the first college for girls in New Orleans, as they believed the education of women was necessary for a well-functioning society. The Ursuline Nuns were the first people to educate both free women of color and female slaves. They also started the first school of music in New Orleans. The first female pharmacist in the United States was an Ursuline Nun. The nuns were pioneers in social welfare, running orphanages, helping the poor and starting one of the first hospitals in New Orleans. They treated people of all colors and social classes equally in a society where encouraging diversity and justice was uncommon.

No nuns live in the Convent in present day; the building is now a museum and houses the Archdiocesan archives. The Convent includes a beautifully-manicured formal front garden, St. Mary’s Church, and a walled back courtyard that houses statues of nuns kneeling in front of a shrine to Our Lady of Prompt Succor. The Statues are very lifelike, with intricate details such as eyeglasses. I think this is the first time I’ve seen a statue with glasses! I was interested to see what Sarah knew about the Ursuline Nuns: “They were the first religious order to come here - some people speculate they got here as early as 1724, others will tell you 1727 but either way, they were some of the first religious figures in the region. The nuns were French, I’m not sure exactly where they came from. There were some issues with religious orders back and forth, I know when the Spanish came to town there were some issues and fighting among

the French Catholics and Spanish Catholics. The Spanish Catholics tended to be far more conservative and more wielding of power than the French Catholics. It’s interesting that they would have a few different male religious figures initially in the region. They were kind-of like celebrity figureheads, but really the women were doing the majority of the work, the missionary work. They were educational, political, religious and medical missionaries and they did educate women initially which is really cool. They were taking part in educating free people of color as well. The building is one of the only buildings to survive the major fire of 1788. There’s all sorts of rumors and gossip about vampires, this, that and the other… but what we know for sure is that the nuns were very strong women and they came to the region with their lives on the line. ”

A statue of a nun sits silently in prayer in the courtyard of the Old Ursuline Convent. 12 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story in Black and White


Casting Spells 13


Priestess Miriam sings during the St. John’s Eve Ceremony Mississippi River, New Orleans, June 23, 2013.


A statue of a nun looks skyward in the courtyard of the Old Ursuline Convent, New Orleans.

Casting Spells 15


A statue of Our Lady of Prompt Succor and child stands behind iron gates inside the Old Ursuline Convent, New Orleans.

16 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story in Black and White


Priestess Miriam performs a baptism ritual on worshipers during the St. John’s Eve Voodoo Ceremony, Mississippi River, New Orleans.

Casting Spells 17


Priestess Miriam baptizes a devotee with water from the Mississippi River. Behind the women lie offerings such as wine, honey and flowers, which are placed into the river during the ceremony. 18 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story in Black and White


Storm clouds gather above the courtyard of the Old Ursuline Convent, New Orleans. Casting Spells 19


Priestess Miriam performs a head washing ritual during the St. John’s Eve Ceremony, New Orleans.

20 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story in Black and White


Light falls on the Virgin Mary at the Old Ursuline Convent. Next page: A visitor reflects inside St. Mary’s Church at the Old Ursuline Convent in New Orleans, Page 23: Detail at the Voodoo Spiritual Temple, June 23, 2013.


22 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story in Black and White


Casting Spells 23


A painting of a melancholy Madonna sits askew in a shop window on Decatur Street, New Orleans.

24 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story in Black and White


Worshipers smile during the St. John’s Eve voodoo ceremony, Mississippi River, New Orleans, June 23, 2013.

Casting Spells 25


A statue stands in reflection at St. Mary’s Church..

26 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story in Black and White


An angel holds a candelabra heavenward on the altar of St. Mary’s Church at the Old Ursuline Convent.

Casting Spells 27


28 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story in Black and White


Celebrating Stilettos

Celebrating Stilettos 29


Festigals and The Stiletto Stroll

F

estigals, “Entertaining and Enriching Women, New Orleans Style”, is an annual weekend conference for women. It is primarily a networking and professional development event that also promises fashion, food, and fun.

Sarah took part in the Stiletto Stroll this year. I asked her to tell me more about the women taking part in the parade: “Festigals is an excuse for a bunch of women to get dressed up in costumes they want to wear every day of the year, get loaded together and have a good time.

each other and then dancing.You also have the Lady Godivas which are the women that wear the nude body suits and ride their horses through Mardi Gras.

Then there are the Baby-dolls, which are the ancestors of the women who were initially prostitutes in the back of town area, women One of the main events of the weekend of color, women of African descent. They is the Stiletto Stroll - a female-focused, second-line parade with musicians, But really it is a conference of women, what dress like porcelain dolls and they dance marching groups and dance troupes. A we would call social aid and pleasure clubs throughout the streets and they put rum “second line” is a tradition of brass band - benevolent associations, groups of women and whiskey in their baby bottles and get really loaded. And it would be an excuse parades in New Orleans. The “first line” who are dance troupes, or give money to for men of their neighborhoods, their is the official part of the parade, that is, charity. brothers, their husbands and whatnot, to the professional “paraders” as well as the brass band. Ordinary people who follow While you’re traveling in the South, you’ll also dress up in drag and dance with the Baby-dolls. So you have the excuses for the parade down the street and dance to see the women who wear the red hats, the music are the “second line.” Sarah like the Red Hat Club. In New Orleans we dressing up in costume for Festigals. described the Stiletto Stroll as a take it to a different level, with famous Festigals is mainly dance troupes, but also “Mardi Gras for women.” New Orleans Festigals and social aid and women who find pride in dressing up and pleasure clubs of women who are dance making Mardi Gras costumes. Like I saw Local dance troupes of women take part in troupes in the city. We have the Pussy a woman who was Hurricane Katrina. She the Stiletto Stroll. It is all about dressing up Foot Steppers, The Camel Toe Steppers, was a very beautiful larger women who in elaborate costumes, drinking, dancing The Ladies of Distinction... We have The and celebrating womanhood. Women of Bearded Oysters, which I was in, where we made herself a corset out of Mardi Gras all shapes and colors took part in the 2013 wear the merkins, which is the underwear beads that actually was the [shape of] the Stiletto Stroll. It was lovely to see larger with fake hair that is our signature costume. hurricane. It was really, really cool. women parading in revealing costumes We have The Organ Grinders which I’m in and being cheered on by the crowds. as well, which is dressing up like turn-ofThe costumes were sparkly, the dancing the-century Victorian monkeys, eating fleas beautifully choreographed and everyone and whatnot off each other and grooming was in a good mood.

30 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story Told in Black and White


“Stocking Up”, Stiletto Stroll, New Orleans, June 22, 2013.

Celebrating Stilettos 31


This page and opposite: Adornments during the Stiletto Stroll, New Orleans, June 22, 2013. 32 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story Told in Black and White


Celebrating Stilettos 33


“An Awkward Montage”, Stiletto Stroll, New Orleans, June 22, 2013.

34 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story Told in Black and White


Celebrating Stilettos 35


“I see right through you”, Stiletto Stroll,

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“Second-line reflections�, Stiletto Stroll.

Celebrating Stilettos 37


38 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story Told in Black and White


“Marching to the beat of his drum.� The Organ Grinders perform at the Stiletto Stroll, New Orleans, June 22, 2013. 39


“Sparkles.” 40 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story Told in Black and White


“Feathers and giggles�, Stiletto Stroll, New Orleans. Celebrating Stilettos 41


42 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story Told in Black and White


“She’s still got it.”

Opposite: “Striding My Way,” Stiletto Stroll, New Orleans, June 22, 2013. Celebrating Stilettos 43


“Jingle Jangle.” Opposite: “Yayness”, Stiletto Stroll, New Orleans, June 22, 2013. 44 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story Told in Black and White


Celebrating Stilettos 45


“Beaded Beauty.” Opposite:“The Stud”, Stiletto Stroll, New Orleans, June 22, 2013. 46 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story Told in Black and White


Celebrating Stilettos 47


“Oh hello, Dahling”, Stiletto Stroll, New Orleans, June 22, 2013.

48 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story Told in Black and White


“Delight�, Stiletto Stroll. Celebrating Stilettos 49


“Look!”, Stiletto Stroll, New Orleans. 50 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story Told in Black and White


“On Top of the World”, Stiletto Stroll, New Orleans.

Celebrating Stilettos 51


52 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story Told in Black and White


Opposite: “I am what I am”, Stiletto Stroll, New Orleans, June 22, 2013. “Tutu, too”, Stiletto Stroll. Celebrating Stilettos 53


“Various Angles of Organ Grindery”, Stiletto Stroll, New Orleans, June 22, 2013.

54 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story Told in Black and White


Celebrating Stilettos 55


“Chug it, slowly.” 56 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story Told in Black and White


“Blue Crack, the best kind�, Stiletto Stroll, New Orleans. Celebrating Stilettos 57


“Feeling the Glass Ceiling”, Stiletto Stroll, New Orleans, June 22, 2013. Opposite: “A Sequins of Steps.” 58 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story Told in Black and White


Celebrating Stilettos 59


“Strolling, watching”, Stiletto Stroll, New Orleans, June 22, 2013.

60 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story Told in Black and White


“The Royal Wave”, Stiletto Stroll, New Orleans, June 22, 2013. Celebrating Stilettos 61


“The Tail End”, Stiletto Stroll, New Orleans, June 22, 2013.

62 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story Told in Black and White


“In Our Own Bubbles.”

Celebrating Stilettos 63


64 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story in Black and White


Common Quirks

Common Quirks 65


The Lives of Everyday Women

T

he women of New Orleans are classy gals. They are quirky and confident. The diversity of women in the city is striking, both in terms of demographic characteristics and the celebration of unique expression that is prevalent throughout the city. A voodoo palm reader sits alongside a hippy artist in Jackson Square. A black girl plays reggae rock on an electric guitar, while an Asian girl plays fiddle-blues around the corner. A young lesbian couple embrace by a hot-dog stand. A tattooed blonde gets married to a tattooed bald man - they are shoe-less, carefree, beautiful. Young and old battle with the sweltering heat in similar ways - resting often, sleeping, sipping drinks.

sensed elsewhere. The matriarchal culture second story of The Mother-in-Law of New Orleans that Sarah described on her Lounge where she was living and got a propane tank and cooked gumbo. There are tour was evident everywhere. photos of people paddling up to the second I wanted to hear an interesting story about story of her house. She fed her community. a strong local woman, so I asked Sarah: She passed away shortly after. Then her daughter tried to run the Mother-in-Law “[Historically], Creole culture was a Lounge for a while and now it’s a national matriarchal society, one of the only in historical landmark. Famous people of the Western world. That was a tradition that community, including Antoinette that continued, which is why [now] you and Ernie, are painted on the side of that have women being matriarchs of whole building. communities.

You have women in all these communities... You have Sally Ann Glassman, when you’re talking about voodoo, I mean she’s really at the forefront of voodoo culture in New Orleans. There’s lots of controversy over her and her practices. But she runs the Healing Center in the Saint Claude Observing the goings-on of ordinary neighborhood and it’s really revitalizing women, trying to capture quiet moments, When Ernie passed away [in 2001], she funny times, special occasions, smiles and missed him and so she got a man that kind- that community, trying to bring farm-togrimaces, women at work, women at play, of resembled him, dressed him up in Ernie market food back into that community. women just being - this was the best part of K-Doe’s clothes, with a wig just like his hair We’re taught that women are stronger working on this book. and she would tend the bar while a man here, and from generation to generation that looked like her dead husband would While photographing, talking to people, sit next to her. Everyone would talk to him that strength is passed down more so, is purposefully passed down more so than in watching their lives, I sensed a strength, like he was still alive. other parts of the US. So I would say that a sort of intangible “holding heads high”, women have a strong place in our culture.” During Katrina, Antoinette got into the a pride at being a woman that I have not You would have famous locals, like Antoinette K-Doe, who was Ernie K-Doe’s wife. He sang the song “Mother-in-Law, a 1960s soul song, and he also sang “Here Come the Girls.” They had a bar together called The Mother-in-Law Lounge.

66 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story Told in Black and White


“Annie’s Eyes”, New Orleans, July 17, 2013. Common Quirks 67


68 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story Told in Black and White


Opposite: “Paler”, Bourbon Street, New Orleans, June 19, 2013.

“Sideways in the Rain”, New Orleans, July 24, 2013. Common Quirks 69


“Footloose”, Decatur Street, New Orleans, June 24, 2013. Opposite: “Tuning in to the Vibrations.” 70 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story Told in Black and White


Common Quirks 71


“Follow the Bride”, New Orleans, June 21, 2013. 72 The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story Told in Black and White


“Lofty Beginnings”, New Orleans, June 21, 2013. Pages 74 and 75: “Just Married. Let’s Party.” Common Quirks 73


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Common Quirks 75


“I’ll Just Take a Little Nap”, New Orleans, June 19, 2013.

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“Frills and Wings”, New Orleans, June 23, 2013.

Common Quirks 77


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“Framed Sequences”, New Orleans, June and July 2013. Common Quirks 79


“At The Temple”, New Orleans, June 23, 2013.

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“Askew, in a Sweet Way”, New Orleans, June 22, 2013.

Common Quirks 81


“Broken Beasts are Best”, New Orleans, June 22, 2013.

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“The Evil Eye”, Jackson Square, New Orleans, June 20, 2013.

Common Quirks 83


“Seeking Shade”, The Esplanade, New Orleans, July 21, 2013.

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“Poised for Great Things”, Frenchmen Street, New Orleans, July 21, 2013.

Common Quirks 85


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“The Younger, The Elder, and The Naked”, Jackson Square, New Orleans, June 21, 2013.

Common Quirks 87


“Time Out”, New Orleans, July 21, 2013.

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“The Missing Party”, New Orleans, July 21, 2013.

Common Quirks 89


“A Break From All That Wedding Malarkey”, New Orleans, July 23, 2013.

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“Oh. It’s you.” The Esplanade, New Orleans, July 24, 2013. Common Quirks 91


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“Standing Out of the Crowd”, New Orleans, June 24, 2013.

Common Quirks 93


Š Urszula Pruchniewska

Profile for Urszula Pruchniewska

The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story Told in Black and White  

Candid portraits of women in NOLA

The Women of New Orleans: A Colorful Story Told in Black and White  

Candid portraits of women in NOLA

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