“One summer a German mule trader struggled to sell his last white mule. A farmer finally bought it for his daughter, and the daughter liked it so much that her friends each wanted one. In the end, the mule trader sold nine mules to nine fathers of nine little girls.”
That’s the story of the Mamou Riding Academy, according to George Rodrigue in his book The Cajuns of George Rodrigue (Oxmoor House, 1976), the first book published nationally on the Cajun culture.
-click photo to enlarge-
Yet Rodrigue fabricated the Mamou story: the German, the mules, the riding club, and even a 4th of July parade, in a lie that caused no end of trouble for the young artist in the mid 1970s when the Mayor of Mamou took offense.
It was Jimmy Domengeaux of CODOFIL fame who diffused the situation, emphasizing Rodrigue’s respect for the Cajuns, his own heritage. Rodrigue, insisted Domengeaux, brought positive national attention to the Cajun culture through not only his paintings, but also his book, The Cajuns of George Rodrigue, chosen by Rosalind Carter and the National Endowment for the Arts as an Official Gift of State during President Jimmy Carter’s administration. (full story here)
Mamou, Louisiana is a small Cajun town in the south central part of the state, located mid-way between Lafayette and Alexandria, in Evangeline Parish, an area named for Longfellow’s tragic heroine. Its population lingers today at about 3500 residents. The area’s plentiful cotton crop gave way eventually to rice, the sustaining Mamou harvest.
George Rodrigue painted the Mamou Riding Academy, a large canvas at 36x54 inches, in 1971. He designed it in his typical style, now firmly established since completing the Aioli Dinner, his first painting with people, earlier that same year. Beneath the massive Louisiana live oaks, the figures and mules shine luminous in white, with no shadow, as though they are a string of paper dolls glued onto a dark background.
The landscape follows the line of the flag and figures, forming interesting shapes in the sky, bounded by the hard edges of archetypal Rodrigue oaks, a style perfected over the previous three years, as the young artist painted nothing but tree, ground and sky.
Okay, spill, I insisted. What’s the real history of the painting?
“I found this great photograph in a junk shop in Lafayette. It had no markings and no indication of its origin. I used it in my painting and made up a story.”
Why Mamou? I asked, wanting more.
“It’s a cool place, and I wanted to paint it. I know that the Cajuns, from the beginning, were proud to be Americans, so I turned it into a patriotic event. In real life, there was no Mamou Riding Academy, but I made it real in my mind and on the canvas. So to me, it’s true.”
As with his other Cajun paintings, Rodrigue projected the photograph’s figures onto his canvas and then arranged his landscape around them, creating a unified, strong design and a timeless, albeit fabricated, representation of the Cajun culture.
And the two figures in black? I asked.
“That was an artistic decision.”
I recognized my cue, and the interview ended.
-As a point of interest, the stories in The Cajuns of George Rodrigue are a mixture of true and false. One of my favorite tall tales is Broussard’s Barber Shop, linked here-
-Also this week, I hope you enjoy my latest story for Gambit Weekly: “The Mardi Gras Recovery: a Story of Buddhism, Influenza and Fuzz,” linked here-