Wednesday, 5 October 2016


When does a historical presentation of events cross the line and become something akin to voyeurism?

Visitors to a new exhibition in Paris, France, may find themselves asking this question, especially when they stand in front of a charcoal drawing that shows a rabid-looking white man holding up the severed genitals of his black victim like a trophy.

The exhibition poster.
This drawing is just one of the images in The Color Line: Les artistes africains-américains et la segrégation (African American Artists and Segregation) that raise concerns about the selection process.

The artwork in question, by Charles Alston (1907-1977), depicts a lynching and castration that was perpetrated in Florida in the early 1930s, but its “rare violence” does not necessarily underscore the severity of the topic, especially in an exhibition that children will attend.

To add to the confusion, on the day of its official opening on Oct. 4, The Color Line immediately sparked controversy (for a different reason) when observers noted that a pedagogical booklet meant for children discussed slavery in Eurocentric terms.

The booklet stated that while slaves generally experienced horrific conditions, some had lives that were “plus agréables” (more pleasant). It also informed readers that most slaves were “sold by Africans to Europeans”.

Following an outcry at this simplistic description, the Quai Branly withdrew the booklet, noting that it had been produced by an outside publisher. Officials said the document would be revised and republished.

The Color Line's curator Daniel Soutif.
While all this shouldn’t detract from an exhibition that evidently has noble intentions, it does highlight the difficulties of telling African Americans’ story from a European perspective.

Asked about this concern ahead of the exhibition, the show’s curator Daniel Soutif told SWAN: “I don’t think that it has to be forbidden to work on the art of a community to which you don’t belong. Art history is about dialogue and verification.”

He added that, for example, the “biggest experts on 19th-century France are Americans” and that they’ve done “excellent work”.

Yet, this question of “who’s telling whose story” is a pertinent one, particularly regarding the Quai Branly, a museum often criticized for having disturbing colonial undertones.

Soutif, an independent curator and author, said he worked with African American professors such as Columbia University’s Robert O’Meally – who has organized acclaimed shows on the artist Romare Bearden – and that their input was invaluable. But as a French professional, Soutif’s curatorial work is aimed at a European audience.

A panel explaining "blackface".
“It’s important not only to know the subject, but also the public for whom you’re working,” he said in the interview. “An American audience probably wouldn’t need all the explanation about what ‘Jim Crow’ means.”

Explanations for a “public that does not necessarily know” this history therefore form a significant part of the exhibition, along with the 180 pieces of artwork and some 400 documents that cover the visual arts, literature, film and photography.

The show’s title is meant to make viewers think not only about racism and the line drawn between people during segregation, but also about the subject choices that African American artists have made. The exposition is essentially intended as a tribute to these artists.

As such, their artwork is intertwined with the historical facts and events described, and one can appreciate the major work that must have gone into collecting and labeling all the items.

Henry Ossawa Tanner's Portrait of Booker T.
, State of Iowa Historical Museum.
The “narration” begins with the background to segregation after the U.S. Civil War of 1861 to 1865, and it examines the Reconstruction period and the phenomenon of “blackface” – where white actors blacked up their faces to mock black Americans.

It traces the “first battles against segregation”, African Americans’ participation in the Paris World Fair of 1900, the role of sportsmen such as boxers Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, and the experiences of World War II – where nearly a million African Americans served “under the Star-Spangled Banner” only to return home to continuing discrimination.

Also depicted are the Harlem Renaissance, migration from the southern United States to the north, the civil rights movement and contemporary issues – much of this seen through the eyes of the artists who bear witness in their work.

Some of the names – Bearden, Faith Ringgold – are well known to an international audience, but the exhibition includes a wide range of artists: Henry Ossawa Tanner, Horace Pippin, Archibald J. Motley, Jr., Aaron Douglas, Beauford Delaney.

Lois Mailou Jones' Mob Victim
Their creations were for a long time excluded from the American mainstream, but now many of their works have become collector items, shedding light on the painful aspects of a people’s existence and reminding visitors of on-going inequities.

“I hope this exhibition will be a door that opens,” Soutif told SWAN. “That people will discover artists they didn’t know about and that they will be struck by the works. I hope it will be the start of something new, that there will be more monographic exhibitions on some of these artists.”

Whatever The Color Line’s failings, many visitors will find themselves echoing this hope.

The Color Line runs until Jan. 15, 2017, and the Quai Branly museum has organized several complementary events such as concerts and seminars.

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