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This new fashion does not change the racist commonplaces prevailing in French society at the time.

By Philippe Dagen

Joséphine Baker’s success was immediate, as soon as she appeared on stage in Paris on October 2, 1925 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, for the show La Revue nègre. In a few weeks, the one then nicknamed “the Miss” became famous and photography popularized her image.

This triumph can be explained by her talents as a singer and dancer. But it also fits into the context of so-called “Negro” fashion of the 1920s. The adjective is then systematically used to designate anyone born in sub-Saharan or Afro-descendant Africa. This musical fashion accompanies the second phase of the recognition of the ancient arts of Africa, known as “Negro art”. Because there was a first phase, before 1914: that of Apollinaire, Braque, Derain and Picasso who found in sculpture from Africa a reservoir of new forms and ideas. The second is no longer reduced to a cubist avant-garde, as evidenced by the multiplication of collections and exhibitions of African sculpture in Europe and the United States, but also by the spread of jazz and the glory of Baker.

But this new fashion does not change the prevailing racist commonplaces. Far from calling into question the colonization of Africa by European countries, it goes hand in hand, on the contrary, with the exaltation of the French Empire of Africa, which culminates in the Colonial Exhibition in Paris in 1931. And she shamelessly cultivates the stereotype that associates black women, nudity and sexuality. This is where Josephine Baker comes in. In 1925, she danced shirtless. She wears a belt of bananas at the hips or, at the shoulders, ornaments of feathers. Unknowingly or deliberately, she epitomizes the characteristics that ordinary racism attributes to the “negress”: natural shamelessness, erotic frenzy, submission to instinct. In other words, “savagery” in the ordinary language and “primitive mentality” in that of the anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl and of all those who claim their classification of the human in two separate categories: the modern rationalists and the others. , all the others.

The images and words inspired by Josephine Baker are unambiguous. In 1925, Kees van Dongen painted her entirely naked, swaying her hips, a heavily seductive gaze. From the poster for the Revue nègre in 1925, Paul Colin plays a topless dancer between two hilarious jazz musicians. For the show at the Bal nègre in 1927, he showed her even more naked, except for a loincloth of herbs. The same year, the same Colin released the album Le Tumulte noir. Baker is there with the bananas, breasts pointed. She is also there, barely dressed, behind the bars of a cage: the allusion to human zoos implies no condemnation.

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