For half a century, she delighted us with her dances, her freedom, her values and her commitments. Today, a new generation of artists is claiming their heritage.
A great music-hall artist and charismatic personality, Josephine Baker has fascinated the greatest: from Cocteau to Calder, passing by Picabia, Cendrars, Simenon, Poiret, Colette or Desnos, his admirers are no longer counted. It is also an inspiration to many artists, starting with dancers, singers, performers and directors such as Vera Mantero, Mark Tompkins, Chantal Loïal, Fatou Sylla, Lisette Malidor, Marie-Claude Pietragalla, Rosemary Phillips and Jérôme Savary.
Today, a new generation is rediscovering the richness of its artistic personality, but also its commitment to justice and minorities. This is the case of several comic book authors – Catel Muller and Jean-Louis Bocquet, Pénélope Bagieu and Maran Hrachyan – who were seduced by the sincerity of his fights. This is also the case of the dancer and choreographer Raphaëlle Delaunay, who set out in the footsteps of the origins of her famous animal dances. What do they have in common? Everyone has something to say about Josephine.
Raphaëlle Delaunay: «Josephine Baker is at the crossroads of all contemporary trends»
Among the dancers and choreographers who have been interested in Josephine Baker in recent years, Raphaëlle Delaunay is undoubtedly one of the most interesting. Inspired by the greatest choreographers, such as Pina Bausch, Jiri Kylian, Alain Platel or Boris Charmatz, she has devoted herself to a real research-creation, which led her to give heritage value to the choreographic art of Joséphine Baker by inscribing the lexicon of the gestures of the dancer of the Revue nègre in three of her personal creations (Bitter Sugar (2009), Ginger Jive (2009) and Chez Joséphine (2013)). It has thus revived this heritage and has been the object of a precious transmission, with contemporary dancers, but also with hip-hop. She hopes to be able to enrol soon in the program of her courses, which she gives at the Conservatoire national de danse de Paris, the study of this school.
“At the beginning,” she says, “through the advent of the Internet and accessible archiving, I accessed documents that allowed me to deepen and free myself from neo-colonial clichés. Joséphine Baker, who has been reduced to an alleged exoticism, is an unknown artist. She was a dancer of great modernity, and I decided to rediscover by myself all the richness of her choreographic language».
What I remember about her is her power of evocation, her playfulness, her modernity
I admit that I had a hard time deciphering his movements, the few preserved images show only a few. Without a parallel work to question the origin of these dances, I probably would not have succeeded. It was this investigation by historian that led me to find out what these dances revealed in the history of the black diaspora: animal dances, born in Africa, spent in the United States, perpetuated in the streets, come in some music magazines-American hall, which Josephine Baker popularized in Europe. In Paris, in fact, we had never seen them before. This dance will enter the European salons in sweetened form. In short, it is a history understood in that of jazz, the history of a cultural appropriation (in the positive sense of the word!). Josephine Baker arrives at the right moment: a whole current of artists, like the surrealists, Picasso, is interested in negro art. It’s a general craze.”
Josephine Baker was a great music hall artist. Today it is located at the confluence of cabaret, burlesque, hip-hop, in situ performer, and humour. Its silhouette is astonishing: from one photograph to the next it looks like a gironde or slender, like a liana. What I remember about her is her power of evocation, her playfulness, her modernity. I know that she is a divisive character. With her belt of bananas, by appearing naked in a cage, she would have, according to some, helped to root the image of the black woman ravaged to the status of object, exotic and sexual. Only the creative explosion that she showed in the music hall, but also in the cinema and in the song, instead reinforces the image of a woman who may not have always been able to control her destiny, but who took the course as soon as she could. Reducing it to its banana belt would be a shame! Josephine Baker probably has a dark side that I tried to deal with in Chez Joséphine, but it is above all a luminous, solar character. It opens the way for personalities like Beyoncé.”
Maran Hrachyan: «I wanted to represent an exceptional woman, luminous artist and committed activist»
In Angoulême, everyone already calls it «the fresco», as this magnificent illustration, made by a young artist, Maran Hrachyan, conquers walkers and motorists. Printed on a monumental canvas, placed on a wall of the Vaisseau Moëbius, the main building of the Cité internationale de la bande dessinée et de l'image, it was inaugurated last week.
This poster shows an astonishing mastery on the part of a young artist who has just finished her studies at the Ecole Européenne Supérieure de l'Image (the Ecole Supérieure d'Art d'Angoulême, the only one in France to offer a mention «comic strip» in her curriculum).
Joséphine Baker, confides us Maran Hrachyan, the author of the fresco, was a great artist, but also an exceptional woman, an activist, committed to the Resistance. As an artist and as a person, she is so luminous, she exudes so much kindness and good humor that I wanted to remain faithful to her: to represent the magazine artist, full of humor, with bright colors and glitter. The white feathers of her headdress form a heart and the cheetah, beside her, shows a good smile, because he is her friend. But I also wanted to show that she knew how to use her star status to actively participate in the Resistance. It wasn’t very easy, but I tried. I chose to represent her in the shadows with her Air Force Second Lieutenant uniform and her Free France decorations.”
Joséphine Baker, this determined, emancipated, committed and courageous woman, resonates with the young generations of artists
The result is very successful: the shots succeed each other like a fan and the reading of the image is commensurate with what the biggest affichistes have done. “We knew Maran Hrachyan well,” says Pierre Lungheretti, Director General of the Cité internationale de la Bande Dessinée et de l’image. “We appreciated her talent in the book she published in 2020, when she left school, Patrick Dewaere: Apart from that, life is beautiful (Glénat editions), which is already a great success. We wanted to give this project to a young artist to express what Josephine Baker means to her and the women of her generation.”
Many young authors, continues Pierre Lungheretti, are sensitive to the values embodied by Josephine Baker. It was the subject of a cartoon by Catel Muller and Jean-Louis Bocquet in 2016, and Pénélope Bagieu mentions it among his portraits of Culottées in the first volume published in 2016 also. Josephine Baker resonates greatly with the younger generations of artists: she is this determined, emancipated, committed and courageous woman who has taken to heart the struggles of her time for equality and the recognition of minority rights. That is a wonderful example.
Displaying this illustration at the Cité Internationale de la Bd means that his struggle is also ours as a public cultural institution spreading the values of the Republic through our action, that we conduct both in our arts and cultural education operations and in the words we give to artists who are committed to these values.”
“I was very honoured to be offered this job,” concludes Maran Hrachyan. “Joséphine Baker touches me very much in some ways. I would have liked to be her friend!”