Returning to the Musée du Quai Branly after the “Jazz Century” retrospective he organised in 2009, art critic Daniel Soutif is presenting, until 15 January 2017, a vast investigation into African-American artists facing segregation.
There’s a funny-looking American flag floating at the entrance of the exhibition “The Color Line. African-American Artists and Segregation”, at the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. The Star-Spangled Banner has swapped its usual colours for black, red and green, the colours of the Pan-African Flag. Red, the colour of the blood that flowed for freedom; green, the colour of lush nature; black, the colour of African-Americans — to pick up the term chosen by exhibition curator Daniel Soutif. The work is called African American Flag (1990). Its creator is David Hammons, one of today’s great exponents of African-American art in the United States. From the outset, this piece announces the objective of Daniel Soutif’s exhibition: to offer a rereading of the History that has been monopolized by a few Westerners. Not a small task… History has its shadowy zones depending on the prism through which we examine it. Shedding light on it is a job that is neither easy nor exempt from a certain violence.
The Pan-African Flag, with its three equal bands of red, black and green, was created in 1920 by members of the UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) in response to a satirical — to put it lightly — song, “Every Race Has a Flag but the Coon”. Daniel Soutif’s exhibition makes frequent reference to the “Coons”. The expression, an abbreviation of “racoon”, was used to make fun of African-Americans, and can be found in many documents, tracts, posters, songs, signs, magazines…
“The Color Line. African-American Artists and Segregation” reveals a total of 600 works and objects, presented over an exhibition route starting in 1865, the year marking the end of the American Civil War, up to 2014. We sweep across all historical spectres, from the Jim Crow laws (which enforced racial segregation in America’s south) to the Civil Rights Act (which outlawed discrimination); from Black Power to pan-Africanism. “This is an epic exhibition as Daniel Soutif knows how to make them,” declares Diane Turquety, his assistant. The chronological route is punctuated by a few focus themes, namely sporting heroes, the issue of lynching — a chilling section— or Black cinema from the 1920s-1940s.
Along with these archive documents, over 50 artists are represented: the first to obtain recognition during their lifetimes, such as Robert Scott Duncanson (1821-1872), who painted in the style of the Hudson River School, or Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), of whom several portraits are displayed; atypical artists such as Robert Thompson (1937-1966) who frequented the Beat Generation and who hijacked compositions by Old Masters with his use of stylised figures and blocks of colour in strikingly violent scenes; and also more contemporary and well-known artists including Jacob Lawrence, David Hammons, Aaron Douglas, some of whose masterpieces are shown in this exhibition, as well as Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Many names are unknown. “This project was important to us because it represents a period of the United States that is still little-known, both historically and artistically,” explains Stéphane Martin, president of the institution. Compared to America’s stars in post-war art of the likes of Pollock, Rothko or Willem de Kooning, who presented the image of the country which Americans wished to show to the world, these artists still remain very marginal. In the 1970s and 1980s, a few retrospectives for a handful of these artists were held, but in Europe, such an extensive investigation covering 150 years has never before been seen.
Daniel Soutif’s intention was also to get away from the usual icons of the fight against segregation, like Rosa Parks, Malcolm X or Martin Luther King. The curator thus offers a decent amount of space to a figure who is as unknown as he is fascinating: W.E.B. Du Bois. In 1900, during the Universal Exposition in Paris, this university professor in Atlanta unveiled a vast investigative project comprising photographs, brochures and diagrams — “of a modernist beauty”, it was said during the exposition —, that offered a neutral portrayal of the living conditions of African-Americans in the United States. Diagrams that showed, for example, that in 1860, 99 % of American-Americans were illiterate (60 % in 1899). Rather than opposing violence with violence, W.E.B Du Bois contented himself with sticking to facts that speak loudly. Daniel Soutif pays him an enthusiastic homage.
A topical issue
Let’s get back to the project’s aim. To uncover what was hidden; to reveal what risks rearing up again. “The subject is painfully relevant today,” explains Hélène Fulgence, director of cultural development at the Quai Branly. “The question of the ‘color line’ has cropped up again more sharply in recent times.” The expression ‘color line’ first appeared in 1881, penned by Frederick Douglass in The North American Review, in reference to an existing inertia in the segregation of African-Americans after the abolition of slavery in 1877. According to Diane Turquety, “the notion is complex; it has been ideologically exploited.”
“The plan for this exhibition is an old one,” continues Stéphane Martin. “We took five years to put it together, it was produced over a long period.” The idea germinated with the election of Barack Obama at the head of the United States. Says Hélène Fulgence, “Obama’s presidency initiated reflection on the topic. It is in the spirit of the times. It is a subject that everyone tackled at the same time.”
With a practical… and adverse effect: “We were refused many loans!” A total of 500 requests made by the Quai Branly yielded around one hundred positive responses. In all, the exhibition relied on sixty of so lenders, 98 % from the United States. Another element absent from the exhibition: sculptures. There are not many of them, namely for logistic or cost reasons.
All the same, “The Color Line. African-American Artists and Segregation” offers new horizons to its visitors: historical, political, artistic. Diane Turquety concedes: “The cultural and institutional world remains very conservative. Our position in relation to this History is evolving extremely slowly and I hope that we’ve brought our modest contribution to this.”
“The Color Line. African-American Artists and Segregation”. Until 15 January 2017. Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, 37 Quai Branly, Paris 75007. www.quaibranly.fr