Why This Exhibition Matters
The Color Line- African American Artists and Segregation
I approached The Color Line – African-American Artists and Segregation a bit tentatively, I admit. But quickly enough I was impressed by its scope…
The Quai Branly Museum’s latest and very popular exhibition introduces Black artists and artwork so vital in the quest for equality and the affirmation of black identity. It’s not the big names that are drawing the crowds because frankly, most of them are unknown to the general public. The exhibition brings together a history known mostly in bits and pieces. A journey that’s now powerfully bound up through the brush, the pen, hands, and outrage.
Why Here? The Musée du Quai Branly is a bit of an upstart newbie on the Paris museum scene. For one, it displays its vast permanent collection of art from Africa, Oceania, Asia and the Americas with the same awed respect as the Louvre does its Western-world masterpieces.
Now with this latest temporary exhibition on African American artists and Segregation, it’s particularly gratifying to get to see hundreds of pieces that eloquently, harshly tell a history that rattles and shakes us with its power today.
All the more that several of the artists shown spent time and honed their talents in France.
10 Reasons You Don’t Want To Miss ‘The Color Line’ Exhibition
I approached The Color Line – African-American Artists and Segregation a bit tentatively, I admit. Once again, someone else interpreting the African American story through foreign lens. But quickly enough I was impressed by its scope – 600 paintings, drawings, books, posters video clips and installation, mostly from private collections. I appreciated its succinct way of telling a painful history that segued into defiant movements. And I was drawn in by its spare presentation that, unlike many exhibitions, didn’t overwhelm with cramped rooms, dark walls, and too many pieces.
The journey from segregated to empowered, from post Civil War America to beyond Martin Luther King Jr, is told effectively, powerfully. The curator himself, Daniel Soutif, in an interview for The Guardian says that the goal was to present context. He explains that words like Reconstruction and Jim Crow mean nothing to the French. Sure enough, no one had to read the explication text to wince at the posters of actors ridiculed in vaudeville shows and movies nor scoff at the ridiculousness of the FBI poster of Angela Davis.
What a learning experience. Embarrassed as I am to admit, until I skimmed the brief commentary under a lynching picture juxtaposed by one of Billie Holliday, I did not realize the ‘strange fruit’ she sang of referred to the person hanging from the tree. Never too old to learn, huh!
On our Spirit of Black Paris bus tours, when we drive between the Grand and Petit Palais, I tell about the WEB Dubois prize-winning photo exhibit that was specially curated for Paris’ 1900 Worlds Fair. And voila!, that whole display has been recreated for The Color Line, complete in its own capsule. I am thrilled to finally lay eyes on it.
Thousands of attendees at the turn of the century expo were stunned to see those beautiful portraits of a prosperous Black middle class. They were expecting, no doubt, confirmation that all American Blacks just 35 years after the abolition of slavery were hopelessly impoverished and downtrodden.
And I suspect more than a few at today’s exhibit were surprised as well.
Who knows what traces of the African American expat experience lie slumbering in French attics and dusty museums? The curator said that by chance he happened upon 30 small drawings by Albert Alexander Smith in a little history museum in the city of Besançon, near the French-Swiss border.
Although Smith was one of the most prolific expat African American artists in the 1920s and 30s, his work is far less known. And now, I have one more person to mention to our tour on artists! As for the curator’s find, the Quai Branly is particularly proud to have exhibited these ‘lost’ pieces before they are shown in the U.S.
If you caught a hint of one upmanship in the above paragraph, you’re right. Rivalry between France and the U.S has been a twisted and ongoing occurrence winding through politics, economy and culture.
One leg up for the French has been their boast that they treat and appreciate American Blacks better than they’re treated at home. That a good number of the artists featured in this exhibition spent significant and beneficial time in France proves their point.
On the other hand, interesting coincidence that the National Museum for African American History and Culture in D.C. and this Quai Branly exhibit opened within a week of each other – the long spat looks like a tie, for now.
It was heartening to see what a wide range of visitors came out to the expo on a Friday afternoon before a long weekend. As I eavesdropped, yes I did, parents explained to their little kids, elderly couples compared their knowledge, black, brown and white young people exchanged opinions.
Ever since the Negritude and Harlem Renaissance writers brainstormed from the 1920s forward, French Blacks have analyzed and taken example from the American response to confronting French-style racism. This exhibit on African American artists and Segregation continues to fuel that Diaspora dialog.
It turns out, the museum has a far-reaching mandate of outreach. Not only do they offer free transport to bring members of various ethnic communities into the museum, they lend works out to the communities, organize storytelling in libraries, and depending on the exhibition, actually go into hospitals, jails and schools to discuss exhibit themes.
One of the driving goals of this exhibition is to complete the cultural education of the French, according to the curator. They’re no stranger to jazz, to the talents of Denzel, Halle Berry and Will Smith, but also to Ferguson and its repercussions. 80% of people around the world couldn’t name three African American artists. The exhibit does a long overdue job correcting that picture.
Viewers hear an explicit voice covering 150 years of the Black American experience through hard-hitting illustrations, flattering and controversial paintings, caustic cartoon strips, triumphant video clips, thought-provoking installations. Art is beautiful, but art also serves a purpose.
More than just a visual exhibit, the complementary programme includes film screenings, debates, workshops for all ages. See the website link below.
Why This Exhibit Here?
Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the Musée du Quai Branly has made a point of thumbing its nose at the notion that there exists hierarchy among the arts and artists.
Visitors don’t feel led by conventional order; instead they crisscross eras and continents throughout the informal multilevel open plan. (This helps keeps groups together while serving different interests–teachers appreciate this!)
Its boxy architecture, it has been said, clashes with neighbouring posh 19th century buildings of the 7th district, right under the nose of Mme Eiffel Tower.
Definitely worth putting on your Paris list of must-experience places. After your visit, go for lunch, dinner or refreshments at Les Ombres restaurant just across the garden. Sip and chat on their terrace with a fabulous, close up of the La Tour Eiffel.
The Color Line – African Americans Artists and Segregation runs until January 15, 2017.
The Quai Branly Museum – Jacques Chirac
37 Quai Branly, 75007
About a block from the Eiffel Tower.
Closed Mondays. Open late Thur-Sat.
Check the website for all the details.