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 a foreign lens. But quickly enough I was impressed by its scope – 600 paintings, drawings, books, posters, video clips and installations, mostly from private collections.
In The Color Line you come away realizing and marveling at the so very important role art has played in the quest for equality and the affirmation of black identity.
The goal of this temporary exhibition is part of the Quai Branly‘s raison d’etre: to show France’s openness to the world, to show itself as an inclusive global resource. Not surprising then that its temporary exhibitions draw a steady stream of visitors with its thought-provoking, socio-political themes.
I appreciated its succinct way of telling a painful history that segued into defiant movements.
I was drawn in by its spare presentation that, unlike many exhibitions, didn’t overwhelm with cramped rooms, dark walls, and too many pieces. And it was doubly exciting to see displayed the originals of artists who had spent significant time and honed their talents in France.
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, said that the goal is to present context. He explained that words like Reconstruction and Jim Crow mean nothing to the French. Sure enough, no one has to read the explanation text to wince at the posters of actors ridiculed in vaudeville shows and movies, nor scoff at the paranoia screaming from the FBI poster of Angela Davis.
What a learning experience! Embarrassed as I am to admit, until I skimmed the brief commentary under a picture of a lynching juxtaposed with 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 describe the WEB Dubois prize-winning photo exhibit that was specially curated for Paris’ 1900 World’s Fair. And voilà! the whole display has been recreated for The Color Line, complete in its own capsule. I was thrilled to finally lay eyes on those beautiful portraits of the prosperous Black middle class that Dubois wanted the world to know existed, just 35 years after the abolition of slavery.
Who knows what traces of the African American expatriate 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 Besançon, near the French-Swiss border.
Although Smith was one of the most prolific expatriate artists in the 1920s and 30s, his work is far less known than some of his contemporaries. And now, I have one more person to mention on our tour about 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.
The French Connection
If you caught a hint of one-upmanship in the above paragraph, you’re right. Rivalry between France and the U.S has long 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. The fact that a good number of the artists featured in this exhibition spent significant and beneficial time in France proves their point.
The Cross-Cultural Reach
It was heartening to see what a wide range of visitors came out to the exhibit on a Friday afternoon before a long weekend. As I eavesdropped (yes, I did!), parents explained the history to their little kids, elderly couples compared their knowledge, black, brown and white young people exchanged opinions.
Ever since the Paris-based Negritude and Harlem Renaissance writers brainstormed together in the 1920s, French Blacks have analyzed and taken example from the Americans, adapting their responses to confront French-style racism. This exhibit continues to fuel that Diaspora dialogue.
It turns out, the museum has a far-reaching mandate of outreach. Not only do they offer free transportation 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.
Putting Names to Influencers
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 Washington, Halle Berry and Will Smith, but also to Ferguson and its repercussions. Yet 80% of people around the world couldn’t name three African American artists. The exhibit does a long overdue job correcting that picture.
Dual Mission Accomplished
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. The art on display is beautiful, but this art in particular also serves its purpose well.
More than just a visual exhibit, The Color Line offers a full complementary program that includes film screenings, debates, and workshops for all ages. Consult the WEBSITE for full details.