Sunday, April 5, 2009

Josephine Baker in Art and Life by Bennetta Jules-Rosette

I'll be visiting Josephine Baker's former castle home, Les Milandes, in about a week's time, so I decided to read more about her. I selected a title from the library catalogue based on several factors: it was recently published (2007), illustrated, and written by a woman. When I had the book in my hands, I realized that it was far more scholarly than I'd expected. It required more focus than I had planned, yet I was captivated by the story of Baker's life.

Born into poverty in St. Louis in 1906, she achieved fame as an entertainer in Paris, starting in 1925. She became a French citizen, fought with the Resistance through WWII and adopted 12 multiracial children in the late 1950s. The "Rainbow Tribe" was her dream family, housed at the Chateau Les Milandes in the Dordogne. The place continues to be a tourist attraction to this day. Baker received a Legion of Honour medal in 1961.

I found that I was familiar with many of the photos; Baker wearing nothing but beads and her iconic banana skirt, in fabulous designer gowns, and seated backstage at a mirror. My favourite is of her crossdressing in a tuxedo. New to me was a 1975 image of her in a white beaded motorcycle outfit in Paris, when she rode a motorcycle onstage.

Here's a taste of the writing style: "Baker's life is a microcosm and a laboratory test case for the study of assimilation, acculturation, and identity invention." (p. 71) "Fashion allows its wearers to assume and discard virtual identities. Viewed in this way, fashion emerges as a discourse, or expressive form, independent of the codes of style, yet constantly referencing them." (p. 142) "Baker's danse sauvage and banana-skirt images are part of a colonial discourse and syndrome in which the subject is at once derided and desired. [...] Even when she had outgrown the dance, Baker was unable to abandon the cultural baggage of the banana skirt's problematic image." (p.153) In reference to a 1986 documentary film, Chasing a Rainbow: The Life of Josephine Baker: "A more detailed analysis of Baker's universal brotherhood project in relationship to similar utopian movements is necessary to contextualize this portion of the film." (p. 108) "The kernel of iterative narrtives of Baker's life remains the same but is repeated over and over in different motifs." (p. 279)

Baker is "a fascinating and ambivalent figure in feminist discourse." (p. 263) Her influence on younger black artists like Grace Jones is explored towards the end of the book. Intellectually stimulating.

No comments: