Saturday March 24, 2018

Paris Exhibition focuses on post-Civil War America through Art in Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum

The most chilling part of the show deals with the brutal practice of lynchings

"The Color Line" traces racism and segregation in America from the immediate post-Civil War period until today. (L. Bryant/VOA)

As record numbers of visitors flock to the new African-American history museum in Washington, another landmark exhibit has opened across the Atlantic, offering a stark and sometimes brutal take on racism in the United States through the lenses of black artists.

Running until mid-January 2017 at the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum in Paris, “The Color Line” spans post-Civil War America through a stunning trove of 600 books, posters, paintings and video clips. They document the struggles and gradual empowerment of African-Americans through art.

A hanging-mask artwork by African-American artist David Hammons. (L. Bryant/VOA)
A hanging-mask artwork by African-American artist David Hammons. (L. Bryant/VOA)

“French people know jazz music and some black movie stars and literature. They know words like ‘Ferguson,’ ” said the show’s curator, Daniel Soutif, referring to the 2014 race riots and protests in the U.S. state of Missouri, touched off by the fatal shooting of a black youth by a white police officer. “So one aspect of the show is to complete their culture, to show black people aren’t only those killed on the streets, but also very important artists.”

The show traces the origins of the “color line,” a term referring to racial segregation in America after the abolition of slavery in 1865. It explores how blacks were ridiculed in vaudeville shows and movies, faced discrimination through Jim Crow laws in the southern United States and elsewhere, and fought for their country during the World Wars in a segregated military.

Expressions of brutality

Perhaps the most chilling part of the show deals with the brutal practice of lynchings. One painting shows hooded members of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan erecting a cross, lit up by a bloody moon; another, by Lois Mailou Jones, shows the anguish of a shackled man minutes before his death.

Daniel Soutif, curator of "The Color Line." (L. Bryant/VOA)
Daniel Soutif, curator of “The Color Line.” (L. Bryant/VOA)

The collection, however, also features growing black consciousness, underscored by the artistic expression that exploded in New York’s Harlem section during the 1920s.

The civil rights movement followed. There is a film clip of renowned contralto Marian Anderson singing at Washington’s Lincoln Memorial in 1939, after she was denied the right to sing at the capital’s largest concert hall.

Nearby hangs a giant portrait of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and another showing the 1963 March on Washington, as African-Americans demanded greater civil and economic rights.

“We try to present the context,” Soutif said. “Words like Reconstruction or Jim Crow — they mean nothing to French people.”

In some ways, the exhibit seems a given for the French capital, long a magnet for legions of African-American writers, artists and musicians who found the liberation they were denied at home.

“I would not say race is erased, but race does not provide as much of an impediment, many people would argue, as it does in the U.S.,” Duke University art history professor Richard Powell said of the African-American experience in Paris.

The American Civil War ended slavery in the nation, but not racism. (L. Bryant/VOA)
The American Civil War ended slavery in the nation, but not racism. (L. Bryant/VOA)

Wandering through the show, Ko Bragg of Pennsylvania assessed the exhibit as doing “a fair job” at depicting how black artists responded to segregation, although she said she thought it glossed over some areas.

“What I think is interesting about traveling abroad as an African-American is you’re seen as an American first,” said Bragg, who studies journalism in Paris. “When I’m home, automatically I’m seen as black, and I carry all the weight of what a black American means.”

Universal themes

Yet France has its own troubled history of racial and ethnic tensions, including relations with its large Muslim community.

“French are not in the position to give lessons,” Soutif said.

Paris-area high school teacher Oceane Batman, whose family comes from Martinique, agreed.

The "color line" ran across many aspects of U.S. society, including the movie industry. (L. Bryant/VOA)
The “color line” ran across many aspects of U.S. society, including the movie industry. (L. Bryant/VOA)

“When you think about America, one of the main subjects that comes to mind is racism,” she said. “But it’s the same in France, even if our histories are completely different. That’s one of the reasons I came to the show. I thought it might help me understand what’s going on in France today.”

As much as documenting history, however, the exhibit is about art, Soutif said.

“Look over there,” he said, pointing to an elegant sculpture of hanging African masks by artist David Hammons. “They are moving so gently. When you are a curator, you want to show beautiful works. For me, that’s the main point.” (VOA)

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Why should we talk about Race?

Dr Kumar Mahabir, an anthropologist, brings out the topic of discrimination

Race has always been a big deal whenever its been spoken about around the globe.
Race has always been a big deal whenever its been spoken about around the globe. Pic by Dr. Munish Raizada taken at the Race exhibition at Chicago History Museum. November 2017
-By Dr Kumar Mahabir
Even academics like me who often view certain topics through the lens of race sometimes
receive negative attention and judgement. Some people feel that speaking or writing
rationally about race is counter-productive and even racist.
Indo-Caribbean people (Indians), in particular, tend to receive condemnation when they
examine topics on the basis of race. Indian victims are often criticised for reporting
On the other hand, Afro-Caribbeans (Africans) receive either indifference or praise when they discuss race. For example, the following comment by a black calypsonian, published in a Trinidad national newspaper, drew praises: “In the midst of black consciousness in the 1970s, Bro Superior told black people ‘No matter where yuh born, Yuh still African’” (Guardian Nov 12, 2017).
Discussing race objectively with empirical data and statistical evidence is not racist. Racism
is the belief that another race of people is inferior. This attitude results in discrimination,
antagonism and domination individually, politically, economically and otherwise.
Race, ethnicity, class, sex, religion, nationality, geography, etc. are valid, legitimate and
appropriate social categories of difference in examining historical and contemporary issues.
Why should someone who talks objectively about race be criticised as a racist? Should we
also condemn someone who uses sex as a mode of inquiry as being sexist? To do so would be ignorant, biased and unfair.
In a recent public broadcast, the Prime Minister of multi-racial Trinidad and Tobago (T&T)
advised some citizens “not to see race in everything we do” (Express Sept 22, 2017). This ill- informed statement was made in relation to the mixed responses he received when he
appealed to citizens to open their homes to displaced Dominican refugees who were devastated by Hurricane Maria.
On the contrary, people should be encouraged to “see race” as well as sex (gender), class, nationality, geography and types of social identity. Studying race can reveal differences in the form of disparities, disadvantages, inequalities, power and privilege which have structured human life in the past and present. To overlook race would be to ignore the elephant in the room.
Criminologist and social psychologist Dr Ramesh Deosaran wrote a book entitled Inequality,
Crime & Education in Trinidad and Tobago: Removing the Masks (2016). He found that there was a toxic relationship among race, class, gender, family and geography, resulting in African students performing the worst in the education system.
Deosaran wrote: “Wittingly or unwittingly, the education system, to a large extent, becomes a racially segregated system. And with academic achievement also stratified by race” (page 163). His data showed that while 47% of African students went to university three years after secondary school, as much as 72% of Indians did so, and 49% of the Mixed group also attended.
Prospective students of Whitman College in the USA are encouraged to enrol in its Race and Ethnic Studies programme. They are told that “ideas about race and ethnicity have been central at many points in world history and remain salient today, whether we talk about ethnic pride or ethnic cleansing, about multicultural diversity or racial discrimination.”
Race and ethnicity are often used interchangeably. However, race refers to biological features (bone structure, facial features, hair texture, skin colour, etc.) and ethnicity denotes cultural traits (history, customs, religion, family-type, values, music, food, etc.).
In the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) CSEC Social Studies syllabus, Section A
(Individual, Family and Society) comprises of a content section that explains characteristics
of the population. These characteristics include age, sex, occupation, religion and ethnicity. In the CXC CAPE Sociology syllabus under Unit 1, Module 3, Social Stratification is
conceptualised according to status mobility, gender, class, colour, caste, race and ethnicity.
The topic of race and ethnicity is studied not only in sociology but also in history,
anthropology, cultural studies, visual culture, media, literature, communication, law, health,
human rights, gender, political science, economics, geography, public policy, international
relations, social psychology, etc.
In a research paper entitled “Understanding race and crime in Trinidad and Tobago,”
criminologist Dr Randy Seepersad (2017) found that most of the murderers, victims, accused and prisoners are Africans. His disaggregated data demonstrated that most of the violent crimes are committed by blacks against blacks.
In 2011, former National Security Minister John Sandy said, “We must recognise that it is
people looking like me who are being murdered, mothers like my mother, God rest her soul, who are out there weeping more than any other race” (Express Sep 3, 2011).
Race has always been a major factor in voting in all general elections in T&T. This form of
ethnic polarisation has been well documented by pollsters such as SARA, NACTA, ANSA
McAl and H.H.B. & Associates Ltd. Most Africans and Mixed persons support the PNM
while most Indians vote for the PP/UNC.
Dr. Kumar Mahabir is an anthropologist who has published 11 books. He lives in Trinidad.