Friday February 28, 2020

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)

Next Story

Sri Lanka Commemorates 10 Years Since End of Civil War

Sri Lanka’s army chief Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake has said his troops will ensure that this year’s commemoration goes ahead peacefully

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Sri Lankan soldiers secure the area around St. Anthony's Shrine, April 21, 2019, after a blast in Colombo, Sri Lanka. VOA

Still reeling from the Easter terror attacks, Sri Lanka commemorates this weekend 10 years since the end of a bloody civil war that killed at least 100,000 people, the scars of which are still not healed.

Security was tight in the north of the island, home to Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils, ahead of solemn ceremonies Saturday.

Sri Lanka’s government and top military brass were to have their own commemoration in Colombo Sunday.

On May 18, 2009, government forces brought their no-holds-barred military offensive to an end at a lagoon in the northern coastal district of Mullaittivu with the killing of Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the rebel Tamil Tigers.

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FILE – People stand in front of a mural of Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader Velupillai Prabhakaran painted on a wall in Chennai, India, May 19, 2015. Across Chennai, large billboards with photographs of Prabhakaran, the leader of the Tamil Tigers, urge its people to “not forget” the day the insurgent group accepted defeat. VOA

Thousands missing

Sri Lanka’s then-president Mahinda Rajapakse declared an end to the 37-year separatist conflict — marked by massacres, suicide bombings and assassinations — between Tamil militants and the central government, which is dominated by the majority Sinhalese.

But for thousands of war widows and other victims on both sides, this marked the start of a new struggle: to find out the fate of their loved ones.

About 20,000 people are still missing, including 5,000 government troops.

Anandarasan Nagakanni, 61, is still searching for her son Arindavadas.

“He was last seen with the Sri Lankan army, and after that we haven’t seen him,” she told AFP at a tiny makeshift office in Mullaittivu, where a notice board was covered with dozens of photos of missing people.

Nagaraja Sureshamma, 65, who lost one son and is still looking for the other, recalled the horrors of the final months and how civilians scrambled to escape indiscriminate attacks and shelling.

“We were all going together, but my son happened to go on a different route. … Ever since, we have not been able to find him,” Sureshamma said.

“If they are not alive, then they need to tell us that at least,” said Mariasuresh Easwari, an activist trying to help find the missing.

“Did you murder them? Did you bury them? Tell us.”

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FILE – A Sri Lankan ethnic Tamil woman supporting the Dead and Missing Person’s Parents Front holds a placard as police officers stand guard during a protest in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Aug. 30, 2013. VOA

Grieving banned

Sri Lankan forces have been accused of killing about 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final months of the war, a charge successive governments have denied.

Several mass graves containing skeletal remains have been found in the past two decades, but only a handful of those buried have ever been formally identified.

Until recently, even remembering the war dead was considered subversive and annual memorial services by Tamils were trashed by government forces.

Government forces have set up memorials in the north for fallen security forces and bulldozed Tiger cemeteries, obliterating any sign of the rebels who at their zenith controlled a third of Sri Lanka.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a recent report that the new government’s promised political reforms and accountability for wartime atrocities have failed to materialize.

“For many Sri Lankans living in the bitterly contested north and east, the war has never quite ended,” it said.

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Sri Lankan security officers inspect vandalized shops owned by Muslims in Minuwangoda, a suburb of Colombo, May 14, 2019. VOA

Islamist terror

Although the pain for many families remains, and many in the 2.5-million-strong Tamil community still feel disadvantaged, the end of the war did open a peaceful new chapter in which Sri Lanka’s economy and tourism boomed.

But this peace was shattered April 21 when Islamist suicide bombers targeted three churches and three luxury hotels, killing 258 people, including 45 foreigners.

The attackers were homegrown extremists — the Islamic State group also claimed credit — and riots since saw dozens of homes, businesses and mosques of Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority vandalized. One man was killed by a mob wielding swords.

According to the ICG, the Easter attacks “compounded the general anxiety, tearing again at the social fabric, unleashing further violence and complicating the road to sustainable peace.”

Evoking memories of past dark times, a state of emergency has been in place since April 21 with the return of some wartime restrictions on free movement.

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Sri Lanka’s army chief Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake has said his troops will ensure that this year’s commemoration goes ahead peacefully.

“As much as we mourn the soldiers who were killed in the war, (minority Tamil) civilians also have a right to commemorate their war dead,” he said Thursday. (VOA)