It’s February! In the United States, this month is devoted to African-American history.
Born in St. Louis in 1906, at the age of eight, Josephine Baker endured abuse as a domestic servant. At twelve, she dropped out of school, living in cardboard shelters and scavenging food from garbage cans. At thirteen, she married a Pullman porter. The unhappy marriage didn’t last long and things brightened when she was fifteen and her street corner dancing won her recruitment into a vaudeville show. She had another short-lived marriage as of 1921, when she became Mrs. Baker. After the divorce, she kept Baker as her last name to maintain consistency, as her career was taking off. Upon hitting New York City in the Harlem Renaissance, she became “the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville.” In 1925, it was on to Paris where she became a one-woman show, banana skirt, pet cheetah and all.
In 1937, Baker married a Frenchman (a Jew) and became a French citizen. Throughout WWII, she supplied information to the French Resistance, harbored refugees, and obtained others visas and passports. After the war she performed at Buchenwald for the liberated prisoners who were too frail to be moved.
When performing back in the United States in the 1950′s, she insisted upon integrated audiences, playing a large part in desegregating shows in Las Vegas. Active with the NAACP, Baker spoke at the March on Washington in 1963. After Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Coretta Scott King asked Baker if she would take Dr. King’s leadership position. Baker considered the prospect, but ultimately replied that her twelve adopted children were”too young to lose their mother.” Her children were from all over the world. She called them the “Rainbow Tribe.”
Never widely accepted in the States before the Civil Rights Movement, in 1973, Baker finally opened at Carnegie Hall to a standing ovation. Back in Paris in 1975, she performed a retrospective celebrating her fifty years in show biz. Financed by her long-time supporter Princess Grace along with Prince Rainier and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, opening-night admirers included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Diana Ross, and Liza Minnelli. Four days later, Baker was found in a coma, lying in her bed among newspapers with glowing reviews of her show. She died shortly after. Upon her funeral, Josephine Baker locked up the streets of Paris one more time.
This is watercolor, not an oil painting! As I’ve written before, I can not find who the artist is. If you know, please comment! It’s not Ernie Barnes. I do know it is by a California artist, as the postcard is from the Pasadena Museum of California Art announcing a (past) show for which 30 different collectors each contributed a California watercolor.
I never liked this postcard, as the designer couched the painting in a big white boarder. Against gallery-white, the image just struck me as drab, depressing. It took me years to really see the painting. So atmospheric.
Lezley, Betye and Alison Saar, 1995. Photo by Tracye Saar-Cavanaugh
Betye Saar is an acclaimed assemblage artist of African, Irish and Native American descent. Born in 1926 in Los Angeles, Saar witnessed the hodge-podge assembling of the famous folk monument Watts Towers on visits to her grandmother’s in the 1930′s. She pursued an education in art through the 1950′s and into the early ’60s. In 1968, she saw a Joseph Cornell exhibition which launched her into work on boxed found-object assemblages. These were largely socio-political statements represented by negative black stock characters like Aunt Jemima, Uncle Tom, and Sambo.
Betye Saar. The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,1972
In the 1970′s, Saar created assemblages exploring African and Creole mysticism. Then, following the death of her great-aunt, Saar channeled family history into her assemblages. In the 1980′s, she returned to the mysticism theme, but departed from small boxes in favor of room-size installations and site-specific works. These various themes have remained at play in her work since.
Betye Saar’s daughters, Alison and Lezley, are artists who have very much followed in their mother’s footsteps. (The third Saar sister is Tracye Saar-Cavanaugh whom I don’t know anything about and can’t find any information on. I believe she’s also involved in the art world, though. If you know please comment!)
Where her mother has employed boxes, Lezley Saar often uses books as the stages for paint and found-object portraits of people who raise questions of duality in race, gender, (in)sanity, and (un)naturalism.
Lezley Saar. Oscar Willis: Ethiopian Comedian circa 1850, 2001
Alison Saar, meanwhile, has achieved huge success for her figurative sculptures dealing with cultural facets of the African diaspora and with identity in terms of race and gender.
Robert Blackburn and one of his prints
Among the most famous modern print artists, Robert “Bob” Blackburn (1920-2003) was a Harlem native who grew up in the bloom of the Harlem Renaissance. (His elementary school English teacher was Countee Cullen!) Blackburn studied lithography at the WPA funded Harlem Art Center, and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Jacob Lawrence at the Uptown Community Workshop. But transitioning from art student to working print artist was maddening–nearly all of New York’s artist-printshops barred him because he was black. So in 1948, he established his own printshop with the principle that it was open to all.
Today, the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop offers all levels of classes for adults as well as children, workspace to print artists, and collaborates residency-style with professional artists from other disciplines. For instance, when I visited, guess who just happened to be there? Challenging herself with two-dimensions was world class African-American artist, large scale tire rubber sculptor Chakaia Booker!
above: Chakaia Booker in one of her signature head wraps
below: Chakaia Booker. The Conversationalist, 1997
Now move over Rover, and let Jimi take over…
burning his guitar at the Monterey Pop Festival
Mr. T was the youngest of twelve children growing up in a three-room apartment in the projects in Chicago, where he witnessed rape and murder. In high school, he was the city-wide wrestling champion two years running.
He became known as Mr. T while working as a bouncer. All the gold jewelry were things customers accidentally left. He was a human lost-and-found; Customers would return and not even have to go back in the club to retrieve their bling, which they especially appreciated because they often took it off in the first place in the case of fights.
Next, he was a bodyguard for nearly ten years. His clients included Muhammad Ali, Steve McQueen, Michael Jackson, and Diana Ross.
Did you know Mr. T’s hairstyle is inspired by West African Mandinka warriors? He saw pictures of these tough guys in an issue of National Geographic.
In student elections at my old school, Mr. T was always the top write-in candidate.
The First Lady of Song was born in Virginia in 1917. Fitzgerald’s family moved to Yonkers just outside New York City, where her mother died in 1932, after which she was abused by her stepfather. She worked for a spell as a lookout at a bordello and with a numbers runner for the Mafia before being sent to an orphanage in the Bronx. After running away from reform school, she found herself homeless.
At the age of seventeen Ella Fitzgerald began singing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Soon she moved onto Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom with Chick Webb’s band. Fitzgerald’s 1938 recording of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”–which sounds cloying sung by everyone else I’ve heard, she seems to be the only one who had the right casual lightness–was her first hit. When Chick Webb passed away in 1939, she became the new bandleader.
In 1942, she went solo, signing with Decca Records. Developing upon her work with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, she began her signature improvisational scat-singing. As she once explained, “I just tried to do what I heard the horns in the band doing.”
In 1956, her manager Norman Granz established a new label for her–Verve Records. Her first project there was the legendary Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook. She continued with the composer songbook albums–eight in all–and when she got to the Duke Ellington Songbook, Ellington accompanied her.
Ella Fitzgerald passed away in 1996. Just a few hours after her death, the Playboy Jazz Festival opened at the Hollywood Bowl. The marquee read: “Ella We Will Miss You.” And we do.