The Great Gathering in Paris

And the Ghosts of International Conferences Past

Juliette Harris

Official Black Portraiture(s) Conference photo. Donn Thompson of DracInc ©2013Official Black Portraiture(s) Conference photo. Donn Thompson of DracInc ©2013Writers, photographers, scholars, artists, curators and filmmakers converged in Paris, January 17-20, 2013, for the Black Portraiture[s]: The Black Body in the West conference.  They dissected the image of that dark and often violated but resilient body at sessions on art, fashion, personal style and popular culture.  In addition to the large U.S. contingent, participants and attendees were from all over the world, including Tunisia and Canada, Angola and Denmark, South Africa and Spain.

Official Black Portraiture(s) Conference photo. Donn Thompson of DracInc ©2013In this age of distance, virtual communications, the conference was an opportunity for the artists and scholars of the African Diaspora to personally connect, network and push the boundaries of visual culture studies.  They discussed themes such as “The Rise of Global Black Dandyism,”  “Exoticism and Ambiguity,” and “Black Erotics: New Theories on Race And Porn."

Official Black Portraiture(s) Conference photo. Donn Thompson of DracInc ©2013With 500 pre-registered visitors and competitive same day registration numbers, conference participation surpassed initial expectations. “Prospective audience members patiently and passionately waited in lines for hours,” reported the conveners. A few days after the 2013 conference, presenter Robert O’Meally was still feeling the fervor.  “It was a very exciting gathering of the tribe of scholars invested in African American art,” he exclaimed.  “The crowds were over-flowing and hundreds of people were turned away.  It was like a rock concert!” 

Group at 1956 Congress of Negro-African Artists and Writers in Paris. The first such international conference, the Congress of Negro-African Writers and Artists held September 19-22, 1956 in Paris, also drew enormous, enthusiastic crowds.  “People choked the entrances and covered the wooden steps,” wrote James Baldwin, covering the congress for an article in Encounter magazine that was later published as a chapter in the book, Nobody Knows My Name.  The huge task of convening this assembly of delegates from Africa, Europe, the U.S. and the Caribbean had been principally undertaken by the Senegalese, Paris-based scholar and publisher of Africaine Presence, Alioune Diop.  And that effort had taken 15 years. 

This time around, the monumental operations of organizing the African Diaspora wide conference was shared by faculty and staff at four well-resourced institutions — Harvard University, New York University and Cornell, in association with the Studio Museum in Harlem; and, in Paris, the Musée du quai Branly, L’École des hautes études en sciences sociales and NYU Paris.  

The principal U.S. organizers included Deborah Willis (NYU), Manthia Diarwara (NYU), Henry Louis Gates (Harvard) and Cheryl Finley (Cornell).

Henry Louis Gates’ experience organizing international conferences began in 1993-94 when he was a co-convener of A Visual Arts Encounter: African Americans and Europe, a three-day conference of African American artists and arts professionals held in February 1994 in Paris.  (A note on that conference is at the end of this article.)

It’s not hard to imagine the ghosts of the 1956 conference, Diop, Aime Cesaire and Leopold Senghor and others, reassembling to protectively hover over the plenary session of the 2013 conference.   One can almost hear these progenitors of Negritude cheering to see that their great fear had not come to pass — that imperial forces in the West had not destroyed their peoples’ ability to create “living” cultures from within. But in wrestling with the question of how much cultural assimilation was advantageous and how much was destructive, the 1956 conferees had not come to any general conclusion.  Their faint cheering from the rafters of Portraiture(s) gave way to occasional dismay as they learned that the “cultural crisis” they decried so many years ago, in some ways, continued.  This crisis of formerly enslaved and colonized black people being dominated by the powerful technologies of the West underscored some of the discussion at the 2013 conference.  The planners had asked questions such as “Why and how does the black body become a purchasable global marketplace and what are its legacies?”  

Covering Black Portraiture(s) for this journal, Paris gallery owner Laurence Choko noted tension in the hall between Parisian intelligentsia prone to downplay the devastating impact of slavery and colonialism and those who opposed this revisionist tendency.  However she said that French anthropologist Jean-Paul Colleyn and the French institutions co-sponsoring the conference with the U.S. institutions “signaled a change in the supremacy of French academic culture vis-à-vis cultural minorities.”  She was referring to the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences and the Institute of Developmental Research.  Despite French institutional support for the conference and some gains in black representation in government, the black population in France "is largely invisible, silent and its demands remain unheard," she said. (Her full report is posted below.)

Official Black Portraiture(s) Conference photo. Donn Thompson of DracInc ©2013James Baldwin reported a similar tension occurring after the keynote speech presented by Alioune Diop  at the 1956 conference.  Pointing out that for centuries European wellbeing depended on the subjugation of Africa, he called for black people to define and access the values of their own cultures and, from that position of strength, to open a dialogue with Europe.  Although Diop’s speech was applauded, Baldwin sensed that the black people in the hall thought that Diop should have been more stringent and specific about European domination and its tragic consequences.  Whereas, Baldwin noted, the whites attendees were relieved by Diop’s  even-handed approach.  “And indeed the atmosphere was strange,” Baldwin wrote.  “No one, black or white, seemed quite to believe what was happening and everyone was tense with the question of which direction the conference would take.”

Official Black Portraiture(s) Conference photo. Donn Thompson of DracInc ©2013At first the spirits of Negritude at Black Portraiture(s) were unfamiliar with the concept of the black “body” as an objectified location for critical investigation.  But they came from social science as well as humanities backgrounds, so some were familiar with French vanguard anthropological theory that fed into the conception of the black body as a “site.”   As they grasped connections between old and newer cultural theory, the ghostly host recalled that Claude Levi-Strauss, the architect of structuralism, had attended their 1956 conference, and they were pleased to note that some Black Portraiture(s) panels were held in the Théâtre Claude Lévi-Strauss at at the musée du quai Branly.

Official Black Portraiture(s) Conference photo. Donn Thompson of DracInc ©2013Diop, Cesaire, Senghor had wrestled mightily with the thorny question of assimilation — where and how to draw the line between a stifling black separatism and a stifling acculturation to dominant Western sensibilities and styles.  Now from their haunt above the 2013 conference, they saw how playful, parodic and complicated this question had become as they observed the panel on “ Nikki Minaj, Rihanna And Other (Mis)readings Of Pleasure, Feminine Artifice, Black-Caribbean-American Diasporic Performances In Popular Visual Culture.”

Official Black Portraiture(s) Conference photo. Donn Thompson of DracInc ©2013These often lone black representatives of the “race” in French academies and political assemblies, Diop, Cesaire and Senghor were refined in manner and cautious in approach while blazing in revolutionary intellect.   James Baldwin decribed Diop as having the “extreme sobriety of an old-time Baptist minister.”   

From their perch high above the amplitheatres at the Black Portraiture(s) conference, the ghostly assembly had a lot of catching up to do.  As they did, they applauded the meticulous analysis applied to the strange and wonderful topics of the 2013 conference. Conference poster

The full conference schedule of panels and participants is here.

Official Black Portraiture(s) Conference photo. Donn Thompson of DracInc ©2013Presenters Marie-Celeste Bernier, Robert O'Meally, Michelle Wilkinson and Carla Williams and Paris gallery owner  Laurence Choko filed the following reports for IRAAA+

Show Up to Show Out: The Rise of Global Black Dandyism Panel

Welcome program (r-l): Jean Paul Colleyn, Ulrich Baer, Awam Amkpa, Lydie Diakhaté. Photo: Laurence ChokoIn January 2013, scholars and artists from across the African Diaspora descended upon Paris, France, for “Black Portraiture[s]: The Black Body in the West.” The three days of conferencing were filled with heavy content, illuminating images, and gripping conversations that covered everything from representations of the enslaved black body to the style, swagger, and sartorial imagination of 21st century subjects.  A panel titled “Show Up to Show Out: The Rise of Global Black Dandyism,” chaired by Shantrelle P. Lewis, consulting curator for the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, honed in on historic and contemporary examples of dandy dress—a style borrowing formal elements from Victorian-era attire in Britain, often updated with a modern flair.

Attendees at l’Ecole supérieure des Beaux Arts. Photo: Laurence ChokoPanel moderator Michelle Joan Wilkinson introduced the theme of global dandies as a hot topic in current popular culture, citing references from contexts as varied as a Surinamese tourist magazine and the Wall Street Journal.

Welcome program (r-l): Jean Paul Colleyn, Jean Pierre Dozon, Jean François Chevrie.Monica Miller, author of Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling Black Diasporic Identity, expertly led off the paper presentations with her historical recounting of the dandy figure. Miller locates the first black dandies as the elegantly outfitted “luxury slaves” who were promenaded in public in 18th century Britain as a sign of the slave owner’s wealth. Miller has tracked the dandy figure to its appearance in works by contemporary artist Yinka Shonibare, whose photographic series Diary of a Victorian Dandy and Dorian Gray engage the image.

Welcome program (r-l): Manthia Diawara, Lilan Thuram. Photo: Laurence ChokoShantrelle Lewis’ paper, “Sartorial Shenanigans: The Global Black Dandy and Fashionable Manifestations of Eshu,” noted the “trickster” aspect of dandy performance, perhaps best glimpsed in the stylish “Sapeurs” of the Republic of the Congo whose elaborate suits and expensive clothing show out in vivid contrast to the humble abodes that shelter them.

Audience on first day at l’Ecole supérieure des Beaux Arts. Photo: Laurence ChokoPhotographer and New York University graduate student Allison Janae Hamilton presented “Mythic Beings: Black Women and the Aesthetics of Resistance in Art and Culture” which explored the significance of attire for the DuBoisian set as way to contextualize the specific sartorial charades of Harlem Renaissance-era blues performer Gladys Bentley. Bentley had a penchant for men’s fashion, and she is captured in photographs from the era dressed accordingly.

First day conference site: l’Ecole supérieure des Beaux Arts. Photo: Laurence ChokoThe final presenter, London-based artist Michael McMillan, introduced sub-genres of global dandyism popularized by West Indian immigrants to Britain in the mid-20th-century. McMillan called attention to the “Yardie Cardie”—a  style of cardigan preferred by the transplanted, so-called, “yard boys” from Jamaica. 

Presenting fashion as porous and transportable, the panelists also suggested that dandyism cannot, and should not, serve as a catch-all term for any elegantly attired man or woman. Instead, “Show Up to Show Out” staked a claim for the meanings made through attire. As Hamilton quoted philosopher Alain Locke’s sanction of the full embrace of modernism by black artists in The New Negro: “Negro thoughts now wear the uniform of the age.” With the rise of black dandies in our contemporary moment, Locke’s pronouncement suggests that this round of cross-fertilization in thinking and dressing is a hallmark of global sampling well-known to black creativity.

Memory & Nostalgia panel, (r-l), Jean-Claude Colleyn, Cheryl Finley, Pamela Newkirk,  Céleste Marie Bernier, Roshini Kempadoo, Renée Mussai.Michelle Joan Wilkinson, Ph.D., is  the director of collections and exhibitions at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture in Baltimore. 

What Does it Mean to be Cool?, Sweet Swagger: Exploring Representations Of Black Style, Beauty And Grace Panel

Memory & Nostagia panel (r-l): Céleste Marie Bernier, Cheryl Finley. Photo: Laurence ChokoMy talk on “What Does it Mean to be Cool? A few Jazz Examples” considered the complex uses of the word cool in the world of jazz, where perhaps the slang term (now universal lingua-franca) originated. Drawing on work by Robert Farris Thompson and Farah Jasmine Griffin, I discussed Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday as exemplars of coolness.

Memory & Nostalgia panel (r-l): Brendan Wattenberg, Cheryl Finley. Photo: Laurence ChokoWhat is the sound of the cool? What are the key African-American precedents for coolness? What are some of its motives/motifs? What are the ethical implications of cool aesthetics? How do these various cool elements translate into the broad world of black visuality—not just in the U.S. but in the Diaspora?

Attendees at the Quai Branly conference’s room. Photo: Laurence ChokoRobert O’Meally, Ph.D., is Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and founder and former director of the university’s Center for Jazz Studies.

Show Up to Show Out panel.   Photo:  Laylah Amatullah Barrayn.

Black Erotics: New Theories on Race and Porn Panel

Black Bodies:Live & Uncensored panel (r-l): photographer Daniele Tamagni, artist Carrie Mae Weems. Photo: Laurence Choko.The panel “Black Erotics: New Theories on Race and Porn” took place at the Museé du Quai Branly on the final presentation day of the landmark conference Black Portraiture[s]: The Black Body in the West.   Chaired by Dr. Nicole Fleetwood from Rutgers University, “Black Erotics” featured papers by Mireille Miller-Young from the University of California, Santa Barbara; Jennifer Christine Nash from George Washington University; Jafari Allen from Yale University; and Carla Williams from Rochester Institute of Technology. Presented in the Salle de Cinéma, the session was well-attended, full but not overflowing. Although the panel began late, each of the presenters stuck to the prescribed twelve minutes allotted for each presentation.

Black Bodies: Live & Uncensored panel (r-l): artist Jean – Ulrick Désert, Isolde Brielmaier. Photo: Laurence ChokoFollowing Fleetwood’s introductory remarks, my paper, “Getting [It] In: The Nude/Naked Black Body in the Domestic Space,” opened the session. This presentation focused on the way in which the constructed intimacy of the black domestic interior creates a pornographic context in the work of contemporary black women artists Deana Lawson, Mickalene Thomas, and LaToya Ruby Frazier. The nudity and sexuality within their work draws, in part, on an aesthetic of the domestic interior derived from 1970s pornography and Blaxploitation films, and prevalent on contemporary black amateur porn sites such as, on which photographs of nude black women and videos of black couples engaging in intercourse are presented squarely within “real” domestic spaces (TVs blaring in the background, stained carpets, mismatched bed linens, etc.), constructing a particularly voyeuristic space in which the black body, particularly the black female body,  is viewed. I explored the realm of the domestic space, both real and constructed, and how its specific intimacy conflates those bodies depicted with sexuality and, in some instances, implied violence. The presentation of this private space by black artists produces a new interpretation of the line between private and public and what crossing that lines means.

From right to left: photographer Daniele Tamagni, Isolde Brielmaier.Both Mireille Miller-Young and Jennifer Christine Nash’s papers focused on black female porn performers from the 1970s and 1980s and what they respectively term the “illicit eroticism” and “race-pleasure” within their work. Both scholars explore the possibility of these black women performers taking on sexualized racial stereotypes as a form of power and means of exploring desire. In this way, each scholar’s work advanced the discussion around race and pornography to foreground the choices—however complicated—of the worker/performer. The title of Miller-Young’s paper, “Confessions of a Black Feminist Academic Pornographer,” was a reference to Sander Gilman’s reflection on being labeled thus regarding his writing about the black female body, especially Saartjie Baartman.  Miller-Young has been called the term herself because of her groundbreaking work writing about and, through lecturing and publication, re-presenting images of black women and pornography. This notion that the display of pornographic images makes one a pornographer is one that attaches to work done around any controversial imagery. As she writes:

I find myself considering Sander Gilman’s embrace of the pejorative title “pornographer,” and his move to “confess” his investment and belief in the work of uncovering a field of vision that, even though perhaps traumatic, is, in essence, a complex iconography of race that we simply must look at and engage in order to understand its enduring power in our lives and on behalf of those in the image.

Sweet Swagger panel: Sandra Jackson- Dumont, Robert, O’Meally, Ekua Abudu, Mimi Plange.  Photo: Laurence Choko Miller-Young’s paper focused on black sexual labor and on the women who performed that labor such as Jeannie Pepper, who “‘…just wanted to show the world. Look, I’m black and I’m beautiful.’”  Rather than performance clips, Miller-Young showed a photo shoot that Pepper did in 1986 in which she posed nude on the streets of Paris. “Jeannie Pepper shows us how black women sex workers sometimes mobilize what I term illicit eroticism to advance themselves in the sexual economy, ” Miller-Young writes. She further elucidates the difficulty of having this discussion of black female sexuality, a problem that plagues this entire discipline and its attendant censorship: “Black women sexual performers and workers have had to confront a prevailing stigma: if all black women are considered to be sexually deviant, then those who use sex to make a living are the greatest threat to any form of respectable black womanhood.”

Jennifer Christine Nash’s paper “Race-Pleasure on the Pornographic Screen” focused on Sexworld, a 1978 “Golden Age”  porn film starring black actress Desiree West as Jill and Jill’s sexual encounter with the white male character Roger. Also using stills, Nash illustrated the subtle cues that West gives to the audience that indicate her awareness of—and complicity in—a conscious performance of race. “Roger and Jill’s sexual encounter…reveals that blackness, even stereotypical blackness, can become a vocabulary for black female pornographic protagonists to “speak sex,”” Nash writes. Like Miller-Young, she theorizes the black performer/worker’s negotiation of desire through her willingness to perform racialized and sexualized stereotypes. Jafari Allen’s “Re-framing the Favela: ‘Pornblography’ and Diasporic Circuits of Black Gay Desire” looked at self-presentations by young, black males on gay-oriented websites and their performances of gay male desire seem through the lenses of race and class. Interestingly, many in the audience seemed to be taking note of the site names that Allen referenced, an audible acknowledgement of the way in which the consumers of these images, especially in the anonymity of the Internet, is broadly defined. Like Miller-Young’s discussion of labor, Allen foregrounds the significant economic issues that inform these relationships between the young men from the “favela,” or slum, selling both an image of sexuality and roughneck poverty and their actual bodies (which may or may not be gay and poor but are definitely racialized) and the monied tourists who consume them.


Sweet Swagger Panel (r-l): Robert O’Meally, Deborah Willis, Sandra Jackson- Dumont, Mimi Plange, Ekua Abudu, Michaela Angela Davis, Catherine Mckinley. Photo: Laurence Choko.As Nash writes, “I seek to push against a body of scholarship which has imagined race exclusively as a wound (and visual culture as a spectacularization of that wound, and pornographic visual culture as an eroticization of that wound).” Ultimately each of these panel presenters opened up the discussion around “racialized pornography,” advancing it beyond the rhetoric of the wounded to investigate more complex and nuanced intentions and experiences on the part of all of the performers/models and by extension, a broader audience than is generally acknowledged for this material. Miller-Young acknowledges that:

Universalizing the Black Body panel, (r-l): Jeffrey Rabhan, Jason King, Tracy Sharpley-whiting, Sam Pollard Lewis Watts, Vera Grant. Photo: Laurence Choko.…the process of making black sexuality visible necessarily invokes a collective racial trauma. It is in this collective racial trauma that we find ourselves groping for a language to talk about our own pleasure and for a set of practices for living within and against all the contemporary forms of exploitation, alienation, and objectification that make up life under advanced capitalism and sexualized racism.

Universalizing the Black Body ((r-l): Tracy Sharpley-Whiting, Ed Guerrero, Sam Pollard, Lewis Watts, Vera Grant. Photo: Laurence Choko.Though there were plentiful gasps of recognition at the images shown as well as comfortable laughs at some of the more absurd references and dialogue, and although there was adequate time left for questions from the audience, we received none. Frankly, the audience seemed to be in shock. By that point in the weekend most attendees had heard a lot of talking and may simply have been too overwhelmed to formulate specific questions; however, it did make me wonder if, in fact, the subject matter had something to do with it, that there persists an unease in talking about pornography because even in this company, to talk about it is to, perhaps, acknowledge one’s self as an academic pornographer, and we are not there yet to have each of us comfortably assume—and subvert—that moniker.

Carla Williams is assistant professor and MFA program coordinator, photographic arts & sciences at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

 Memory & Nostalgia: Archive in the Black Body panel

Karl Goetz (1875-1950) was a German metal maker. Photo: Laurence ChokoDeborah Willis’ groundbreaking conference, “Black Portraiture[s]: The Black Body in the West,” was held in Paris in January 2013 to enormous critical and popular acclaim. An international event debating a breath-taking array of transatlantic developments in black visual cultures over the decades and even the centuries, a multitude of speakers spoke on diverse forms, time periods and geographical milieux.

Official Black Portraiture(s) Conference photo.   Photo: Donn Thompson of DracInc ©2013Coming to grips with divergent traditions of African American and Black diasporic music, paintings, photography, murals, sculpture, digital, mixed-media and performance art among much much more, the conference traced reimagings and reimaginings of black bodies across a range of fine and popular art forms in addition to a number of institutional contexts.

Official Black Portraiture(s) Conference photo. Donn Thompson of DracInc ©2013Attracting lively and richly interrogative conversations, this inspirational event was attended by scholars, journalists, artists, fashion designers, curators, performers, and museum directors working within the United States, Europe and across the Black Diaspora.

Official Black Portraiture(s) Conference photo. Donn Thompson of DracInc ©2013On the second day, one of the opening sessions,“Memory and Nostalgia: The Archive in the Black Body,” was chaired by Cheryl Finley (Cornell University) who began the discussion by introducing fundamental issues related to the politics and poetics of representation as she addressed key questions regarding the process by which scholars and artists are able to make political and critical “interventions” into white mainstream archives.

Audience at Black Erotics panel. Photo: Carla WilliamsThis session consisted of five speakers debating the archive as a site and sight of black resistance, reimaging and revisionism.  In her groundbreaking and powerful paper, “Ota Benga in the Archive,” Pamela Newkirk (New York University) introduced her listeners to unpublished archival materials in order to trace the life and death of Congolese born, Ota Benga, whose body and soul was objectified, appropriated and commodified as he was exhibited for entertainment and display to 19th-century white mainstream US audiences.

Working with original materials, she critiqued the widespread reluctance to shed any light upon his acts and arts of resistance as she instead broke new ground by tracing that which she theorized as his “iron will” as “etched” into these otherwise neglected and misrepresented documents. Debating key issues related to black spectacularization and commodification, Newkirk emphasized the intellectual and political importance of recuperating Benga’s radical resistance that has otherwise been invisibilized out of mainstream accounts. 

Delivering a no less stimulating and compelling paper, Roshini Kempadoo (University of East London) gave a talk titled, “Imagining Her(story): Memory and Portraiture in Postcolonial Archives,” in which she not only theorized her examination of a Trinidadian photographic archive tracing a 100 year period (1850-1950) but also shed light upon her powerful interventions into this array of images not only as a scholar but as an artist.

Coming to grips with that which she identified as the “contiguous archive,” Kempadoo interrogated temporal, geographical and psychological boundaries in order to contest white mainstream “hierarchies of representation” at the same time that  she recuperated and revisiblized the lives of black subjects otherwise relegated to the backdrop of which dominated genre scenes and portraits.

She concluded by providing a thought-provoking and inspiring account of her construction of her mixed-media photographic series, Amendments (2007) in which she radically resisted white British imperialist forms of black representation by carving out an alternative space within which to trace a black diasporic “performative imagination.”

Celeste-Marie Bernier (University of Nottingham) spoke on “Imaging Slavery: Representing and Remembering the Black Body in Contemporary African American and Black British Portraiture.” She debated the politics and poetics of failure as a necessary critical tool by which to visualize against the grain regarding the politicized aesthetics and aestheticized politics at work within African American and black British paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture and mixed-medial college proliferating over the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st  centuries as she mapped black acts and arts of resistance in the face of white racist contexts of production and perception.

Brendan Wattenberg (Walther Collection Project Space, New York) delivered a fascinating talk titled, “Performing the Archive: The Black Body and the Borrowed Image” in which he debated hard-hitting issues related to the spectacularization and criminalization of black bodies vis-à-vis white racist constructions of national identity, security, racial surveillance and border policing, particularly as they are examined in the recent bodies of works produced by contemporary Cameroon born artists, Barthélémy Toguo and Samuel Fosso and Benin Born artist, Georges Adéagbo.

Renée Mussai (Autograph ABP, London) concluded the session by delivering a paper titled, “Portraiture and Desire” in which she foregrounded the aesthetic and political importance of the black diasporic archive as a locus of radical intervention and aesthetic resistance and as ideally placed to disrupt and destabiliz nationally, culturally and racially inflected power hierarchies.

Representing an unprecedented moment in African American and African Diasporic art histories in Europe, Deborah Willis’s conference was nothing less than a tour de force.

Celeste-Marie Bernier. Ph.D., is professor of African American Studies, University of Nottingham and Senior Visiting Research Fellow, University of Oxford, UK.

Conference Overview & Status of Minorities in France

Since 2004 the thematic of the representation of the black body in the Western world has inspired four academic meetings: “Bridging the Gap,” Here and Now,” Beauty and Fashion” and “Venus.”  Organized by Harvard and New York Universities, these events took place in centers of knowledge and research such as the W.E.B. Dubois Institute for African and African-American Research and the Tisch School. The richness and success of these conferences was due to the pertinence of this thought provoking theme, which allowed the competent academics, curators and researchers involved, to bring together the best contemporary intellectual and artistic talents. Theirs projects were supported by well-known sponsors and partners.

From the 17th to the 20th of January 2013 the fifth of these conferences, Black Portraiture(s), the Representation of the Black Body in the West, took place in three symbolic Parisian spaces: the National School of Fine Arts, the Quai Branly Museum and Diderot University.  Of indisputable importance on the international scene, highly influential in the Western world as much on artistic issues as on notions of modernity, Paris proved to be an ideal setting.

Given the large number of participants, from the very beginning the American organizers of the conference underlined the historical dimension of this symposium, since it brought together an international black community engaged in a collective reflection Laurence Choko, director, Intemporel art gallery, Paris

The beginning of this meeting honored Parisian academics and researchers belonging to the following institutions: The Center for African Studies, the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences and the Institute of Developmental Research.  Their engagement and collaboration in this type of event signaled a change in the supremacy of French academic culture vis-à-vis cultural minorities.

However during the interventions of some panelists it was not always easy to establish in a clear and objective manner the history of the political relations between France and the black world without resorting to clichés, guilt and the denial of discrimination and the consequences of the slave trade.  Without the neutrality and ethical stand of the anthropologist Jean-Paul Colleyn, which allowed him to retrace the history of discrimination in Europe from its origins to the present, the evident tensions between the Parisian intelligentsia and those who opposed this revisionist tendency would have increased.  In effect, the revisionist mindset of certain arguments provoked distinct reactions in the members of the two Diasporas.  The Anglophone group expressed its disapproval and criticism by dialectical means, granting their antagonist no opportunity to hide behind irrational arguments but rather attempting to treat the phenomenon of Negritude as an experience which must be studied and evaluated, while taking into account the weight of racial discrimination.

Black Portraiture, the Representation of the Black Body in the West was an event that underlined the problematic of the presence of the black population of France.  Even though the laws of the French republic do not allow ethnic tallies, in 2010 the number of blacks was estimated at between three and five million.  Addressing the black electorate during his presidential campaign, François Hollande described it as invisible.  It is important to note that for the first time in France three Afro-Caribbean ministers are part of the present government.  Despite these facts, the black population in France is largely invisible, silent and its demands remain unheard.  The power of departmental and neo-colonialist politics hampers this minority. Despite the cultural, political and linguistic differences that distinguish the two African Diasporas, the historical relations of Africa and the West, since the slave trade, have permitted them to construct a collective imaginary.

Laurence Choko is director of Intemporel Fine Arts gallery, Paris.

Sweet Swagger panel (l-r): Sandra Jackson-Dumont, Deborah Willis, Robert, O’Meally , Mimi Plange, Ekua Abudu, Michaela Angela Davis, Catherine Mckinley, Katell Pouliquen, Anna Arabindan-Kesson. Photo: Laurence Choko.

 From Cesaire to Glissant

Robert  O’Meally’s talk for the Sweet Swagger panel  at the Black Portraitures conference was informed by Édouard Glissant (1928 – 2011), the Martinican writer,  poet and literary critic.   O’Meally said Glissant was inspired by jazz to conceive of the self as jazz like in its multiplicity of rhythms, processes and perspectives. To explain this idea and its connection to humanity’s well-being, O’Meally quoted Glissant: 

…One consents not to be a single being and attempts to be many beings at the same time. [This] is the passage from unity to multiplicity…. [One] consents to the idea that it is possible to be one and multiple at the same time; that you can be yourself and the Other; that you can be the Same and the Different.  When that battle is won, a great many accidents in human history will be abolished.

Glissant had been inspired by fellow Martinican poet and educator Aime Cesaire (who also mentored Franz Fanon).  At the 1956 Congress of Negro-African Artists and Writers, Cesaire bemoaned a cultural crises of black communities and nations not being able to defend against the powerful technologies of the West.   “Any political and social regime which destroys the self-determination of a people also destroys the creative power of that people, he asserted.  But what about the blues?  As the blues and other African American vernacular expression show, the creative spirit can defiantly rally in the face of oppression to create powerful new art forms.

Glissant eventually perceived cracks in Cesaire’s Negritude.  Instead, he advanced a theory of multiple forces from various sources interacting to create and energize a creolized culture.  Others thinkers such as Richard A. Long found Negritude to be a solid philosophical platform from which to launch brilliant and very socially productive careers.

Richard Long (right) and James Baldwin. Photo: Susan Ross

Long Reach of Negritude, Baldwin, Richard Long & Choko
Richard Long and Laurence Choko at Intemporel Fine Arts, Paris. Photo: Choko collection

On February 9, 2013, just two weeks before the opening of Black Portraiture(s), Richard A. Long, took his last breath.  We like to think that he joined the illustrious band of ancestors with whom he was associated, including the progenitors of Negritude.

 Born in Philadelphia on February 9, 1927, Richard Long made his first of many trips to Paris in 1950, during his summer study at Oxford University.  He studied at the Sorbonne in Paris in summer 1954 before receiving a Fullbright Scholarship to study at the University of Paris during 1957-58.   He completed doctoral study at the University of Poiters in medieval literature in 1965.

In the 1950s, Long traveled to Paris from his base in Baltimore where he directed the Morgan State University humanities program.  Long’s interest in Haitian and African art was sparked in 1955 during his first trip to Haiti.  In 1956 he organized an exhibition of Haitian art at Morgan.

 The Negritude spirit was advanced in Haiti by Jean Price-Mars (1876-1969), a physician and Haitian ambassador to France who affirmed the values of Voudun and spurned the racist hauteur of the elite Haitian assimilados.   Price-Mars was the presiding elder at the 1956 Congress of Negro-African Writers and Artists in Paris.  

 Long spent most of his summers in Paris, beginning in 1966.   His closest African American friend there was the painter Beauford Delaney and it may have been through Delaney that Long met James Baldwin who also was a close friend of Delaney.  

 In 1966, Long attended first World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal.  A follow-up to the 1956 Congress of Negro-African Writers and Artists, the festival at Dakar was organized by Alioune Diop and Leopold Senghor, and participants included Aime Cesaire, and the French minister of culture Andre Malraux. In addition to Long, American participants included Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes.

 As the founding generation of Negritude passed off the scene, their intellectual impetus informed Long’s life and work.  He continued the mission of convening national and international festivals and symposia, and it is an amazing record.  Between the late 1960s and the late 1980s, Long organized the triennial Symposia on Traditional African Art at Hampton Institute, Harvard and Columbia universities, the National Museum of African Art (twice), and the High Museum in Atlanta.    

He also organized the New World Festivals of the African Diaspora in Brazil (twice), Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Surinam and Barbadoes. He was on a planning committee for the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture help in Lagos, Nigeria in 1978, and in 1987, with Nanette and Romare Bearden, Long organizing the Festival Under the Sun on the island of St. Martin.   

Because he ardently loved the arts and history, was concerned about the ignorance and distain of African cultures, had boundless energy and was a skilled communicator, what else could Richard Long do but use his first class, world class education to organize to the limit on behalf of African Diasporic culture and also become, as he was hailed by a Mallorca newspaper, a “world scholar.”  He accomplished all of this while maintaining a full teaching load at Morgan, Hampton, Atlanta and Emory universities.   His final position was as Atticus Haygood Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Emory.

Richard Long continued to travel to his beloved Paris at least once a year and always dropped by Laurence Choko's gallery. 

Laurence Choko was born in Martinique. Her parents immigrated to France in the mid-1960s and she grew up in hearing about Cesaire and the other great theorists of Negritude.  She earned a master’s in art history in Nanterre University in France and in 1988 opened the Intemporel Fine Arts gallery in Paris. Now she is a living link in that great chain of African Diaspora intellectuals that includes the cultural historian Richard A. Long.


Richard Long and friends at Intemporel Fine Arts, Paris.  Photo: Choko collectionA few days after covering the Black Portraiture(s) conference, Laurence Choko reflected on her friendship with Richard Long:

On a very beautiful spring morning of 2006, Richard Long pushed open the door of my gallery in Paris.  When we shook hands, it was as we had already met in some other place.  Richard had a look in his eyes that betrayed both the long experience of a lifetime and the boundless energy of someone who sets out each day to discover the world.  Our first exchanges were not limited to the banality of the usual introductions for his presence clearly showed the posture of a great humanist and the sincere engagement of someone for whom the knowledge of different cultures was essential for the conduct of a worthy life.  Very quickly a wholehearted friendship developed between us, leading to collaboration on common projects, one of which is still in progress and that I hope to bring to fruition as homage to his fervid devotion to African American art.  The promotion of the art of the African diaspora was one of Richard’s constant preoccupations, and Paris an important focus of its influence.  Richard loved Paris, the streets that he had roamed in the sixties, its museums, the culture of French gastronomy and its wines.  His gift for communication allowed him to generously create warm bonds between people.

The first time I heard of Richard Long was in the United States (it goes without saying in an artistic context) thanks to one of his former students Anthony Barthelemy, professor of literature at the University of Miami, who had strongly urged me to meet Richard.  From the United States all the way to Europe there is always a brilliant academic, art historian, artist or museum director who has been a student of Dr. Long.  They all say that Dr. Long taught them not only a particular discipline but how to live.

Those who have never met him nor heard of his great contribution to the appreciation of the African American cultural heritage and that of the African diaspora can still recognize the breadth of his achievement by studying the lines of his biography.  I am grateful for the legacy that he has left us, but what I will miss most is his friendship.   

Laurence Choko, January 2013

Two of Richard Long's many students who have gone on to accomplished careers are art historian and museum curator Michelle Wilkinson who participated in the Black Portraiture(s) conference and contributed a report to this article and art historian Richard J. Powell who remembers his mentor in an article in the Spring 2013 print issue of IRAAA. 

Official conference photo. Donn Thompson of DracInc ©2013Official Black Portraiture(s) Conference photo. Donn Thompson of DracInc ©20131994 Conference− The Romance and the Other Side of the Romance  

“Paris, an internationally key and highly influential Western space in all things concerning the arts and modernity, is the perfect stage for Black Portraiture(s)….” 

And so began the 2013 conference announcement.

 Yes, the Paris of Picasso rummaging through dusty curiosity shops for African artifacts.  The Paris of Jo Baker and Bricktop, Nancy Cunard and her black lover Henry Crowder, Richard Wright,  Sidney Bechet, Dexter Gordon and such.  The liminal Paris for  numerous early to mid-20th century African American visual artists during the formative stages of their career — Augusta Savage, Lois Mailou Jones, Hale Woodruff and many more.  The black expatriate Paris epitomized in the 1961 film, The Paris Blues, starring Sidney Poitier and Diahamn Carroll. The black experience in Paris is legendary, and the contemporary experience, diverse — Dee Dee Bridgewater’s long club stands to Diddy showing out at major fashion houses' shows of new collections.

The black romantic legend of Europe is long and extends to Amsterdam and Copenhagen, the two other points on the black continental axis.

The other side of the black European love affair was pointed out at the A Visual Arts Encounter: African Americans and Europe conference held in 1994 in Paris.

Maria Diedrich  of the Collegium of African American Research commented on the tendency of African Americans to romanticize the European experience.  She said that Africans were being attacked in some European cities and blacks are usually the street sweepers. The Collegium is an international scholarly forum for African American and black studies.

Today, the racial climate in European cities is divergent; for example, rank-and-file, African descended people seem more assimilated in Amsterdam than in London.  And what a place for an arts party!  

The Visual Arts Encounter: African Americans and Europe conference addressed topics such as “African American artists and Negritude in Europe,” “Breaking Away from European Hegemony: The Black Atlantic Tradition,” and the European experiences of William H. Johnson and Jean Michel Basquiat.

 Participants included art historians Richard Powell, Karen Dalton and Robert Farris Thomspon, curator Thelma Golden;  archivist Randall Burkett; and artists Sam Gilliam, Faith Ringgold, Lorna Simpson, Howardena Pindell, John Scott, Herbert Gentry, Carrie Mae Weems, Raymond Saunders (a co-organizer), Barbara Chase Riboud, and Carrie Mae Weems (who also participated in Black Portraiture(s). Addendees included art dealers Peg Alston (NYC), Alitash Kebede (Los Angeles), Eugene Foney (Houston), Aaronetta Pierce (San Antonio), and art consultant Madeline Raab (Chicago).

A Visual Arts Encounter: African Americans and Europe was organized by staff at the Center for Afro-American Studies at the Sorbonne Nouvelle; the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on North Americans, University of Paris; W.E.B. DuBois Institute, Harvard University; the Center for the Study of Southern Culture; the Contemporary Transatlantic Arts Program, California College of Arts and Crafts; and the Collegium for African American Research.