Dancer, singer, actress, activist and spy: Josephine Baker took both the stage and lectern by storm, as beautifully and boldly conceived in Catel and Bocquet’s graphic novel. But when it comes to her queer relationships they’re decidedly silent, writes our reviewer Gabriela Frost.
Josephine Baker: dancer, singer, actress, activist, spy. Rarely does a name conjure so many lives. In the common imaginary, she emerges as a lithe young figure, goofy-eyed and naked all but for her virtually eponymous banana skirt. With her bum stuck out, her fingers shaped into tiny pistols, she flashes the smile of a woman whose very being is performance, one which would surely win the hearts of any willing audience.
It is nonetheless an uncomfortable image to the contemporary eye. As a black, female, avant-garde artiste, Baker was in a position of at least triple marginalisation when it came to forging her career. Her iconic banana skirt sits uneasily with a contemporary awareness of the racist dehumanisation of black performers, so prevalent in the fashion for ‘primitivism’ during the first half of the 20th century. Her partial nudity seems a nod to the still damagingly pervasive trope of the highly sexualised, exotic and mysterious black woman. Forbidden fruit, strange fruit – a blurry line between desire and contempt which characterised the lives and careers of so many early twentieth-century black performers.
This is no doubt a valid concern as we approach Josephine in representation. However, we would greatly underestimate Baker if we were to paint her as a passive victim of circumstance. It is useful then that the format of Catel Muller and José-Louis Bocquet’s Josephine Baker (SelfMadeHero) as a graphic novel encourages us to consider her own voice (rather than that of an explicitly third-person teller) amongst the throng of challenges which this period presents. In the novel, her speech is admittedly contrived, over-simplified, underwhelming; but it is an attempt at least to return some of the power to Josephine herself.
Josephine Baker illustrates the life of the Paris cabaret star who was the exception to every rule ever imposed on her. A child who would not be still at her mother’s command (“Tumpie! Quit wriggling around like that!”), a chorus girl who could not be confined by the regiment of the chorus line. But also a woman whose wisdom and determination burst the seams of US racial segregation, whose rise to the heights of stardom in France and indeed worldwide (she was the first black actor to star in an international movie) directly challenged the institutionalised racism of her home nation. Catel and Bocquet take us on a journey through the many lives of Josephine and the many worlds through which she passed, all of which were irreversibly changed by her presence.
As a child, Baker bore witness to the East St Louis Massacres of 1917. This eager, hopeful, talented young girl was physically and psychologically abused by the white woman to whom she was a maid. Resolute in her purpose, she later determined to show the world the unnatural order of racial, cultural and religious prejudice by adopting 12 orphans from all different ethnic backgrounds and raising them together as a family. She served the French resistance during the second world war, travelling to Morocco and smuggling information written on sheet music in invisible ink to aid the allied forces. In 1963, Baker stood in front of her biggest crowd yet: beneath the Lincoln memorial, she spoke of civil rights, freedoms, equality and education – just moments before Martin Luther King Jr came forth before that same crowd to deliver his earth-shattering mantra: I have a dream. We can perhaps forgive the writers of Josephine Baker for some shortcomings in attempting to relay the story of such a prolific life.
Catel and Bocquet’s stylistic approach is highly effective. The novel is punctuated by frames of Josephine lifted almost directly from iconic photographs. We meet the ‘queen of Berlin’ Josephine: bright eyes dazzling under a single slick kiss-curl. A later encounter brings us to Lieutenant Baker of the Free French Air Force – her thin, wise brows appearing from below her military side-cap, her uniform immaculate. Both these and more evoke now famous images of Baker. What is so clever is the way in which they are woven inconspicuously into the story. By parroting these photos as just a few of many consecutive frames, Catel and Bocquet reinstate these frozen moments, so easily lost to the museum of iconic immortality, into the story of a life. And through the evolution of a life, Catel and Bocquet also catalogue the history of a face. Drawn performing her final show Josephine at the Bobino Theatre in Paris, Baker’s kind, crescent eyes and plump critter-like cheeks are really no different to those of the first few pages: Tumpie, Baker in her first incarnation, the little girl from St Louis Missouri, with a love for show.
What’s more, the authors have made a conscious effort to re-immerse the reader in the zeitgeist of the Jazz age. As Josephine moves deeper into the heart of the European avant-garde cabaret scene, there is a noticeable shift in style in the full-page frames which Catel and Bocquet use to signpost her progression. No longer merely background, they increasingly evoke the dynamism of 20th century futurism, the convulsive energy of German expressionism, and the bold contrast of fauvism.
Josephine Baker leaves us in no doubt as to the fact that this particular path to stardom was testament to an extraordinary level of courage and self-belief. The level of biographical detail in the graphic novel is astounding. We follow Josephine’s ascension through the chorus line, and the development of her unmistakeable, embodied dance. The playful gestures which animate her as a child become integral to her art. As the goofy dancer at the end of the row – not an entirely unprecedented figure in the black vaudeville tradition, which often included one deliberately comical dancer at the end who ‘didn’t know’ the steps – Josephine won the hearts of the masses, laying her path to headline act and beyond.
However, Catel and Bocquet’s significant efforts to pull together such a comprehensive study on Baker inevitably come back to haunt them. The approach raises questions. In the very least, we are led to ask: with so much cataloguing of Baker’s life, how is it possible that the novel makes no reference to her bisexuality?
Catel and Bocquet give an often excessive blow-by-blow of Josephine’s male sexual partners, but fail to mention her relationships with women. This can only be a deliberate exclusion, given the depth of research which must have gone into the graphic novel. Only once is her bisexuality alluded to.
On one full-page panel, a crowded Berlin cabaret: the stage is Josephine’s, and so it seems is the crowd. Below her, the lively audience crams into the frame. Women spill out of men’s laps, waiters hold their trays well clear of the precarious torrent of dancing couples, whose carefree abandon is marked by their smiling embraces. Six separate speech bubbles squeeze in across the page and evoke the excitable babble of the hall. The crowd speculates on Josephine:
They say she can make love while dancing…her lovers love it!
They also say she takes both male and female lovers.
Over the page, we switch out the ebullient masses for the more intimate surroundings of a private afterparty. Here, while the men talk about (but not to) Baker, Josephine can be seen in the background, curled up closely with Ruth Landshoff on the sofa. In the following panels, they form a sensual backdrop to the men’s conversation. Huddled with their heads rested together, their hands reach out to touch one another, landing here on a lap, there a thigh, a stomach, a breast. This scene was taken from an account in the diary of Count Kessler who was present at the time, and who described ‘Miss Baker and Miss Landshoff, who were embracing like a pair of beautiful young lovers.’
Turn the page once again, and the entire notion of Baker’s bisexuality vanishes just as quickly as it came. This fleeting instance betrays a superficiality to the book. Catel and Bocquet attempted to include too much in their graphic novel, and subsequently rendered their efforts redundant by failing to include enough. The same haste which pushes them to fill Josephine’s speech with awkward lines such as ‘I like it here because I haven’t suffered from racial prejudice’ (when describing her love for France) undermine their evident appreciation for the complexities of her life, and result in a telling which is at best uncomfortably naïve, and at worst deliberately misinformed.
Catel and Bocquet’s Josephine Baker is a triumph of research but struggles to achieve the unenviable goal of doing Baker justice. The individual biographies and additional notes at the end of the text are a wonderful resource. The scope of the text is impressive. But somehow Baker’s voice gets lost in Catel and Bocquet’s haste. Use this novel as an overview, an introduction. But do not be fooled into thinking that La Baker might be pinned down so easily.
Catel and Bocquet’s graphic novel Josephine Baker is published by SelfMadeHero and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now. See Catel Muller’s work here. Follow SelfMadeHero on Twitter @SelfMadeHero
This review was commissioned under our current theme, Night / Shift
For Night / Shift, we at Lucy Writers want to close our eyes to the rituals of the day and open them wide to the possibilities, sites, moves, sounds and forms visible only by night. Using Leonora Carrington’s work (see image above) as an entrance into this broad theme, we welcome writing – reviews, features, essays, creative non-fiction, (flash) fiction, poetry – and art work that explores night and its multiple shifts, liberating and otherwise, for womxn in particular.
Is night, as Carrington suggests, a feminine and feminist zone in itself, one which subverts daily codifications and rethinks day’s conditions? Or is night – also known as Nyx in Greek mythology, the maternal goddess of death, darkness, strife and sleep – still a period of discord, a stretch of time that threatens as much as it frees? For more information, see our Submissions & Contact page.