Review of Negrophilia (Petrine Archer-Straw)
By Gregory Harrisonhttp://www.petrinearcher.com/negrophilia-reviews?q=node/146
Thames and Hudson (Interplay), 2000
Perhaps the best example of the literary world's response to Negrophilia, Petrine Archer-Straw's new book from Thames & Hudson, is reviewer Patrick Skene Catling saying the book was one of his three favourites for 2000. And earlier this year, the Times Literary Supplement called Negrophilia "a fascinating book on an important work."
The book was launched in Jamaica at Redbones Blues Cafe in Kingston after successful reviews in London, Paris and New York. The Spectator of London called it "...an elegant, eloquent and profusely illustrated book." And Art Monthly said Negrophilia is "A grand, compelling and comprehensive narrative."
Archer-Straw is a British born Jamaican, who for the past four years has lived in Kingston, where much of her final research and writing took place. While thankful for accolades abroad, she believes it is equally important for her to get a Caribbean response. Originally her doctoral thesis, the book grew out of research into the art historical subject of Primitivism that deals with modern artists' use of African art. Archer-Straw says it had not occurred to her to turn her research into a book until a few years ago when began noticing a worldwide craze for black culture.
Negrophilia grew out of her studies in art history because of an interest in what modern artists called "primitivism" in the 1920's. Negrophilia describes the attraction for black people that became a craze for artists and bohemian types in 1920s Paris. It was a sign of being modern and highly fashionable to collect black art, listen to black music and dance with black people. In the same way that today, aspects of black culture like hip hop, reggae, gangster rap, locks and afro hairstyles proliferate music television and fashion magazines, in the 1920s the craze was for dances such as the charleston, lindy hop and black bottom, Bakerfix hair paste, and the wearing of African inspired accessories. This passion for black culture and a more 'primitive' existence flourished in the aftermath of the First World War when artists yearned for a simpler idyllic lifestyle to counter modern life's mechanistic violence.
"I realized that in the intimate world of blacks and whites little changes, and that Negrophilia's concerns could be applied to many historical time frames," says Archer-Straw. "Often, my assessment of historical relationships offered a useful guide for understanding contemporary issues and I found a way to glide between past and present in a way that was frightening, but thought provoking. "
Negrophilia looks at the period after the First World War, when Africans and African Americans went to Europe to work and better their lives. They had an immediate impact on white European society. In Paris, avant-garde artists tested the limits of their tolerance in their engagement with black personalities such as Josephine Baker, Henry Crowder, and Langston Hughes for their sense of style, vitality, and "otherness."
Leger, Picasso, Brancusi, Man Ray, Giacometti, Sonia Delaunay, and others enthusiastically collected African sculptures and wore tribal jewelry and clothes. They freely adopted black forms in their work, and their style soon influenced a larger audience anxious to be in vogue. A passion for black culture swept through Paris, and by the end of the 1920s, black forms that had provided the initial spark to the modernist vision had become the commercially successful Art Deco style.
Negrophilia, from the French negrophilie (the contemporary term to describe the craze) examines this commingling of black and white cultures in jazz-age Paris. Painting, sculpture, photography, popular music, dance, theater, literature, journalism, furniture design, fashion, and advertising--all are scrutinized to show how blackforms were appropriated, adapted, and popularized by white artists. The photographs, writings, and memorabilia of poet Guillaume Apollinaire, art collectors Paul Guillaume and Albert Barnes, shipping heiress and publisher Nancy Cunard, and Surrealists Michel Leiris and Georges Bataille help to recreate the contemporary atmosphere.
The book raises questions about the avant-garde's motives, and suggests reasons and meaning for its interest. It's valuable reading for those interested in following the rise and fall of black popular culture in the past century.