Josephine Baker, free and committed

The exhibition “Josephine Baker, Life of Obligations”, which takes place in Toulouse at the Administrative Museum of Resistance and Deportation until October 29, allows you to discover all aspects of the artist and the fiancée, entering the Pantheon last November. .

Josephine Baker in French Air Force uniform, 1948 / Studio Harcourt

Before entering the Pantheon on November 30, 2021, the memory of Josephine Baker was confined to the memory of many Frenchmen such as the music hall artist, singer, dancer and showman. She had the advantage of revealing the other faces of Frieda Josephine MacDonald, born in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri. The exhibition “Josephine Baker, Life of Obligations”, initiated by the Haute-Garonne Provincial Council, extends this discovery or rediscovery.

Divided into three themes (“Josephine Baker, Free Artist”, “Woman Combatant”, “Josephine’s Legacy”), the exhibition brings together audio-visual archives, lithographs, paintings, sculptures, posters, photographs, clothing (including a magnificent theater outfit), and correspondence (no Sima with General de Gaulle), often conveying documents that recall the unique existence of this free woman, completely rooted in her time.

Regional Museum of Resistance and Deportation © Lucas Laberenne

Barely a teenager, married twice, Josephine Baker (her stage name), who had been singing and dancing since childhood, went to Broadway at age 19, then to Europe with the band Revue Nègre she became her star. In Paris, a young black woman of mixed descent (Hispanic, African-American, and Indian-American) took to the stage at Follis Berger with a banana belt (a version of which is on display in Toulouse) destined to become famous. With the song “La Danse sauvage,” Charleston danced through the savannah and to the sound of drums. Josephine Baker also performs topless. It is called “black flower” or “ebony venus”. By assuming and transforming the colonial and racial clichés of her time, she would paradoxically transform her into instruments of liberation in her life as a woman, artist, and in the field of acting. The weirdness, the eroticism, the stereotypes about the “good savage” having a beat in their skin, the discovery of the “Negro art”: very well, Josephine Baker seems to say, but you also have to accept a rich, free and independent woman who drives limousines…

Josephine Baker wearing her banana belt (photo by Wallery, circa 1926).

Both inspiring and inspiring the artists of her time (including Le Corbusier and The Cubists) and the famous star, this 1920s icon imposed her hairstyle—short square, sleek bob and sleek back—as signature. In the aftermath, audiences discover jazz and black music. sing (I have two love), shoots movies and performs shows. In 1937, she married the young mediator Jean Leon and obtained French citizenship, but it was the Second World War that brought the woman, already engaged in the fight against anti-Semitism, to another dimension.

Because Josephine Baker’s immediate commitment to the war effort and then to La France Libre was not just a simple “propaganda” tool. She provides support, puts her image in the service of Free France, but also turns into an intelligence agent and officer of the Free French Air Force. “France is what made me what I am, for which I will always be grateful. France is kind, it is good that we live there for us of color, because there are no racial prejudices. Have I not become my darling of Parisians? They gave me everything, especially their hearts. You gave them to me.” I am ready, Captain, to give them my life today.” In September 1939, I wrote to an intelligence officer, “You may dispose of me as you wish.”

Josephine Baker in 1940, Harcourt Photography Studio

Another turning point: in 1947, Josephine Baker married Jo Bouillon at the Château de Milland in Dordogne. Soon the spouses opened their field and attractions to the public: “Les Milandes, the village of the world, the capital of the brotherhood.” In 1954, the artist decided to start a family and his own “rainbow tribe”. From Japan to Finland via Colombia or Ivory Coast, the couple will adopt twelve children of all origins and religions. Additionally, during her stay in her home country, Josephine Baker fought for civil rights, met Martin Luther King, and delivered her message of harmony and the fight against all forms of racism around the world.

Melandes Garden | © Rosemary Phillips

The end of its existence is even bleaker: financial problems and expulsion from the Château des Milandes despite the always victorious performances it will give to its last breath. A few days after the release of the series “Joséphine à Bobino” that celebrated her fiftieth anniversary in March 1975, she died on April 12 at the age of 68, the victim of a stroke. In 2022, in a time of “wokism”, the withdrawal of identity to the lowest common denominator, and the exacerbation of differences; Josephine Baker’s patriotism, her love for France, cosmopolitanism, and the struggle without exception against all forms of discrimination are seen as models.

Christian Uther


Regional Museum of Resistance and Deportation 52 allée des Demoiselles 31400 Toulouse Tel. 05.34.33.17.40; http://musee-resistance.haute-garonne.fr. free entry. Open Tuesday through Saturday from 10am to 6pm. Note that several conferences and activities will accompany the exhibition in the coming weeks.


County Museum of Resistance and Deportation

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