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A Paris Exhibition Of Black Artists Unearths Unknown Treasures

Nov 24, 2016
Originally published on November 24, 2016 6:49 am
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There was a time when some African-Americans, frustrated by segregation in the United States, found greater freedom in France. Times have changed, but there is this connection, a resonance, between France and black Americans. And now, Paris is the location of a new exhibit of the works of black American artists, like Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden and Faith Ringgold. When you hear about their work in this story, what you're really hearing are some lessons in American history. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: When curator Daniel Soutif set out to put together an exhibit of the works of black American artists, he realized he needed to provide context. The French, he says, are not familiar with the history of things like Jim Crow segregation that shaped African-American art.

DANIEL SOUTIF: Jim Crow laws doesn't mean anything for a French person. So I have the idea that this show, to really work well, would need this part, you know, this documentation.

BEARDSLEY: The Color Line, as the exhibit at the Quai Branly Museum is called, offers some 600 original works and documents relating not only to art, but to cinema, literature, photography and music. Richard Powell is an art historian at Duke University. He consulted with Soutif on the exhibit.

RICHARD POWELL: This exhibition is amazing. It does something kind of simple and at the same time something quite remarkable by providing a history lesson through African-American art.

BEARDSLEY: Powell says the exhibit has also brought to light new works. He was astounded by a collection of watercolors and drawings found in a rural museum in eastern France. They were creations of artist Albert Alexander Smith, who was also a soldier in World War I.

POWELL: He was documenting, as a black soldier, the life of his fellow soldiers. I had no idea these pieces existed until Daniel said, Rick, guess what I found?

BEARDSLEY: Author Linda Hervieux spent five years researching her book, "Forgotten," about a black American division on D-Day. Hervieux thought she knew everything about African-American soldiers in the two world wars until she came to this exhibit. She points to a film showing the Harlem Hell Fighters playing on a wall. The World War I black regiment had a reputation for being ferocious in the trenches and were said to have introduced jazz to France.

LINDA HERVIEUX: And they played it. It said "La Marseillaise" - the French national anthem - for the first time in the Tuileries to a jazz beat, astounding the French who heard it who had never heard such a thing. Here we're seeing the Hell Fighters on a boat playing their instruments in full army dress, and we see them arriving back in New York City here. I'm just - I've never seen this footage. This is extraordinary.

BEARDSLEY: Parisian Gilles Moullic is poring over the paintings and rich historic details of the exhibit. He says many French people today have a deformed image of the lives of black Americans.

GILLES MOULLIC: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "All we hear about is Trump and the murder of young black men," says Moullic, "and this exhibit shows the tragedy, but also the fantastic human adventure of the African-American experience." Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.