Nella Larsen's 'Quicksand': Untangling the Webs of Exoticism

By Silverman, Debra B. | African American Review, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview

Nella Larsen's 'Quicksand': Untangling the Webs of Exoticism


Silverman, Debra B., African American Review


In 1925, when Josephine Baker went to Paris to perform in the Revenue Negre, she drew attention for her comic faces and the ways in which she could move her body. Baker's biographer Phyllis Rose writes, "Every part of her seemed to go in a different direction, flung from some central volcano of spirit. She made faces and flailed about. She shook her year end, then drew it in and strutted in place. The radiance of her personality and her joy in life seemed to express themselves in her body" (4). The female body is frequently figured as text--the uncontrolled body that flails around is frequently sexualized. That the body described by these lines is a black body adds yet another dimension to this already problematic figuring of the body. Josephine Baker's body has become, for her audiences, the personification of the exotic primitive.(1) When the managers of the Theatre de Champs-Elysees, where the Revue Negre was to be performed, first saw the performance that the dancers and musicians from Harlem had brought to Paris, they were reportedly "in despair." To remedy the situation they brought in an outside producer to spice up the show. Jacques Charles "agreed that the show needed something. It was noisy and inelegant, and worst of all it wasn't black enough" (Rose 5).

The "blackening" of the Revue Negre was a move to domesticate and homogenize the black American performers in the show--to create "authentic" blackness as already figured in stereotypes of blackness. It can be read as a move to sensationalize and dramatize blackness--the move to personify and embody stereotypical performances of blackness for the pleasure of an audience. Black performers needed to be blacker. By this definition, blackness was constructed as the exotic, coming from the jungle. No performer has signified this move more than Josephine Baker, whose famous banana dance had its origins in Paris. Originally called the "Danse Sauvage," Baker's trademark topless dance came from this move to "authenticity." Rose reports, "For this piece of authenticity Josephine Baker and her male partner were dressed in Charles's notion of African costume--bare skin and feathers" (6). Baker, the female exotic, was to dance topless, and "the Revue Negre excited its audiences by reminding them of a world that was both mysterious and sexually available, alien, yet subject." Rose quotes a review of the show which states," |As for reality, we like it exotic'" (23).

Baker's "Danse Sauvage" situates the theoretical points of intervention I want to make into the discussion of black female sexuality and the ways it is always already figured as exotic. The move toward authenticity in the construction of the jungle discussed above is illuminating in its attention to specific already circulating notions of what constituted and still constitutes "blackness." This complex relationship between female bodies and notions of black "authenticity" is a tangled web. As a critique of authenticity, James Clifford, examining New York's 1984 Museum of Modern Art show entitled" |Primitivism' in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern," asserts that if there had been different stories told in the exhibition, then they might have been stories of race instead of art. What was constructed for the show, however, was a story of art which neatly situated "high" and "low" art by juxtaposing the "tribal" with the "modern." Under this umbrella, Clifford writes, "modernism is thus presented as a search for |informing principles' that transcend culture, politics, and history.... the tribal is modern and the modern more richly, more diversely human" (191). By presenting the show in this manner, in the drive for "humanness," other questions are shut out. What the show's configuration does not permit are questions of history, race, and politics. Instead the exhibit is presented as a non-problematic desire on the part of the West to collect the world--the notion that tribal arts did not in any way exist as arts before they were discovered by modernist painters, specifically Picasso (Clifford 1%). …

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