Josephine Baker

In Black History month, we are highlighting Josephine Baker, one of the stars of our Cabaret & Carnival exhibit. The sensational African-American dancer was one of the most spectacular cabaret performers of the Art Deco era.

Josephine stepped on to the stage at La Revue Nègre in Paris at the age of 19 wearing just a feathered skirt. Her uninhibited danse sauvage was sensual, joyful and controversial and made her a star overnight. In her celebrated Banana Dance at the Follies Bergère she wore little more than a string of pearls and a skirt made of swinging rubber bananas. Off stage, Miss Baker was equally sensational.  To show that people from different cultures could live together, she adopted 12 multinational children and called them her Rainbow Tribe. She was renowned also for her exotic pets, including a cheetah named Chiquita, which inspired a Royal Doulton figure by Alan Maslankowski.

Josephine Baker was born in the slums of St. Louis in 1906 and grew up in racially segregated Missouri. She started dancing on the streets for nickels and dimes before running away because of racial discrimination.  She was one of the first black artists to perform in front of an integrated audience and the first African American woman to star in a movie, Zouzou in 1934.  Although she renounced her US citizenship in 1937, she later became deeply involved in the American Civil Rights movement. Her activism began during the Second World War when she smuggled messages in her sheet music for the French resistance. She received the Croix du Guerre and when she died in 1975, Baker was the first American woman to be buried in France with full military honors.

Known variously the Bronze Venus, the Black Pearl and the Creole Goddess, Josephine’s erotic dancing made her the muse for contemporary artists and authors. During her lifetime, she had a Lenci doll fashioned in her image and European porcelain houses, such as Rosenthal, Wallendorf and Boch Freres Keramis made porcelain figurines, which we would love to have at WMODA. Posthumously, Miss Baker has inspired Sally Tuffin at the Dennis Chinaworks to design a stunning collection of vases and plaques, and some of the rare trial designs are on display in our Carnival & Cabaret exhibition.

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Carnival & Cabaret