Thursday, January 22, 2015

Romare Bearden's Paris Odyssey - The Exhibition

Two weeks ago, I wrote about a Paris Soirée presentation that Professor Bob O'Meally gave about the Paris Odyssey exhibition that opened this Monday at Columbia Global Centers at Reid Hall. Though I listened with rapt attention and was entirely captivated by his talk, I was not prepared for the breadth, depth, and richness of this show.

Circe
Romare Bearden
1977 Collage of various papers with foil, paint, and graphite on fiberboard
Image courtesy of Professor Robert O'Meally


The opening reception, held on Monday, January 19th, was very well attended.

Professor O'Meally, Columbia University president Lee Bollinger, and Columbia Global Centers Europe director Paul LeClerc launched the exhibit with powerful and thoughtful words, followed by musicians who "called forth the spirits" in a room packed with visitors and flanked by tables laden with hors d'oeuvres, sandwiches, champagne, and soft drinks.

Robert O'Meally (left), Lee Bollinger (top right), Paul LeClerc (bottom right)
© Discover Paris!

Musicians at opening reception
© Discover Paris!

Guests at opening reception
© Discover Paris!


The Grande Salle at Reid Hall is hung with scrolls of luminous white paper, against which play the vibrant colors and shapes of reproductions of works from Romare Bearden's Black Odyssey.

La Grande Salle
© Discover Paris!


Labels and panels are presented in English and French, which is important since Professor O'Meally stressed during his opening remarks that the majority of French people had never heard of Romare Bearden prior to learning about this show.

The official name of the exhibition is Paris Odyssey: Romare Bearden, Henri Matisse, and Homer.

It has two themes that make it both local and global in scope: Homer's epic poems - The Odyssey and The Iliad - and jazz.

Matisse was the most important source of artistic influence on Bearden and both men created works inspired by these themes. Reproductions from Matisse's book Jazz (1947) and several of his Odyssean drawings (1935) are displayed with reproductions of Bearden's Paris Jazz series (ca. 1980), his Iliad drawings (1946), and his Odyssey collages (1977).

The Clown
Henri Matisse
1947 Reproduction of the pochoir for Jazz
© Discover Paris!

Ellington, Bill Strayhorn (Sacré Coeur)
Romare Bearden
ca. 1980 Reproduction of collage
© Discover Paris!


Six framed, original silkscreens of Bearden's most captivating Odyssean collages are the highlight of the show. They are located in an enclosed area at the rear of the room. The Sirens' Song is my personal favorite!

Silkscreens
© Discover Paris!

The Sirens' Song
Romare Bearden
1977 collage (above); 1979 silkscreen (below)
Collage by Discover Paris!


A video in one corner of the room reveals how the exhibition literally touches the life of each and every Columbia University undergraduate (all are required to read The Odyssey and The Iliad), reaches up through the ranks of Columbia's faculty as professors are challenged to reflect upon and present scholarly interpretations of the exhibition's works, and draws upon Bearden's passion for music as inspiration for his art.

Romare Bearden in Harlem
© Discover Paris!


One of the things that Professor O'Meally encourages visitors to note is that Bearden chose to make all of the subjects in his collages, from the Greek deities to Odysseus himself, black. He believes that Bearden wanted people of African descent to see themselves in Homer's tales and wanted non-black viewers to see themselves in these black characters as well.

In the final paragraph of the introduction to the catalog for the show, Professor O'Meally states:

Maybe above all Bearden's point here is that we are all one global family, saints and sinners, all a collage of a human race living in a shape-shifting world. That we could only realize this global kinship and the mighty sense of responsibility it brings: this seems to be the over-riding message of these bright blue pieced-together pictures.

Paris Odyssey: Romare Bearden, Henri Matisse, and Homer will run until February 22, 2015 and will be open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at

Columbia Global Centers | Europe
4 rue de Chevreuse
75006 Paris

You don't want to miss this!

Banner for Paris Odyssey - Reid Hall
© Discover Paris!

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Black Paris Profiles™ II: Benny Luke (1939-2013)

When I first met Benny Luke at Haynes Restaurant in the early 1990s, I didn’t know he was a celebrity. He waited tables with a smile and was always friendly, if a little reserved. I didn’t go to Haynes frequently, so our paths did not cross much.

I don’t remember how I discovered that this man was THE Benny Luke of La Cage aux Folles fame. I only saw the first movie of the trilogy and did so many years before I arrived in Paris, so I did not make the connection. When I finally learned who he was, I became curious about his life in Paris. But many more years would pass before I developed a professional interest in black Paris and came to understand just what a treasure Benny was – both personally and historically.

Photo of Benny as Jacob in La Cage aux Folles
© Discover Paris!

Benny succumbed to prostate cancer on January 13, 2013 after a long fight against the disease. His long-time partner, Frederic Michel, and many friends cared for him during his last months. He was honored by the U. S. Embassy in France with a reception held at the George Marshall Center, Hôtel de Tallyrand, on February 13, 2014.

Thanks to an interview conducted by Shelley Bradford-Bell and video recorded by Joanne and David Burke, Benny's story has been recorded for posterity. A large slice of 20th-century black Paris – the part that you don’t read about in books and articles – was recorded with it.

The video was shown at the Hôtel de Talleyrand reception. Having viewed it privately, I am pleased to pay tribute to him by sharing a few key elements of his life in Paris.

Benny first came to Paris to audition for a post at the Lido – the famous cabaret on the Champs Elysées – in the early 1960s. The club was in search of black dancers and Victor Lipshaw, an up-and-coming Los Angeles choreographer, asked him if he’d like to try out. Benny was successful in landing a one-year contract and danced in two shows a night during that time. His last performance ended at 2 a.m. and he would go to Michou, another cabaret, where female impersonators provided the entertainment. He would retire at 6 a.m., sleep all day, and repeat the process.

At the end of his contract, he went back to the U. S., determined to return to Paris as quickly as possible. After several months of working in northern California and saving every penny he could manage, he bought a one-way ticket to Paris and never looked back. Though he would return to visit his mother in the States, he would never live there again.

Benny Luke interview
© Discover Paris!

Benny took dance classes in Paris and was invited to perform in the first dance festival held at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées. He then went to work at the Folies Bergère, which he found to be quite different from the experience he had at the Lido. For one thing, he was paid much less per night (42 French francs versus 60 francs a night at the Lido). For another, he said that the shows were “like a factory,” with roughly 50 costume changes a night.

One other black dancer performed with Benny at the Folies Bergère - Bernard Hassell, the man who became James Baldwin’s dear friend and secretary.

Benny danced at the Folies Bergère for several years. Conditions there were so draconian that the dancers eventually occupied the theater to demand better pay and working conditions. He and Hassell recognized that they were “apart” from the other dancers, given that they were not French and had a different work status.  Unsuccessful in getting a raise, Benny quit the job.

This was during the mid- to late 60s, and Benny lived on rue Monsieur le Prince in the 6th arrondissement (the same street that Richard Wright and his family lived on for eleven years) at the time. Baldwin and Hassell would visit him there. Baldwin invited Benny to go to the south of France and Benny became part of the Baldwin entourage. Benny met artist Beauford Delaney on this trip and remained Beauford’s friend when the group returned to Paris.

Old Friends collage at Embassy reception
© Discover Paris!

Benny performed the role of Jacob, the domestic servant of protagonists Renato and Albin, in the play La Cage aux Folles at the Théâtre du Palais Royal for five years beginning in 1973. Film rights to the play were negotiated in 1974-75 and he was once again cast in the role of Jacob. The movie was shot in Rome and released in 1978.

As the La Cage aux Folles film trilogy unfolded, Benny landed smaller and smaller parts in the successive films. He continued to portray Jacob on stage, playing the role at the Théâtre Royal du Parc in Brussels and touring with the play in France before finally abandoning the part.

Benny met Josephine Baker while he worked at the Folies Bergère in the mid 1960s. He thought she was old but found her to be sweet and nice. When Josephine mounted her comeback show, Joséphine, in Monte Carlo, Benny was asked to join the dance line-up. He accepted and performed with Josephine during the show’s run. Josephine selected him and one other dancer to walk her down the steep flight of stairs that was part of one of the acts of the show – he was always proud to say that she told him she chose him because she knew he wouldn’t let her fall.

When Joséphine came to the Bobino Theater in Paris, Benny was not able to perform with the troupe because of his commitment to La Cage aux Folles. He did see the show, however.

Shortly after Josephine’s performance run opened, she died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Benny saw the incredible outpouring of humanity for her funeral at La Madeleine church, saying that people filled the rue Royale in front of the church all the way to Place de la Concorde.

Benny worked at all three African-American restaurants in Paris that were in operation during the 1990s and 2000s – Haynes, Bojangles, and Percy’s Place. Maria Haynes invited him to work at Haynes Restaurant and he was a fixture there for several years.

It was at Haynes that Benny met Sharon Leslie Morgan, owner of Bojangles. He and Sharon conceived of the idea for a Gospel brunch called “Soul on Sunday” that they sponsored at Haynes for many months. It became so popular that they decided to find a new venue.  They ended up opening their own restaurant, Bojangles, in February 2001. A combination of circumstances forced the restaurant to close after only two years of existence.

Bojangles and Benny’s Bar/Bojangles collage at Embassy reception
© Discover Paris!

After Bojangles’ demise, Benny worked as a server at Percy’s Place in the 16th arrondissement. Percy’s Place closed in 2005.

Benny’s final place of employment in Paris once again planted him firmly into the world of dance. He worked at Rick Odums’ Centre International de Danse, a classical and jazz dance studio on the rue de Clichy in the 9th arrondissement.

Watch the video created at the Hôtel de Talleyrand reception held in Benny's honor HERE.

Benny Luke military honors collage at Embassy reception
© Discover Paris!

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Thursday, January 8, 2015

Romare Bearden's Paris Odyssey - Prelude

When I wrote Patricia Laplante-Collins' Black Paris Profile, I referred to her as the "undisputed doyenne of the Paris salon scene."

Patricia once again proved that to be true on Sunday evening, January 4, 2015, when the guest speaker at her Paris Soirée presented a taste of what the Paris public can expect to experience at the Paris Odyssey art exposition that is being mounted at Columbia Global Centers in Reid Hall.

Paris Odyssey slide presentation
© Discover Paris!

Professor Robert O'Meally is Columbia University’s Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English and Comparative Literature. He conceived and curated Paris Odyssey, which is a modified version of the Smithsonian Institution's traveling exhibition Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey (also conceived and curated by O'Meally) that currently hangs at the Wallach Gallery on Columbia's New York campus. The show features Bearden's collages and watercolors based on Homer's epic poems, the Odyssey and the Iliad.

Professor Robert O'Meally
© Discover Paris!

Paris Odyssey is the first stop of a global tour that will include Istanbul, Johannesburg, and potentially, Beijing. In Paris, Bearden's work will be paired with that of Henri Matisse, the French master, who was one of Bearden's primary artistic influences. His Odyssey and Iliad series will hang side-by-side with Matisse's own Odyssean sketches.

Also to be shown is Bearden's "Paris Blues" series, which is based on his memories of his life in Paris during the 1950s and features themes from the 1961 film Paris Blues. Matisse's well-known Jazz collages will provide counterpoint to this set of Bearden's works.

Slide presenting a work from the "Paris Blues" series
© Discover Paris!

At Sunday's soirée, there was a full house in attendance.


Packed house
© Discover Paris!

As usual, Patricia introduced everyone before the presentation began.

Patricia makes an introduction
© Discover Paris!

Professor O’Meally then spoke of Bearden's upbringing, his passion for portraying strong women in his art, his love of jazz, and his relationship with legendary jazz greats, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. He discussed the nuances of Bearden's portrayals of scenes from Homer's Odyssey from an artistic and a cultural perspective that focused on Bearden's ability to pay tribute to those who inspired his art and still create works that were uniquely his.

Bob O'Meally presents Paris Odyssey
© Discover Paris!

Paris Odyssey opens at Reid Hall on January 19th. A symposium will be held on January 20th. You must sign up to attend.

See you there!

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Thursday, January 1, 2015

Celebrating Creole Cuisine – The Award Ceremony

HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL!!!

In September, I wrote a post about the Academy of Creole Culinary Art’s participation in the Fête de la Gastronomie, which included three days of celebration of Creole cuisine.

The academy falls under the aegis of l’Institut Le Monde Créole (Creole World Institute), whose mission is to promote and defend Creole culture around the world. The academy’s particular charge is to safeguard, promote, and defend Creole gastronomy.

Part of that mission was fulfilled when, on December 20, 2014, the Creole World Institute held its first award ceremony to celebrate the best of Creole cuisine in the Francophone world.

Trophées de l’Art Culinaire Créole award

The goal of the award ceremony, called Trophées de l’Art Cullinaire Créole (Trophies for Creole Culinary Art), is to highlight the contributions that Creole cuisine has made and continues to make to French cuisine. Several categories of awards have been created, including:

Trophée Entrepreneurs (Entrepreneur Trophy): for those who respect Creole culinary traditions and promote them through their preparation of traditional, modern, and innovative dishes

Trophée “avenir” (“Future” Trophy): for a young culinary professional who particularly distinguished himself or herself over the course of the last 1-2 years

Trophée d’Honneur (Trophy of Honor): for persons (whether culinary professionals or not) who demystify and passionately promote the recognition of Creole cuisine

Grand-Prix de l’Academie de l’Art Culinaire du Monde Créole (Grand Prize of the Culinary Art Academy of the Creole World): for a person selected by the Culinary Art Academy of the Creole World

Grand-prix d’Honneur de la l’Art Culinaire Créole (Grand Prize of Honor for Creole Culinary Art): for a person, institution, or geographical entity (city, region…) that has particular distinction in the domain of culinary culture.

Prix d’Excellence (Excellence Prize): for a person who has devoted his or her life to the defense, promotion, recognition, and dissemination of knowledge about Creole cuisine.

The ceremony took place at the Espace Reuilly in the 12th arrondissement. It was organized with the patronage and support of George Pau-Langevin, France’s Minister of Overseas Territories; the Department of Mayotte, which was recently named as a French territory; and Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, among others.

Ceremony attendees

Eleven prizes were awarded in front of a crowd of ~300 persons. The winners (see below) hail from Guadeloupe, Martinique, Mayotte, and Reunion Island. They conduct their professional activities in these locations, as well as in Monaco, Toulouse, and the Paris region.

Three of the laureates work in the Paris region:

Babette de Rozières, winner of the Grand Prize of Honor for Creole Culinary Art, operates a restaurant called La Case de Babette. It is located in Maule, a small town in the department of Les Yvelines.

Babette de Rozières
Grand Prize of Honor for Creole Culinary Art

Gustave Monpierre, winner of one of the four Trophies of Honor awarded, operates a restaurant called DouDou Kréyol. It is located in Alfortville. Monpierre and his restaurant were the winners of the Marmite d’Or, another gastronomic prize awarded to excellent African and Caribbean restaurants, in 2010 and 2012. DouDou Kréyol participated in the Fête de la Gastronomie in September.

Gustave Monpierre
Trophy of Honor

Marie-José Le Guen-Geoffoy, winner of a Trophy of Honor, serves as the head chef for France’s Ministry of Overseas Territories. She has been at the helm of the kitchen there for 14 years.

Marie-José Le Guen-Geoffoy (podium) - Trophy of Honor
Minister of Overseas Territories George Pau-Langevin (background)

*THE WINNERS
1) Trophée Entrepreneur - Cuisine Traditionnelle
*Eddy BIAS (Martinique)
Restaurant Le Pignon Nouvelle Vague
Anse à l'ane/Trois Ilets, Martinique

2) Trophée Entrepreneur - Cuisine Moderne
*Andjizi DAOUECHE (Mayotte)
Television show - Mayotte 1ère
Pamandzi, Mayotte

3) Trophée Entrepreneur - Cuisine Novatrice
*Jimmy BIBRAC (Guadeloupe)
Restaurant Aux Epices
Bouillante, Guadeloupe

4) Trophée "Avenir"
*Jean-Rony LERICHE (Guadeloupe)
Restaurant Le Riche des Saveurs
Toulouse, France

5) Trophée d'Honneur
*Christian ANTOU (La Réunion) -
Association GOUTANOU
Petite Ile, Ile de la Réunion

6) Trophée d'Honneur
*Gustave MONPIERRE (Guadeloupe)
Restaurant Doudou Kréyol
Alfortville (Paris region), France

7) Trophée d'Honneur
*Naomi MARTINO (Guadeloupe)
Artisan chocolatier
l'Ecrin du Chocolat
Baie Mahault, Guadeloupe

8) Trophée d'Honneur
*Marie-José LE GUEN-GEOFFOY
Chef de cuisine - Ministère des Outre-mer
Paris, France

9) Grand Prix de l'Art Culinaire Créole
*Marcel RAVIN (Martinique)
Chef of the kitchens at Blue Ray
Monte Carlo Bay, Monaco

10) Grand Prix d'Honneur de l'Art Culinaire Créole
*Babette de ROZIERES (Guadeloupe)
Restaurant la Case de Babette
Maule (Paris region), France

11) Prix d'Excellence
*Jean-Charles BREDAS (Martinique)
Maître-restaurateur
Le Bredas
St Joseph, Martinique

All photos courtesy of l'Académie de l'Art Culinaire du Monde Créole.

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