Wednesday, September 29, 2010

U.S. Embassy in Paris Gets an “A” for Community Outreach

No one can accuse the U.S. Embassy in Paris of being complacent about community outreach.

A recent article in the New York Times/International Herald Tribune highlights the activities of the Honorable Charles H. Rivkin, U.S. Ambassador to France and Monaco, in building relationships in Muslim communities in France. In the Paris region, many of these communities are found in suburbs, or banlieues, that have been denigrated in the press and virtually abandoned by French politicians for decades. Most of their inhabitants are from, or descended from, persons from North Africa or sub-Saharan (black) Africa.

On April 13, 2010, at the invitation of Ambassador Rivkin, Samuel L. Jackson visited the suburb of Bondy to speak with aspiring film students from a journalism school. Jackson was in France to open the 2nd Beaune International Detective Film Festival, where he was honored for his achievements during his long career in cinema. He responded to the Ambassador’s request to share his background and career path with the students, and to inspire them to believe that they too can succeed in their chosen fields. The Ambassador was at Jackson’s side during this brief but compelling encounter.

Samuel L. Jackson at a student encounter in Bondy
Photo by Joel Saget, Agence France Press/Getty Images

Samuel L. Jackson and attendees at student encounter
Photo courtesy of U.S. Embassy

Click here to see a clip of Jackson addressing the students.

According to the NY Times article, the U.S. government’s policy of actively engaging in outreach to Muslim communities around the world was instigated by the 9/11 attacks. The outreach in France was further bolstered after the 2005 riots that began in Seine-Saint-Denis, and spread rapidly to the rest of France. The U.S. has increased its efforts in this regard since President Obama has been in office. The Public Affairs Office currently has a $3 million budget to sponsor urban renewal projects, music festivals, and conferences, as well as to assist minority politicians with communications and electoral strategy.

Earlier in April, the Ambassador attended a preview performance of the Fats Waller musical Ain’t Misbehavin’. The show was produced by New Orleans director Troy Poplous, who brought several students from McDonogh 35 College Preparatory High School in New Orleans to perform with students from music conservatories and middle schools located in the Paris suburbs of La Courneuve and Aubervilliers in the department of Seine-Saint-Denis. Prior to the performance, the Ambassador met with high school students and young leaders of social organizations from three towns in this department, which borders Paris to the northeast. It was during this meeting that he promised to bring “une vedette” (a star) to meet them the next time he visited.

Ain’t Misbehavin’
April 2010
Photo courtesy of Banlieues Blues

Ambassador Rivkin and his staff get an “A+” in my book for supporting the efforts of my non-profit association Les Amis de Beauford Delaney to place a tombstone at the previously unmarked grave of one of the greatest abstract expressionist artists of the 20th century, Beauford Delaney. As well as reaching out to French communities, the Ambassador also considers it important to champion the American community in Paris. He wrote a wonderfully encouraging letter, which Les Amis used to promote its fundraising efforts. He also offered to host a reception in Delaney’s honor once the tombstone was in place.

The Honorable Charles H. Rivkin
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Embassy

The Public Affairs department of the Embassy and Les Amis de Beauford Delaney are co-sponsoring this reception to be held at the George C. Marshall Center in Paris’ 1st arrondissement on October 14, 2010.

Each month, our Paris Insights newsletter presents the hidden jewels that comprise the "real" Paris – the people and places that are the true heart and soul of the city. Click here to sign up for our newsletter announcements and to receive our free guide called "Practical Paris”!

Entrée to Black Paris!™ is a Discover Paris! blog.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Expo: The Lost Dogs' Orchestra - Barthélémy Toguo

Ever since I became involved in the saga of master painter and post-WWII expatriate Beauford Delaney, I have developed a heightened awareness and appreciation artists who happen to be from Africa or its Diaspora.  So you'll find that I may post frequently about art and / or artists on the Entrée to Black Paris™ blog.  There's a lot of noteworthy work being shown in Paris these days!

I had never heard of Barthélémy Toguo before a few weeks ago.  I saw an announcement about his current exposition – The Lost Dogs’ Orchestra – and was immediately intrigued by the images used to promote the show and the gallery where it was to be held.  A prestigious venue that is quite far from the “gallery district” of the Marais, the Galerie Lelong has a 23-year history of presenting the works of artists who are at the cutting edge of modern and contemporary art. 

Galerie Lelong – place de Narvik façade
© Discover Paris!

My husband Tom and I went to the Toguo vernissage (open house) last Thursday.  We arrived early so that we could look at his work without having to fight a crowd.  We had no idea what to expect, and found that this was a good thing!  The wide range of works – from aquarelles to photographs to collages to bronze statues (and more!) – was impressive.  Some of the works are whimsical, some soothing, and some disturbing.  The gallery’s one-page description of the show says that Toguo created a theater of sorts for this exhibit that allows the visitor to get a glimpse of his perception of the world.

Front room of gallery
© Discover Paris!

A plain, wooden coffin with hands holding globes protruding from its sides is the first thing that one sees upon entering the gallery space. The floor of the first room of the gallery is covered with flattened banana cartons from Côte d’Ivoire, Martinique, and Guadeloupe.

Plants in various states of health are placed around both rooms of the gallery. We learned that hundreds of lime green salamanders strategically placed on the walls of the large gallery space were part of a work of art. African brooms in one corner and a cauldron perched atop stones and coals comprised another.

Paintings and sculpture in back room of gallery
© Discover Paris!

African brooms and other works
© Discover Paris!

The more traditional works were no less fascinating.  I am partial to sculpture, and was intrigued to learn that the two bronzes on display were Toguo’s first attempts at working with this medium.  My favorite of the two (and of all the other paintings, photographs, etc. on display) was The Lover. Among the aquarelles, I particularly liked The Heavy Croix of the Bad Boy and Purification XXV.

The Lover
Barthélémy Toguo
2010; Bronze
© Discover Paris!

Several of Toguo's works present powerful political statements.  Two post-card collages, one from Auschwitz-Birkenau and one from Johannesburg, took my breath away.  During a trip to South Africa, Toguo distributed post cards, asked people to express thoughts, hopes, and dreams about their homeland, and then send the cards to him.  These cards form the collage.

Postcards from Head above Water - Johannesburg
© Discover Paris!

As for the Auschwitz-Birkenau collage, there was no one for Toguo to ask to send cards to him. So he took photos of the camps, stamped them so that they would look like post cards, and used these images for his collage. These works are but two of a series entitled Head above Water.  Other works from the series were realized as a result of trips that Toguo took to Kosovo, Hiroshima, Lagos… .

Three life-sized photos of Toguo posing as contemporary African rulers are entitled “Stupid African President.” Both the title of these works and the poses assumed by Toguo in them are a forceful indication of the artist’s sentiments about the state of the African world today.

Stupid African President triptych (2006)
Planet’s Destiny (2008)
© Discover Paris!

Barthélémy Toguo is from M'Balmayo, Cameroon.  He studied at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire; at the École Supérieure d'Arts in Grenoble; and at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, Germany. His previous solo expositions in Paris were held at the Palais de Tokyo (The Sick Opera) in 2004 and the Musée de l’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (Migrateurs) in 1999. Toguo lives and works between Bandjoun, Cameroon; New York; and Paris. He is currently represented by Galerie Lelong.

All Barthélémy Toguo artworks are copyrighted by the artist and Galerie Lelong Paris.
The Galerie Lelong exposition will run until October 9, 2010.

Galerie Lelong
13, rue de Téhéran
75008 Paris
Metro: Miromesnil


Each month, our Paris Insights newsletter presents the hidden jewels that comprise the "real" Paris – the people and places that are the true heart and soul of the city.  Click here to sign up for our newsletter announcements and to receive our free guide called "Practical Paris”!

Entrée to Black Paris!™ is a Discover Paris! blog.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Senegalese "Demigod" in Concert: Baaba Maal

September 11 marked the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. The Festival d’Ile de France, a multicultural event that has taken place in September and October every year since 1990, provided a special treat for the occasion—a feast comprised of dishes from Senegal, Congo, and Guinea, followed by a concert featuring Senegal’s Baaba Maal.

The meal and concert were held at the Académie Fratellini in Saint-Denis, a site dedicated entirely to circus arts. Dinner was served in a large hall, and the concert was held in a round theater located just steps away. When we arrived at 7:30 PM, the entry lines were already long. Fortunately, we had pre-purchased tickets to the concert, so we were among the first of several persons allowed to enter when the gates opened.

Family going to celebrate the end of Ramadan
© Discover Paris!

We made our way to the hall, where dinner was served church-bazaar style. Attendees purchased meal tickets for an 8 euro formule (entrée, main dish, and dessert), or selected their dishes à la carte. They then passed through a line to collect their orders. I dined on poulet boucané (smoked chicken) and alocco (fried plantains), and a dessert of beignets (similar to fried doughnut holes) of coconut and ginger. My husband Tom chose the shredded carrot and corn salad, beef maffé (made with peanut sauce) and alocco, and a milk-based dessert called déguié. The food was simply presented, and quite tasty!

After dinner, attendees did not waste time getting over to the theater to claim a good place for the concert. Seating was not assigned, so the early birds got the pick of the benches on the lower level. The upper tier of the building had only broad, wooden steps to sit on. We sat in the upper tier, but were fortunate to find a place almost directly in front of the stage. We had a great view of everything!

The concert began with Baaba Maal and Mansour Seck singing a ballad of sorts, while the rest of the band waited in the wings. The crowd went wild over this song! Maal then addressed the audience with welcoming, yet sober words of how gatherings in Africa traditionally begin with dinner, followed by a regrouping of attendees in a central area where important issues are discussed with discrete musical accompaniment. He wanted to open the concert in this tradition. He then spoke of the youth of Africa—of how so many children suffer from lack of education, violence bred from the lack of democracy and effective government, AIDS… .  He asked the audience to think of these children, and to send them something to make their lives just a little better.

Baaba Maal and Mansour Seck
© Discover Paris!

A guitarist and a percussionist then joined him on stage, and the group began to play again.

A third song brought out the remainder of the band. The entire group consisted of:

Baaba Maal – vocals, guitar
Aliou Diouf – drums
Mbara Cisse – bass
Mohhamadou Sarr – percussions
Cire (Barou) Sall – hoddu
Mama Gaye – acoustic guitar
Mansour Seck – chorus

At one point between songs, Maal addressed the audience in a language that Tom and I did not understand. The crowd responded with shouts, cheers, and raised arms. Maal definitely struck an emotional chord! He would elicit the same response with his songs again and again throughout the evening.

The band took no break as the concert proceeded. The few security guards on duty had their hands full trying to keep people from coming onto the stage to photograph Maal and the band. It soon became apparent that people also wanted to access the stage to give Maal money, presumably in response to the plea that he made for Africa’s children at the beginning of the concert. Many sought to touch his robes or his head as well. One woman was so overcome with emotion that she broke down and sobbed in front of the singer, who crouched down to comfort her. 

Money in Maal’s lap and on the floor
© Discover Paris!

Emotional Encounter
© Discover Paris!

Soon, there was a pile of money at Maal’s feet! The guards then had a doubly difficult job because they had to watch for would-be photographers admixed with the joyful contributors who periodically crowded onto the stage.

Pile of money at Maal’s feet
© Discover Paris!

Guard trying to repel people on stage
© Discover Paris!

Eventually, one of the guards brought a small plastic bag onto the stage and stuffed all the money into it. And still, people came up to contribute. Several times, people also came onto the stage simply to dance. Maal and his crew were unperturbed, and they carried on amidst the commotion without missing a beat.

At the end of the evening, I had the feeling that I had witnessed a religious event, and that Maal was a demigod whose presence kindled the audience's fervent adulation!

Baaba Maal and His Band
© Discover Paris!

Baaba Maal is well known for his activism on behalf of Africa. He is the Youth Emissary for the United Nations’ Development Program, and his commitment to young people and families all over Africa is never far from his mind as he tours the world. He often performs in support of various social and charitable projects that he believes in.


Each month, our Paris Insights newsletter presents the hidden jewels that comprise the "real" Paris – the people and places that are the true heart and soul of the city. Click here to sign up for our newsletter announcements and to receive our free guide called "Practical Paris”!

Entrée to Black Paris!™ is a Discover Paris! blog.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The New Black Pearl of Paris

If you have not already visited Entrée to Black Paris™, WELCOME! Today marks the official launching of our blog!

Chef Rougui Dia granted Entrée to Black Paris™ an exclusive interview a few weeks ago. Read on to learn about her fascinating and inspiring story.

Cover of Rougui Dia Biography

When talking about "The Black Pearl" in relation to Paris, one thinks immediately of Josephine Baker - the African-American woman who took the city by storm in a theatrical revue and rose to stardom overnight in October 1926. In 2005, Paris discovered that it had a new "Black Pearl" who was rising to stardom as quickly as Baker did. But this time, the theater was a professional kitchen, and the woman was Franco-Senegalese instead of African-American. Her promotion to head chef at a premier restaurant in the posh 7th arrondissement caused nothing less than a media frenzy.

Rougui Dia is this 21st-century "Black Pearl." Born in Paris' 12th arrondissement, she is fourth in a family of seven siblings - two brothers and five sisters. Her parents hail from the village of N'Danno in northern Senegal, where they married and had their first two children. With the exception of two years in Senegal prior to beginning elementary school, and two months of summer vacation at age ten, she grew up in Paris and the nearby suburb of Neuilly-Plaisance. Her quiet demeanor belies the tenacity that sustained her efforts to attain her culinary credentials beginning at age 15, and propelled her to the number one spot in the kitchen at Le 144, the restaurant operated by the venerated caviar house Petrossian.

Petrossian Boutique and Restaurant
© Discover Paris!

A few weeks ago, Dia granted Discover Paris! an interview. At that time, I had not read her biography - Le Chef est une Femme (The Chef is a Woman; written in French when Dia was only thirty years old) - and did not know the details of her family life or the long, rocky road that she traveled to achieve her success. Many of my questions concerned the concept behind the dishes served at Petrossian, which are not Russian or Armenian as the uninitiated might guess from the name of the restaurant, but rather, a co-habitation of the finest French cuisine with various elements of Senegalese cuisine. Foie gras with hibiscus (the main ingredient of Senegal's national drink) and Le Poisson du Jour (fish of the day) with plantains are examples of such dishes. The idea is to titillate, but not shock, the palates of the restaurant's clientele with new taste sensations from Senegal.

Rougui Dia and Armen Petrossian
© Discover Paris!

Armen Petrossian, who travels the world in search of new items for the boutique downstairs at the corner of rue de l'Université and rue de Latour-Maubourg, works with Dia to establish the menu. He is the person who encouraged Dia to incorporate Senegalese ingredients into her dishes.  When I asked Dia if she collaborates with other chefs regarding ideas for dishes and menus, she responded that her main inspiration – apart from her interactions with Monsieur Petrossian – comes from her mother and her sisters.

I also asked Dia several questions about how being black and being a woman affected her ability to progress in the culinary field, which is almost exclusively the realm of the white French male. She responded that she decided early on that she would concentrate on the positive and keep herself focused on her goal – otherwise, she would end up with nothing while her detractors would have everything.  She did not focus so much on the race and gender aspects of the difficulties that she faced, but rather concentrated on overcoming these "supplemental" difficulties.  She further stated that barriers that she encountered only fueled her determination to succeed.  It was only in reading her biography that I learned of the numerous slights, rejections, and insults that she endured to obtain her certificates and to arrive where she is today.  I also learned that three of her siblings had to leave France to work in their chosen professions, so closed were the doors to the thresholds that they needed to cross to get even entry level positions in their fields.

Dia is a study in grace and poise. She is proud of her Senegalese origins, but also fully embraces France. She decided as a very young woman that she would embrace the people who encouraged and supported her rather than focus on the negativity and ignorance of her detractors, and she said that this attitude is what allowed her to succeed. She speaks very softly and has a gentle smile, but simultaneously exudes an air of determination and strength born of fierce struggle. She hopes that all the publicity generated by her success will inspire young women and French people of non-European origin that they too can find a path to success.


Each month, our Paris Insights newsletter presents the hidden jewels that comprise the "real" Paris – the people and places that are the true heart and soul of the city.  Click here to sign up for our newsletter announcements and to receive our free guide called "Practical Paris" today!

Entrée to Black Paris! is a Discover Paris! blog.