Thursday, September 27, 2012

Le Comptoir Général

Behind the wall at 80, quai de Jemmapes in Paris’ 10th arrondissement lies an unusual space operated by a completely unique organization called Le Comptoir Général.

Mural at 80, quai de Jemmapes
 © Discover Paris!
Entrance to Le Comptoir Général
 © Discover Paris!
The space is provided by an organization called C-Développement, whose mission is to support a number of socially active and responsible groups by providing real estate that fits their needs and budget. From Monday to Thursday, it is available for rent by businesses, charities, NGOs and other organizations devoted to the environment, solidarity, social innovation and cultural diversity. From Friday to Sunday, it functions as a cultural center, complete with museum, bar, cinema, and restaurant.

Artistic direction for Le Comptoir Général is provided by Secousse, a design and research office dedicated to "poor" culture and "ghetto" art. This organization is also socially conscious, reinvesting 100% of its profits to fund new projects.

Two huge rooms on the ground floor (including a large bar and lounge area in what is called the “ballroom”), a garden for smokers, and a mezzanine comprise the establishment.

Le Comptoir Général "ballroom"
© Discover Paris!

Le Comptoir Général garden
© Discover Paris!

On weekends, there is a regular line-up of activities:
  • Film projections every Sunday from 6:30pm to 11:30pm
  • Sunday brunch from 11:30 am to 4 pm and Sunday evening buffet from 7:30 pm (no reservations required)
  • Musical storytelling for children at 3 :30 pm on Sundays, with an introduction to Congolese music and toy collection for poor children
  • Farmers’ market (La Ruche) featuring products from the Saint-Remy-Les-Chevreuses region every second and fourth Saturday from 11 am to 1 pm (must subscribe to participate)

There are also three shops that sell second-hand items on weekends:
  • A bookstore on the upper level that sells and collects books for Oxfam

  • Library and bookstore
    © Discover Paris!

  • A record store that sells CDs, DVDs and vinyl records

  • Radio area and record store
    © Discover Paris!

  • A second- hand clothing shop on the upper level that operates in partnership with the Red Cross.

  • La Friperie
    © Discover Paris!

Additional attractions include a room displaying items used in sorcery, a classroom, and a lost-and-found.

The most fascinating attraction for me is the Petit Musée de la Françafrique (the Little France-Africa museum), founded by two record labels: Secousse and Celluloid. The museum’s mission is to expose the plight of France’s former central African colonies in the post-colonial period. Its Web site describes the museum as
A shrine, a mausoleum, a memorial designed to freeze once and for all the sordid reputation of Africa and its hideous political past relationship with France; to bring peace to the miserable souls of all the guilty presidents, from both sides of the ocean.
Photo of Ahmed Sékou Touré - Guinea
© Discover Paris!

Paraphernalia from Françafrique Museum
© Discover Paris!

The recording companies were inspired to create the museum by a song called “Tout Restera Ici-Bas” by Congolese singer Papa Kourand. Kourand is honored in the entrance hallway where the museum is located.

Papa Kourand wall at Le Comptoir Général
© Discover Paris!

Le Comptoir Général is listed as one of the 100 Best Bars in Paris by Time Out. It is quite popular and the waiting time for entry can be quite long if you arrive at 8 PM or afterward. The bar opens at 6 PM on weeknights and at 11 AM on weekends. Closing time is 2 AM on Saturday and Sunday mornings and 1 AM during the rest of the week.

Le Comptoir Général
80 quai de Jemmapes
75010 Paris
Metro: République, Goncourt, or Jacques Bonsergent


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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Errol Sawyer, Photographer

Errol Sawyer, his son Victor, and I recently met and spent a few precious moments in the Quartier de l’Ouest of Montparnasse, south of the Gare Montparnasse. Precious for him because he was returning to the neighborhood where he rented a studio and pursued his photography career in the early 1970s. Precious for me because he was able to show me the location where he photographed Beauford Delaney, resulting in the most beautiful celluloid portrait of Beauford that I have ever seen!

Victor and Errol Sawyer
© Discover Paris

Father and son had come to Paris for a very brief visit so that Sawyer could deliver works to be displayed at Dorothy’s Gallery – American Center for the Arts and so that he could expose Victor to the wonders of the city. He described his trek to this part of the city as a pilgrimage of sorts, saying that he had not visited this neighborhood in at least 30 years. This was where he began his life in Paris in 1971, seeking work as a professional photographer in the fashion and beauty industry.

Sawyer rented the space on rue Guilleminot from a Romanian sculptor for “almost nothing.” He appreciated the studio because it faced the street, had a coal-burning stove, and benefited from beautiful ambient light. He installed a dark room in the loggia and honed his developing skills there. The building has long since disappeared – the entire neighborhood was rebuilt during the late 70s and early 80s.

Sawyer describes his life during his seven years in Paris (1971-78) as very romantic, admixed with rich relationships and serendipitous encounters, but also of material poverty. One of his remarkable encounters was his discovery of supermodel Christie Brinkley, whom he met at the neighborhood post office on rue Pernety. Sawyer often went there to use the phone because he did not have one at his studio. He was the first to professionally photograph Brinkley and introduced her to the Elite Model Management agency in Paris, which launched her career.

Though times were often hard (Sawyer recounted having survived for a three-week period on parsley, nuts, and water), he benefited tremendously from the generosity of the French and other Europeans and the favorable exchange rate between the dollar and the franc (roughly 3.40 Francs to the dollar). At one point, he was offered free room and board in an apartment on rue Pierre 1er de Serbie in the 16th arrondissement. Later, he was able to stay in an apartment on rue Perronet in Neuilly-sur-Seine. Food was much cheaper then that it is now – Sawyer remembers being served copious, three-course meals at Paris bistrots for less than 20 francs.

Errol Sawyer. Paris, France. 1970s
Photo courtesy of Errol Sawyer

Errol Sawyer (born August 8, 1943, Florida, USA) is the son of Robert Earl Sawyer (1923-1994), an African-American playwright, actor, director, and producer whose family emigrated from Nassau, Bahamas, to Miami, Florida. His mother, Mamie Lucille Donaldson (1928-2009), was an African American Cherokee Indian whose family lived in Bainbridge, Georgia. She was in charge of the Intensive Care Unit of the Bronx Lebanon Hospital in the Bronx, New York City, for twenty five years.

Sawyer grew up in New York City (Harlem and the Bronx), studied history and political science at NYU, and found his vocation as a photographer while traveling in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru in 1968. He bought his first camera in 1966 and became a professional photographer in 1969. Sawyer never went to art school; rather, he read books to teach himself the skill. “Too much technique inhibits the process,” he says. “The way you see things is the most important, and that is simply a reflection of how you live your life.”

Living and working in Paris and London in the early 1970’s, Sawyer’s photos were published in Elle, Dépêche Mode and French Vogue. In 1978, he returned to New York and worked for American Vogue, Essence, New York Magazine and many other magazines. He moved back to Paris in 1984 and remained here until 1988. He subsequently traveled around Europe, returned to the U.S. in 1995, and then moved permanently to Amsterdam in 1999. There, he married Mathilde Fischer, an architect and former picture model, whom he had met in Paris in 1977. Their son Victor Leonard Sawyer was born in 2005.

Since 1984, Sawyer has devoted most of his time to the realization of documentary and fine art photography. From 2006 to 2010, he was a guest professor of photography at the Technical University Delft, Holland. In 2010 the Errol Sawyer Foundation was established in Amsterdam. Its first project (funded by the Sem Presser Foundation) was the publication of the photo book City Mosaic, a compilation of 64 black & white pictures taken primarily in New York, Paris, and Amsterdam.

Sawyer still takes photographs every day, capturing the essence of interesting persons and events that cross his path through “chance encounters in day-to-day intercourse with life.” He develops and prints his photos himself in his darkroom in Amsterdam. Though he occasionally creates color portraits, most of his work is done in black & white. According to him:

A picture is good when it leaves room for you to imagine…

A good picture results from a subconscious dance between being present and not being present. A photograph, or any image for that matter, should not only articulate a point in time and space but simultaneously provoke a re-evaluation of that particular point. It should stimulate our perception of what we take for granted about physical phenomena. That is why it is so important to leave a picture as it is.

In 1974, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (France’s national library) purchased thirty-six (36) black & white Silver Gelatin prints of Sawyer’s portfolio “Children of East End” (1970). The library also owns a color photograph called “Clochard” that was taken by Sawyer at Washington Square Park in New York in 1995. From his portfolio entitled “Paris,” the Musée Français de la Photographie in Bièvres acquired six black & white prints in 1991.

Sawyer’s work has also been purchased by Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the New York Public Library (Harlem, New York), and the Museum of Fine Arts (Houston, Texas). Eric Franck, brother of the late photographer Martine Franck (widow of Henri Cartier-Bresson), recently donated six Sawyer prints from his “London Collection” to the Tate Modern (London, UK). Sawyer's solo exhibitions include shows at the 4th Street Gallery (New York, USA), the Royal Photographic Society (Bath, England), Le Musée Français de la Photographie (Bièvres, France), Foto Huset Gallery (Götenburg, Sweden), No Name Gallery (Basel, Switzerland), La Chambre Claire Gallery (Paris, France) and the Royal Gallery (Amsterdam, Holland).

The photo portrait of Beauford Delaney from Sawyer’s book City Mosaic (2010) is currently on display at the Obama’s America exposition at Dorothy’s Gallery and another work from the book is on reserve.

Sawyer’s portrait of Beauford Delaney at Dorothy’s Gallery
© Discover Paris!

Dorothy’s Gallery – American Center for the Arts
27, rue Keller
75011 Paris
Telephone: 01 43 57 08 51
Metro: Bastille (Lines 1, 5, and 8), Voltaire (Line 9)
Hours: Wednesday through Saturday from 1 PM to 7 PM, Tuesday and Sunday from 4 PM to 7 PM

A limited number of copies of City Mosaic are available for purchase at the gallery as well.

The exposition runs through November 10, 2012. Take advantage of the opportunity to view Sawyer’s work in person!

For more information about Sawyer and his œuvre, visit and


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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Richard Wright Painting Hangs in Normandy Town Hall

Colleague Julia Browne of Walking the Spirit Tours recently led a group of students from the University of Lausanne to the Normandy town of Ailly to follow the footsteps of Richard Wright. She graciously granted permission for me to reproduce her "Spirit of Black Paris" blog letter, which vividly describes the experience, for you here.


Many a French masterpiece found life and nurture out somewhere in the French countryside.

Black Paris expats also drank in that country air, let it course through their creativity, and voilà - many an African-American masterpiece came to life beyond Paris, too.

University of Lausanne students at the town hall of Ailly
© Walking the Spirit Tours

In this latest BlogLetter, a group of University of Lausanne students, their brilliant professor Agnieszka Soltysik, and I follow Richard Wright's path to Normandy.

We trod where he lived, we breathed the air that infused his haiku. Then, we left a reminder for locals and for those of you who might go looking for Richard.

Our 1-day visit had several goals. First, to present to the town hall of Ailly a painting that would remind all who passed there of the great American writer who lived among them in the late 1950s. The painting, made by young Paris-born artist Shannon Figuereo, shows Wright as well as an interpretation of his family’s home.

Julia Browne presenting painting of Wright to
Ailly Municipal Councillor Evelyne JUHEL
© Walking the Spirit Tours

It was an emotional ceremony on all sides. Municipal Councillor of Ailly, Mme Eveylne Juhel, was very touched to receive our gift and promised the painting would be displayed in the new wing of the town hall under renovation.

The town administration gave to us a beautiful book on the history of their town, along with a written presentation by its author, local historian Eric Portier.

"You are welcomed and in fact we are proud to meet you, who came in a kind of literary pilgrimage. I hope that the visit will engrave in your heart the gratitude to that man who fought for a better respect of human beings." Eric Portier

We, in turn, were delighted by the reception they so kindly prepared for us. There was not a drop of the local cider nor a crumb of the regional sablé biscuits (butter biscuits) left!

Reception at Ailly town hall
© Walking the Spirit Tours

Next, we visited the grounds of La Folie Muse, the farmhouse where Wright enjoyed playing ‘gentleman farmer’ with his family. It was wonderful to revisit this residence after having seen it first when working as a production assistant on Madison Lacy’s PBS documentary Black Boy in 1994.

Wright farmhouse - our guide and M. Hesloin (r), who knew Wright
© Walking the Spirit Tours

Back on the bus, we followed Wright’s next move - about 15 minutes down the road to the Moulin D’Ande. At the time, this 12th-century mill turned artists retreat allowed writers, artists and musicians to develop their craft in a bucolic, friendly atmosphere.

Moulin d'Andé Cultural Centre
© Walking the Spirit Tours

Today, the cultural centre still carries that mission. And it is still run by the woman who invited Richard Wright after the Sorbonne’s 1956 Negro Writers Conference.

The students, professors and I hung onto every word of Maurice Pons, a French writer also residing at the Moulin d’Andé and friend of Wright. Oh, the stories he told, the pictures he showed!

Author Maurice Pons opening the Moulin d'Andé Book of Memories
© Walking the Spirit Tours

Wright relaxing at the Moulin d'Andé
© Moulin d'Andé Archives

Put This On Your Itinerary

Ailly lies about an hour east of Paris. It's a community of 1052 souls - about the same number at Richard Wright's time. The Aillytiens, as they're called, take great effort to maintain their 'home sweet home' feel of old time French country living. But visitors are warmly welcome! There's even a soft spot for Americans. On the 24th August 1944, American troops liberated the village, as they did many others in Normandy.

A trip down Richard Wright's lane can be arranged by Walking the Spirit tours for individual travelers and for groups. And, if you've got a novel you'd love to write in this peace and calm, or a musical score to finish, it doesn't get much more idyllic than here (and the food's great).


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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Black Paris Profiles™: Joan Minor

Joan Minor in song
© Paul Grayson -

Joan Minor first moved to Paris in 1999, determined to continue the musical career that she began during her 25-year stint as a human resources executive at Stanford University. She married Paul Grayson in 2003 and moved to NYC in 2005 when Paul was transferred there by his company. The happy couple returned to Paris in 2009 as a result of Paul’s promotion. Seeing them together at the 2nd Annual Brothers’ Spring Gala in June 2012 was the impetus for this interview.


Black Paris Profiles is now available on Kindle.  Only excerpts are available on this blog.
To get your copy of Black Paris Profiles, click HERE.


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