Febles on Williams (2019)

Williams, Lyneise E. Latin Blackness in Parisian Visual Culture, 1852-1932, Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019, pp. 232, ISBN 978-1-50133-235-7

In Latin Blackness in Parisian Visual Culture, 1852-1932, Lyneise E. Williams studies the representations of people of color hailing from Latin America who settled in Paris. She proposes that Black Latin Americans are situated in an ideological nexus affirming their Blackness, while confounding racial categories through a discourse of métissage. Their representations are thus different from other Black groups in France: “artists, illustrators, advertisers, and other producers of popular Parisian visual media Latinized Blackness, or shaped a Blackness that was tempered by and wedded to codes associated with ‘Latin’ Europeanness, and, moreover, was distinct from ideas of Blackness assigned to Africans, African Americans, and Blacks from the French colonies in the Caribbean” (191).

The introduction is followed by four chapters dedicated to case studies illustrating her main argument. The first chapter, “Playing Up Blackness and Indianness, Downplaying Europeanness,” serves as a general introduction expounding on the nuanced and at times contradictory nature of the iconic representations of Latin Americans due to their unique racial makeup. Williams thus explains the use of the word ‘rastaquouère,’ a designation of a nouveau-riche originally applied to wealthy Latin Americans in France who wanted to show their status ostentatiously, and popularized through theater and opera-bouffe productions such as Meilhac, Halevy, and Offenbach’s Le Brésilien (1863) and La Vie Parisienne (1866). The wealthy Latin American is portrayed as a caricature who regardless of wealth cannot attain le bon goût associated with Parisian bourgeois standards. The chapter also discusses at length the role of the World’s Fair in exhibiting Latin American cultures to a Parisian public, such as paintings by notable Latin American artists Francisco Laso, Ignacio Merino, and Juan Cordero during the 1855 Fair, and the extravagant Argentine pavilion of 1889.

The second chapter, “Chocolat the Clown: Not Just Black,” focuses on the famous turn-of-the-century clown from Cuba, Rafael Padilla. The renowned act of Chocolat along with his sidekick Footit was represented in various media, such as in the Lumière brothers’ pioneering films, Toulouse Lautrec’s illustrations for the Revue Blanche, and various advertisement campaigns for Félix Potin’s chocolate products. Williams suggests that the iconography associated with Chocolat, though at times drawing on racist portrayals associated with American ministrelsy, nevertheless moves beyond this paradigm because of his Cuban, and thus Latin American, heritage:  “visualizing Chocolat’s heritage as ‘more than Black’ was key to playing up popular and anthropological perceptions of the Spanish and Portuguese Americas as the ‘laboratory of modern mixed breeds or hybrid nations’” (56).

The first Latin American World Bantamweight Champion, Panamanian Alfonso Teofilo Brown, is the subject of the third chapter “Alfonso Teofilo Brown: Agency and Complications of Blackness and Europeanness.” Brown came to Paris in 1926 after having immigrated to the United States from his home country in Central America. Williams provides contextual background on Parisian sports culture during the first part of the twentieth-century to understand the representations of Brown in the media. He confounded expectations of Black boxers through his lithe body: “his sleek, trim body did not conform to the large, hulking image of most Black athletes in the boxing sphere, and he was situated as distinct from other African American boxers.” (103). Brown’s wealth allowed him to become a consumer of luxury goods and afforded him a certain degree of agency to control his image. The chapter could have been further enriched by an analysis of Brown’s sexuality, since he was a well-known gay athlete and a close friend of Jean Cocteau.

The final chapter, “Figari’s Blacks: Negotiating French and Latin Blackness,” brings to light the paintings of Uruguayan artist Pedro Figari depicting Black Uruguayans participating in candombe, a cultural practice involving music and dance inherited from the African roots of the enslaved population in Uruguay. Figari, of Italian descent, became a full-time painter at the age of sixty, and lived in Paris from 1925 to 1934. His work was introduced to Parisian cultural centers thanks to the poet Supervielle and the Revue de l’Amérique latine where his work was qualified as “primitive” naïf. The Uruguayan’s work straddles the line between regionalism and cosmopolitanism, articulating the tensions of nation building in the Río de la Plata area of South America. Indeed, while privileging Uruguayan cultural practices such as candombe, his work nevertheless draws from modernist European tendencies: “He [Figari] opposed the wholesale adoption and privileging of French culture modeled by the Spanish Creole elites. Yet rather than denounce European culture wholesale, Figari advocated and practiced a critical appropriation of these cultural aspects” (140). Williams asserts that the candombe paintings provide “a degree of autonomy for Uruguay’s Blacks” as they “are depicted performing for themselves, not as spectacles for a White audience” (173).

Williams’s study is highly original, providing new venues for further research by expanding trans-Atlantic studies in ways heretofore ignored. As she explains, “at the center of my argument is the significance of recognizing and exploring the Spanish-speaking (and Portuguese-speaking) presence in the French Atlantic” (2). Williams also has a keen eye for details, revealing interesting connections through fine analyses that might be otherwise overlooked by a casual observer. For instance, her discussion of consumer goods, such as bananas (Josephine Baker), chocolate (Chocolat), and rubber (Brown) demonstrates how economic and geopolitical concerns are tied to visual representations of minorities in France. She also includes an eclectic collection of cultural artefacts, studying images culled from popular culture like photographs, commercial ads, magazine illustrations, and from “high” art such as paintings. Williams’s Latin Blackness is thus a vital publication, especially in our historical moment, as it provides the analytical tools to understand how visual representations are embedded in systemic racism and offers an understanding of the agency of minority voices.  

Eduardo Febles
Simmons University