Written by Sophia Burns
“Don’t ask me if I like grace
Ne me demandez pas si j’aime la grâce
Don’t ask me if I love Paris
Ne me demandez pas si j’aime Paris
You might as well ask a bird in space
Autant demander à un oiseau dans l’espace
If he loves the sky or if he loves his nest
S’il aime le ciel ou s’il aime son nid”
Paris, Paris, Paris by Joséphine Baker
If the accent “aigu” in Joséphine Baker’s name does not reveal her heritage alliance, then a cursory search in her biography reminds us that she was an “American-born French performing artist.” From one angle, she was a ground-breaking performer whose image has taken on a life of its own. How many times has the banana skirt been recreated, referenced or remixed over the past century? Her image, however, was only part of the force that wedded art with talent and values, as the first Black global superstar wove a uniquely French story.
Baker can be remembered as an artist who refused to retreat from the world around her. She was invited to perform in France at the age of 19, when she was already an established vaudeville performer in her home St. Louis, Missouri. Young Baker, born Freda Josephine McDonald, was determined to entertain, but not under the Jim Crow laws that required her to perform in front of segregated audiences and take on lesser roles. Knowing the possibilities that existed outside of the United States, she took France as her home. Her joyous, seductive persona drove her to a type of stardom that celebrates the artist and the art as one. The risk-taking and hope that defined her art extended far beyond her performances, leading her to become a key figure in French history in more ways than one.
Joséphine Baker in banana skirt from the Folies Bergère production “Un Vent de Folie”
“To realize our dreams we must decide to wake up,” Baker once said. After the Nazi takeover of Paris, she fled to her villa in the south of France, where she hid revolutionaries and helped them plot to free France. As a celebrity, approaching this crisis with eyes wide open was a choice. Her revolutionary acts were noticed by counter-intelligence leader Jacques Abtey, who requested that Baker use her stardom to undergo a North African and European tour as part of the rebellion against fascism. Between performances, she traveled with secret messages taped beneath her clothes and written on her limbs, using her celebrity status to evade strip searches. When Nazi occupiers learned that there was revolutionary activity at Baker’s chateau, they sent agents to investigate. She was ordered by General Charles de Gaulle to head to London, with 50 pages of intelligence scribbled in invisible ink on her music sheets. At the end of World War II, Baker held three military honors from her adopted country. France and Joséphine Baker helped liberate one another, leaving indelible impressions on the pages of each other’s stories.
The Pantheon in Joséphine Baker’s beloved Paris is now her final resting place, where she joins French luminaries like Marie Curie and Voltaire. She is the first performer and the first Black woman to be laid to rest at the “place of the gods and goddesses.” What brought her to this place was her role in the French revolution, where her craft and courage earned her a legacy not only of cultural influence, but also national heroism. France was her sky, a place of seemingly endless possibility. Who wouldn’t risk it all to preserve their sky? As Baker’s place in the French Pantheon is solidified, so too is the place that hope holds in the stories that move us.
While the Paris that Joséphine Baker encountered has changed in many ways, something that has not changed is the prolific and accessible nature of French art. It is not surprising that an artist could find home in a city where art—the final product and the process—is not only welcomed, but celebrated. Visually, Paris asks for more than one’s attention. Pondering the Eiffel Tower is fascinating once or twice; chatting or sketching alongside the Seine is better, possibly a habit or ritual. And art is created through habit, perhaps not in the color-coded calendar sense but in the sense of daily awareness and nurturing. And as a snippet of Baker’s vivid biography shows, nurturing the artistic spirit results in brave changes to the society and lives that welcome it. It is caring for our individual and collective skies at once.
Many of us have a story of how art has made our lives more marvelous. The founding of Galerie Jumelles coincides with a current day societal shift toward art as an everyday consideration. While art will always hold a unique place in French society, Jumelles seeks to bring art from across the francophone world to homes everywhere…and build a connected community where art-lovers can see one another more clearly. Like Joséphine Baker’s adoption of France as her forever home, we are all invited to shift our lives and the lives of others by adopting and embracing something new together! So, whether you are an art collector or a casual appreciator of beautiful things, you are invited to join our global community, today.