Monday, 19 April 2010

C'est Beau Noir: Feral Benga

I recently learnt about Feral Benga, a Senegalese dancer who lived and worked in Paris in the the 1930s. Benga was the illegitimate son of a wealthy man in Dakar and he migrated to France in order to improve his life. He went to dance rehearsals and wound up playing the drums for Josephine Baker when she performed The Banana Dance. Benga's own reputation as a dancer began to grow and was considered by some the male equivalent of Josephine Baker. Benga was the exotic fetish of the moment among Paris' artsy circles, particularly among his male audience and his body became a symbol of homoeroticism. Peep the pics below.

There is very little known about Benga and the art historian, James Smalls is currently doing research on Benga, he's still in the early stages and it was through him that I came to know of Benga. I'm interested in Benga not because of how his body functioned as a homoerotic figure and nor am I interested in how his naked, youthful body became a model for (homo) artistic expression like the James Richmond Barthé's famous sculpture, the pictures by Carl van Vechten or George Platt Lynes' postcards. I didn't like this consumption of Benga and I'm actually interested in the other images of Benga like the more subdued clothed portrait of Benga in this painting by James Porter. 

Soldat Sénégalais (1935)

 If indeed this is Benga then to me, the French colonial military gear is a strong criticism of Benga's voyeurism, coupled with the fact that there was pressure from his family in Senegal for him to marry, I'm interested in what these clothed images and the character of Feral Benga the married man and father almost subvert the oily, semi-nude images of The Black Mercury as they called him. His body was consumed in photographs, on film and on stage, but seeing the different non-performative, more composed image of him, felt like relief from the onslaught of images presented by James Smalls. Without knowing the finer details of Benga's married life or Porter's aim in such an image, against all of those images, purely from an interpretive point of view, this image to me symbolises alterity. I wonder what happened to his son, his wife, did his family know about what he did in Paris? Did he ever go back to Senegal for his son? And like my girl, London, I also wonder; given that Benga was in France during the height of the Negritude movement, was he a political figure and if so was there any connection to Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon and Leopold Senghor: what did they think of him???

iCaaant imagine Fanon co-signing on all things Benga, but I'm sure he must've known him, since Jean Paul Sartre frequented Benga's restaurant, La France Rouge opened in Paris in the 1950s.

I'm feeling a side project on the rise...


Jay said...

Whatchu sayin sis, de man dem was bi? Or u fink dere's sumthin in exploring the heteronormatif?

KonWomyn said...

Ay wa'gwan blud

I don't know if Feral Benga was def bi but that's seems to be the case. Y'got that str8 blud. Here I'm seeing heterosexuality as the subversive element in the various visual depictions of Benga. I don't know what his life was, but I know it's certainly overshadowed by how others saw him. Whether its the Barthes sculpture or the pictures by van Vechten - he's in the gaze of someone else and now I'm casting him in another gaze and I see a different image.

Anonymous said...

Man was gay. Simple. What alternative power is there in being depicted as a colonial military man?


Anonymous said...

I have a paper on Benga's relationship with gay anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer in the 1930s. Email me for a copy