Major: Art History
Project: Reconstituting the Life of the Black Artists’ Model in Interwar Paris
Following the end of World War I in November of 1918, Paris increasingly operated as an essential pole of the African diaspora while simultaneously compelling diasporic peoples to navigate the city as the burgeoning center of Negrophilia and French imperialism. In 1919, at the dawn of this new era, Suzanne Valadon painted a series of five paintings with a black woman as their subject. Identified by scholars as the mistress of Valadon’s son, Maurice Utrillo, and variously referred to as a Négresse, Mulâtresse, or Esclave, the woman in the paintings carries a specific and particular likeness and yet, her identity is obscured, elided by the applied nomenclature of the exoticizing French colonial imagination. This project reimagines the lives of black artists’ models in interwar Paris through the use of photography, diaries, memoirs, periodicals and oral histories that privilege the voices of black women, thereby reconstituting the agency of the black models of the interwar period who have traditionally occupied a marginal historical space. Using Valadon’s series as a locus of inquiry, this project investigates the limits of the Western archive and its ability, or lack thereof, to accurately reflect the narratives of black women in the French interwar period.