Love me dem bones of yours, Jo

On October 29, 2012 by pampi

I failed, Jo.

It is tricky to pay homage to you.

You moved so artfully, and I strived.

Apparently people mostly only saw my body. The bananas escaped them.

Part of it could have been that you are being forgotten, Jo. Part of it could have been that burlesque is indeed presentation and performance wrapped up together. Perhaps dressing in homage to you for a Halloween house party is not the space after all to do historical-gendered critique – more likely my performance skills are still green.

Please forgive me?

A few people were rather harsh and called me out on attempting Jo Baker and expecting people would not see me sexually. This struck a nerve with me, because my self-image has been constructed for the most part to subvert sexual display in performance – i assume (wrongly, i guess) people see a desaturated sexual body when they see me.

I enjoy playing with gender in performance. This year after many many years, I decided to pay homage to you, the inimitable Josephine Baker. You are a deliciously controversial artist and source of steady inspiration for me. The challenge was to maintain your playful spirit without salaciously lascivifying your oft exotified body. You managed it. I felt I had to as well. I have been studying you since I was at least thirteen.

The key was to call up your ghost, and what better way than to celebrate your lovely dancer bones? In Art Deco style, I designed your skeleton and with Natalie Claudio painting my backside, managed to evoke the right skeletal look. For the face, I teased a shifting between your skull and your iconic hair and makeup.

And of course, your iconic banana skirt. The skirt I fashioned was made of 22 bananas. As I have performed an alter ego inspired by you a few years back (Boy Baret) I was intimately familiar with the weight of bananas at the waist. I knew I had to design a lighter skirt and I wanted to fashion it out of real bananas: I peeled the small side peel, removed the fruit, and then closed the shell with a rubberband 22 times. then it was a matter of gussying a nice wide ribbon to string them into a skirt. i placed this skirt over a brown copper bikini that continued the art deco motif.

Still, dawning the outfit was not enough. If I was to put on the face of such an iconic celebrity such as yourself, I felt compelled to celebrate your spirit and follow a narrative. So I made sure I practiced. I straightened up some facts. Learned your famous song bye bye blackbird, memorized some of your kick ass quotes, journaled and came up with some provocative puns to throw back at folks who attempt to out you. in french. Afterwards, I made gluten free banana bread and a round of Jo Baker Skirt Chasers from the bowl of banana fruit (banana milk shake with cardamom powder and a splash of rum) I designed in your honor.

The reality was indeed most folks did not know who you are- a few got the reference but could not recall your name. I was surprised by how many people thought I was being original- to me, this goes to show how incredible and fresh your work is even today. For the past ten years easy, I have noticed and been disturbed that notions of race have increasingly been couched in philosophies of denial in representations of popular culture, while at the same time being insidiously injected as humorous and comedic imagery. (On related news, a representation of you in Triplets of Belleville was referenced by a couple friends. That clip actually bothers me – it’s like they superimposed your famous banana skirted iconography onto a caricature of Sara Bartman aka Venus Hottentot, further caricaturizing an already contested racist depiction of the black female body.)

As Americans, when we forget that a woman like you, Josephine, lived, we forget our nation’s history. It doesn’t matter whether we are Black or not. Whether we came as immigrants later. As much popular culture as we consume, when an original media maker like you are at the border of being erased from cultural memory – memory fought hard for by you and yours, we must be wary: without history the media can make us out to be whoever they want us to be. Without memories of your work, we quite simply lose our selves. So if I was able to bring back a bit if your ghost and get just a few folks to google search your infamous banana dance, I hope you see I did my best to honor you.

R.I.P.
A most devoted fan guhl. Pampi

Testimony + Conversation on the Look

Aniruddha – Killa

Amy – Love you as the ghost of Josephine Baker, Pampi!

Mike – So now I see what all that French banana talk was all about. Wow.

Pampi – I may be amusing but I’m rarely only joking <3

Onem – hot. hahaha love your bananas belt.

Ishani – love

Peter – Way to go Josephine!

Kenneth – Too cute

Tasha – OMG woman, this is my favorite picture of you ever! Never seen a better Bengali-La Caterina-Josephine Baker.

I leave your newest fans with some of your famous quotes ::

“The things we truly love stay with us always, locked in our hearts as long as life remains.”

Indeed, and you dancing the banana dance and subverting the gaze on the black female body and culture(s) will be in my heart forever

“I’m not intimidated by anyone. Everyone is made with two arms, two legs, a stomach and a head. Just think about that.”

for you, i simply showed the bones that make up the two arms, legs, hip, and head ;)

“I did take the blows [of life], but I took them with my chin up, in dignity, because I so profoundly love and respect humanity.”

Gosh, I love this spirit!

“A violinist had a violin, a painter his palette. All I had was myself. I was the instrument that I must care for.”

And that beautiful body was alive vibrant warm funny, as I tried so hard to present

“You are on the eve of a complete victory. You can’t go wrong. The world is behind you.”

And so some of my close guhls rallied me even when I thought I failed.

“I love performing. I shall perform until the day I die.”

Indeed!

“Since I personified the savage on the stage, I tried to be as civilized as possible in daily life.”

This pulls at me so much. There is a lot of heartache in this rooted in controlling your body.

“Beautiful? It’s all a question of luck. I was born with good legs. As for the rest… beautiful, no. Amusing, yes.”

You are beautiful.

“One day I realized I was living in a country where I was afraid to be black. It was only a country for white people. Not black. So I left. I had been suffocating in the United States… A lot of us left, not because we wanted to leave, but because we couldn’t stand it anymore… I felt liberated in Paris.”

Brave brave young guhl, you.

“We must change the system of education and instruction. Unfortunately, history has shown us that brotherhood must be learned, when it should be natural.”

Profound.

“I improvised, crazed by the music… Even my teeth and eyes burned with fever. Each time I leaped I seemed to touch the sky and when I regained earth it seemed to be mine alone.”

I burn like this when I push myself too. The challenge is to keep pushing.

“Art is an elastic sort of love.”

Poetically gorgeous imagery

“Surely the day will come when color means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one’s soul; when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood.”

Surely.

Related Article on Black Female Representation in Media ::
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