Josephine Baker – Freedom, Equality, Humanity

A current exhibition running at Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn (until 24 Sept) focuses on Josephine Baker and takes visitors beyond her actual performances to offer an interesting introduction to the challenges and achievements of this remarkable and iconic star.

It’s a relatively small exhibition, but nevertheless, it’s fascinating to see how Baker managed to create her eye-opening image in the 1920’s and even more interesting to see how she managed to use the media reaction it gave her to bring attention to the many forms of human injustice prevalent at the time. There is a long road between those iconic pictures of Baker gyrating flirtatiously in a banana skirt, to her moving speech in 1963 just before Dr Martin Luther King went on to deliver his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech in Washington where Baker, dressed in her uniform from the French Resistance with a row of medals, declares to the 250,000 Civil Rights marchers present that “You are on the eve of complete victory…the World is behind you”.

During WW2 she used her fame to flirt with top officials and smuggle the secrets she obtained in notes hidden in her sheetmusic and even in her underwear: Baker’s status enabled her to insist that there was no segregation at her shows, and gave her the opportunity to adopt twelve children from various Countries (her Rainbow Family) as a signal that, as she once stated: “There is only one Race, The Human Race!”

The exhibition itself includes a dress and wig that Baker wore at a Monte Carlo performance in 1974, but concentrates mostly on her effect on others, including designers, artists, and stars including Naomi Campbell and Diana Ross. If you are not too familiar with Josephine Baker’s background, there is an excellent film running at the back of the exhibition from Ilana Navaro (in German) that explores her life.


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